The film industry has slowed to a crawl amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Major blockbusters have been postponed and movie theaters have had to close their doors or reduce capacity — while instituting procedure and policy changes to keep people safe. As in many creative industries, the effects of the pandemic have hit small, indie businesses the hardest. Here in Colorado Springs, Kimball’s Peak Three theater has struggled, and owner Kimball Bayles doesn’t know what the future holds for this 26-year-old downtown institution.
When COVID-19 shutdowns began in March, Kimball’s shuttered to comply with state mandates. It asked customers to purchase gift certificates to support the theater until it could reopen. According to Bayles, Kimball’s sold thousands of dollars of gift certificates. And when they reopened in late August, Bayles says he expected a flood of folks to return to use those certificates. Instead, it’s been more of a trickle.
“Our numbers are terrible,” he says. “We really, really hesitated on opening with [Christopher Nolan’s new film] Tenet ’cause the minute we open all our costs come back up. We were kind of running silently for six months on minimum everything. … This was a risk we took by opening up.”
While Bayles understands fear surrounding COVID-19, he says Kimball’s has made strides to make the theater as safe as possible, including replacing the HVAC system for better air circulation. But even loyal customers have yet to return in a significant way. By far the largest group Kimball’s has seen since reopening has been 30 people. At only 40 percent capacity, they can seat up to 40 people in their largest theater.
To mitigate some of the financial burden, Kimball’s made a selection of films available online to stream for a small fee: Still Life, Out Stealing Horses, Around the Sun and others. But Bayles says that the function of the streaming option has been less to make money and more to keep Kimball’s on people’s minds.
Another challenge: Few movies are being released right now. Even major theaters like Cinemark Tinseltown have been screening classics, like Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones, and indie films to fill their schedules. For a theater built on independent film, Kimball’s struggles to compete. And of course, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix offer viewers a chance to watch almost anything from the comfort of their own homes for a monthly or yearly fee. How can a local, indie theater compete with that?
Bayles says one of Kimball’s big draws used to be its sense of community. “I think what’s missing from this formula is the interaction with each other at a movie,” he says. “People in our theater come and they talk in the lobby, they see their friends, they have a drink. There’s some big social stuff going on, and that’s gone now. People go in, they come out.”
And while Kimball’s has received a few grants, including a Paycheck Protection Program grant, it has barely been enough to keep them afloat. “I keep thinking someone with a lot of money is going to step up and save the day,” Bayles jokes wearily. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see. I think we can make it to the end of the year, but beyond that? I don’t know.”