Attention Riverwalk Theater moviegoers: If you don't see 'Tenet,' the Edwards theater could close |

Attention Riverwalk Theater moviegoers: If you don’t see ‘Tenet,’ the Edwards theater could close

Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated movie “Tenet” is finally here, and and its success will dictate what the film industry looks like for at least the remainder of 2020. Locally, it’s even more true. “Tenet” will likely determine the fate of the Riverwalk Theater in Edwards.

“We’re on the brink of shutting down. That’s the reality. I can’t keep operating a business at a loss. If people really value this business, which is not for me to pass judgement, but if people want a theater, they have to come support it,” said Grant Smith, owner of the Riverwalk Theater. “Support it by coming to the movie.”

The Riverwalk Theater has hosted the Sustainable Film Series and worked with local nonprofits to provide services and event space.
Chris Dillmann |

Smith is offering private advance screenings of “Tenet” from Monday, Aug. 31 through Wednesday, Sept. 2. During a private screening, you and up to 24 guests get the theater to yourself, including concessions. There will also be daytime screenings on the national release date, Thursday, Sept. 3.

Smith bought the theater two and a half years ago, and has since worked to establish it as a community space that brings together people and organizations across the valley. While gatherings in the traditional sense can’t happen right now, Smith has still been finding ways to connect people.

“Our goal as a business is not just movies, it’s to bring people together. It’s to bring people to a common place of community,” Smith said. “I hope people find value in what we do here.”

Since non-essential businesses were allowed to reopen with social distancing protocols in place, the theater has been showing second-run favorites for all ages. There have been cult classics like “Kill Bill, Vol. 1,” “Inception,” “The Truman Show” and “Dirty Dancing,” as well as kid-friendly movies that appeal to all ages like “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Minions” and “The Lego Movie.”

The walk-up concession window has also been incredibly popular, particularly the soft serve ice cream and barbecue from Smokin J’s Pop Up BBQ, but the menu satisfies all cravings. There’s popcorn and candy to enjoy during movies of course, but there’s also espresso and regular ESCO coffee drinks as well as mixed craft beer six-packs and growler fills.

But that hasn’t been enough for the local theater to remain financially afloat. If “Tenet” doesn’t succeed at the box office — Observer reported that it would need to make $450 million worldwide to break even — the Riverwalk Theater’s future is in serious jeopardy.

“Our revenues are down 90-plus-percent. We are trying to hang on but I don’t think we’re going to hang on for much longer,” Smith said.

When Smith brings movies into the four-screen theater, he works with a film broker based in Los Angeles. That person is able to share direct industry insight with Smith, and brokers have been agreeing across the board that “Tenet” is the do-or-die moment for the film industry right now.

“This is it. This is the movie that has got to do well,” Smith said.

Riverwalk Theater has already started showing first-run movies, but independent and foreign new releases like “Sputnik” and “Unhinged” with Russell Crowe won’t attract as wide of an audience. Christopher Nolan’s rare status as one of those directors people recognize by name and go out of their way to see in theaters — you know him from “The Dark Night” trilogy, “Inception,” “Memento” and “Dunkirk” — is a key factor in the film industry’s hopes for a box office success.

To that end, “Tenet” also has all the trappings of a big budget action movie: the kind of flick that usually brings people out of their homes. Multiple national critics have described it as a James Bond film, but with Nolan’s signature time-bending plot. John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”) stars as The Protagonist, with Kenneth Branagh (various Shakespeare film adaptations, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” “Dunkirk”) as a villain and Robert Pattinson (“Twilight” series, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”) to play off, the film doesn’t seem like a total dud.

“Tenet” is one of several Christopher Nolan films that create worlds where time can be manipulated: the most famous is “Inception,” released 10 years ago this year. Riverwalk is showing “Inception” this week.
Special to the Daily

It’s already been released in international markets, and seems like it’s doing okay. But the U.S. film market will be key. It will not screen in New York City and Los Angeles because theaters are still closed, which could prove to be detrimental as those big cities can amass 10-20% of a film’s domestic gross revenue.

But even if moviegoers in the Vail Valley do head to Riverwalk for “Tenet,” which will be screening for eight weeks, if it doesn’t perform well nationally, Riverwalk Theater could still meet the same fate. That’s the element that’s completely out of Smith’s control.

“I think that’s really the frustrating thing. We could do okay, and this movie could not do well nationally, and then that would impact us,” he said.

But either way, he wants people to know the safety precautions the theater has implemented are designed to keep everone as safe as possible.

“Our biggest theater holds 189 people and we currently have 50 open seats,” Smith said to the Vail Daily in July. “Our other theaters hold 135, 135 and 106 respectively.  The open seats in each of these theaters is 30, 30 and 25.”

From personal experience, each of those open seats are spaced out quite far apart. There are entire rows between your party and the next. The lobby and bathrooms are clean, and everyone who comes to the theater respects the policies.

“Almost everyone I’ve talked to has had good experiences with the distance that we have,” Smith said.

And while it can be a bit daunting to head to an indoor-only event for some, Smith encourages people to come out for the cinematic experience. Video-on-demand and streaming at home, he said, can never replicate the feeling of sitting together (but separate, of course) in a theater.

“It’s about the experience. It’s not the same. When the lights go out, it’s a shared experience,” he said. “That’s part of what we want to bring to the community, is a shared experience.”

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