“Stressful.” That’s how Peak Cinemas co-owner Robert Beck responds when asked what it’s like to be a movie theater owner. Beck, who along with his father Kenneth Beck, bought the theater on the outskirts of Trinidad in Spring 2019 has learned first hand about the ups and downs of filling seats, dealing with movie studios and the mysterious science of anticipating public interest in a film.
It’s been a tough go since buying the theater, and while there have been some months with very good revenue, the slow months hurt. Beck recently announced that Peak Cinemas will close two days per week to cut expenses, saying people in the Trinidad area are going to the movies less.
“Where we’re really seeing the decrease is, the national average, regardless of demographic, people go to the movies 3.4 times per year,” said Beck, an easy going man with a lot of industry knowledge considering he and is father had no experience as theater operators before buying the theater. “Around here we’re seeing a little over one time per year for our regional population. On the national average the demographic that’s hitting us the hardest is people 50 and over only go to the movies 1.2 times per year whereas the 18–35 crowd goes almost six times per year.”
Surprisingly, streaming services such as Netflix are not necessarily the major culprit in declining movie theater attendance. Beck quotes statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). “People that have streaming subscriptions are three times more likely to go to the movies than people without. So streaming is keeping theaters alive because it keeps people interested in the cinematic industry and movies themselves.” And the younger 18–35 crowd that goes to the movies almost six times per year is also much more likely to subscribe to a streaming service.
But these statistics result in fickle theater attendance. Movies like “Avengers: Endgame” are great audience draws, and Peak Cinemas averaged $15,000 per week during the film’s run. Other movies like “Downton Abbey,” while specifically requested by local moviegoers, did poorly. “It did well nationally, we got it, advertised it, only did $200 in ticket sales,” Beck said.
August, the back to school month and October were particularly slow months for the theater, and this inconsistency is what’s driving changes to the Peak Cinemas’ business model. They recently announced they’ve converted the theater’s business structure to nonprofit status. “That allows us to apply for grants, allows us to apply for assistance through the city, it allows us to accept donations and get a raffle license. We hope to be able to do raffles for movie posters and movie packages and stuff like that throughout the year,” Beck said.
Part of the new nonprofit structure includes a GoFundMe campaign. “A lot of people have mentioned that it’s a little off putting that we put such a high fund raising goal, we set it at $100K,” said Beck. “The reason we set it that high is because that allows to completely re-seat our auditoriums 1 and 2 which have that old seating from the 90s still in place. So it’ll allow a mixture of full powered recliners as well as full rockers and then some premium over-sized seating.”
They’ve also diversified the concession stand, adding things like pizza and bratwurst as well as healthier options such as allergy free candies. And with the movie studios taking 65 percent of box office sales, the concession stand is vital for the theater’s survival.
The theater owners would also like to fully modernize the movie going experience they offer, with higher resolution projectors and premium sound systems. “We want to be able to provide Trinidad with all the amenities, cinematically, that a big city would have. We have enough tourists to do it, we have enough population to do it. I mean if you go 30 minutes out in any direction from the theater you’re talking 23 to 26 thousand people. So if we can get them going to the theater (the national average) 3.4 times per year then we should be self sufficient,” Beck said.
Increased attendance would support long term loans needed to pay for the equipment upgrades, he added.
Besides going to the movies more, local film lovers who enjoy the theatrical experience in a darkened theater can help in other ways. According to Beck, “we’re just squeaking by week to week right now but I would say the biggest thing the town can do, or the communities can do is now that we’re nonprofit, is telling your representatives that’s where you want your money to go, you want a portion of it to keep this place in town.”