Now what?

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

A modest crowd awaits the showing of the Academy Award nominated “A Royal Affair” Feb. 23 at The Back Space Theatre. Durango Film 2013 had its last day Sunday, but for the other 51 weeks of the year, maintaining a robust independent film scene in Durango is a financial challenge.

By Mark Hayden Herald staff writer

Durango Film 2013 may be a wrap, but independent movies are a popcorn kernel’s throw away in Durango year-round. Two local theaters make it possible to regularly see underground, award-winning films and documentaries.

These days, bringing independent films to the big screen takes hard work and money. The Back Space Theatre opened in March 2011 with that mission, but has struggled to catch up to the demands of the cinematic new world order. The onerous price tag of converting to digital projection could lead owner Doug Sitter to shutter the theater’s doors and hurt the indie film scene that “makes Durango Durango,” as moviegoer Richard Nobman put it.

“It would leave a huge void if it wasn’t here,” said Jim Mohle, a Back Space regular.

The theater has a lease that expires in August 2014, and Sitter is looking for a buyer to take over.

“It’s not getting the amount of volume in there to keep up with the cost of running things,” said Jane Julian, a former booking agent for the theater.

Like many other forms of media, cinematic production has converted almost exclusively to digital projection. Some theaters have caught up with modern times, some haven’t, and some can’t.

To get the latest releases, venues need digital capability. Movie houses such as Allen Theatres’ Durango Stadium 9 and the Gaslight Cinema completed the digital transition in October. Back Space doesn’t have it. And it’s not cheap.

“It can cost $75,000, minimum, to convert a theater to digital,” said Joanie Fraughton, executive director of Durango Film, the independent film festival. “We need an (indie) theater in town that’s willing to make the leap to go digital.” Back Space, the only exclusive indie movie house in Durango, shows its films on DVD and Blu-ray.

Independent houses such as The Back Space also must wait their turn when it comes to getting popular titles.

National and regional theater chains usually have right of first refusal on what gets shown when, and that includes independent films.

“We’re not allowed to bring in a film until it’s in other theaters,” said Back Space manager Kaiya Toop.

Feature films have been a big draw for Back Space.

“These kind of movies have some meat to them,” Nobman said.

Most recently, Oscar-nominated films such as “Beasts of Southern Wild” and “A Royal Affair” have drawn good crowds, White said. She said, as for documentaries, many have flopped.

Despite the uphill battle, The Back Space is not giving up. Its continuing to show films, and the independent feature “The Trouble with the Truth,” starring Lea Thompson, will be shown weekends during March.

That’s good news for viewers such as Catherine Adams. “I prefer feature films. Sometimes, documentaries can be a little exhausting,” she said.

The Back Space also will continue to rent the space out for parties and other events.

Indie film junkies have other options, too.

Durango Stadium 9 offers Hump Day Movies every Wednesday, with two screenings of an alternative title. Once a month, moviegoers are invited to choose a film through Internet voting (

“It’s been really good. Several people in the community have helped to get the word out,” said Heather Gandy of Allen Theaters Inc. Demand has been high, and, at first, we showed one film each Wednesday. Now, there’s an afternoon and an evening show.”

The menu of films rotates between world cinema, American independent films and documentaries.

Julian, a local film enthusiast who is head of booking adventure sports films for Durango Film, said she enjoys watching indie films at Durango Stadium 9. Before last month’s Academy Awards, she watched the Oscar-nominated shorts program and said she was impressed with the turnout.

“People are so grateful for what they get to see,” Julian said.

The community has shown its interest in indie films by supporting Durango Film, which concluded its eighth year Sunday.

Fraughton said unlike the trend at The Back Space, it’s the documentaries that draw the biggest festival crowds. She also said the presence of filmmakers at the festival helps, and enhances the film-going experience greatly.

And for some, indie films might bring something to the table that maybe mainstream movies just can’t offer.

Dean Brookie, a local architect and indie film fan who watched “Bidder 70” at Durango Film, said he’s looking for “creative stimulus” when he seeks out independent film.

“They’re made by passion filmmakers, and they expose and bring issues to light,” Brookie said.

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