From the other side of themovie projector

Cliff Thompson
Vail Daily/Bret Hartman Steve Lindstrom, above, gets the popcorn for valley movie theaters from Nebraska. He picks the films and he strives to know his audience(s).

Steve Lindstrom thinks his movie theater business has a unique address: It’s at the corner of art and commerce.He and business partner and wife Peggy, quietly run the very visible Cascade Village theaters, which have 12 movie screens in four locations from Vail to Eagle. From his perspective, movies are a lingua Franca for the world and locally, they help locals and visitors mingle.”That’s part of what movies bring,” he says. “It’s a way of story-telling that’s world standard and a way that culture’s exchanged around the world.”He knows what he’s talking about. The 35 millimeter movie format he uses in his theaters is a world standard.”It’s democratic with a small ‘d,'” he says. “Most people can go and enjoy it. It’s a mingling of cultures.”Lindstrom came to Colorado from Illinois, and came to Vail in 1973 after graduating from Colorado State University with a biological science degree.”When you get out of school with a degree like that, you’re equipped to do absolutely nothing,” he says.But what he did was pick up a chainsaw and work cutting trees for what are now two of Vail Mountain’s best-known bump runs: Highline and Blue Ox. After that it was the full menu of ski town jobs: Ski school, landscaping in the summer and waiting tables.Time to learnHe met his wife, Peggy, while working at the Left Bank Restaurant. They married in 1979. But the multiple seasonal job routine wore on the couple and they began to look for opportunity to work for themselves. In 1983, it came, “by happenstance,” he says. Cascade Village needed a theater, would they be interested?

“We jumped into it without knowing a thing about it,” he says. The couple scraped together $80,000 and started Cascade Village theater. The projector alone cost nearly $30,000 but they worked and learned.Like many entrepreneurs, they leaped into an already competitive environment. Vail had a theater in Crossroads that was operated by the largest theater corporation in the country, Carmike. “We had a few lean years,” he says. “But I learned a lot.” They used a veteran booking agent in Denver, Clay Batten, who helped show them the ins and outs of the theater business.Surprisingly, one of the things he learned is that competition in the movie business is one of the few places where the consumer doesn’t benefit. In a competitive market theaters have to bid on which films they’ll show. That increases the cost and difficulty of doing business and results in less diversity in what is shown, Lindstrom says.After a few years, Peggy took over operation of the single theater and Steve began working as a commercial property appraiser throughout Colorado. It was in the middle of the Savings and Loan scandal when bankruptcies were commonplace.”We did lots of work with the RTC,” he says. That was the Resolution Trust Corporation, a government agency set up to liquidate properties owned by failed savings and loans.In 1989, right after the first World Alpine Skiing Championships in Vail, the couple was able to lease a second theater space in Cascade Village.GrowthFate also dealt the Lindstroms another opportunity in 1994 when the landlord of Crossroads theater declined to review the competing theater’s lease. The Lindstroms were able to strike a deal with the landlord and assumed operation of the two-screen Crossroads theater, and also a much better operating environment.”That changed our little world,” he says. “We didn’t have to compete for films.”

After that, Steve quit the appraisal business and he and Peggy began running the theater business full-time.Six years later they opened their third theater at the Riverwalk in Edward, which featured four screens. It, too, was a timely move.”That coincided with a major westward migration of locals,” he says. “Edwards is the center of the (Eagle County) universe. That theater has grown up with the community. The movie business is like a community institution.”Two years ago they expanded and opened the four-screen Capitol theater at the Eagle Ranch.”It’s a little ahead of its time,” he says.The geography of the county and the fact that convenience drives movie viewing, makes multiple theaters necessary.”People in Edwards will wait for a movie (that’s in Vail) to come there,” he says.It’s a tough business because theaters require large buildings and in this land-short valley, that means expense.”There’s no way with current land and building costs that theaters can pay for themselves,” he says. “(But) They are a draw for other businesses.”Junior MintsFood and beverage sales make up one-third of his annual business, he says. In a good year nearly 250,000 people view movies at his theaters.

“We buy our popcorn from Nebraska and store it on the Western Slope,” he says. “We buy the best oils we can find, but there’s always demand for Twizzlers and Red Vines.”The Lindstroms keep busy supervising the four theaters with 11 full-time and up to 40 part-time employees. One of their duties is watching movies at screenings.”We watch them so you don’t have to,” he says with a nuanced smile that suggests he’s spared the local audience some bad viewing decisions.In their two decades of operating theaters, they’ve had to keep up with the changing demographics of the population here.”The trend more and more evident is more mature audiences,” he says. “It became dramatic in Vail.”That creates a challenge because many films created by Hollywood are aimed at 13 to 19 year olds, he says. The reason for that is obvious.”Kids will see a popular movie several times,” he says. “Our market does not have a strong young adult presence.”But some films will show here regardless of their presumed audience. “No matter what, you’re going to show a Harry Potter,” he says.But Lindstrom says he likes to make sure he presents regular non-mainstream arty films, particularly in Vail.”It was encouraging to see the response to the Vail Film Festival (early last spring),” he says. “It drew a lot of people from both coasts. It was good for the community to see people that segment who are art-film oriented. I think it will make a strong annual event.”When he’s not working, Lindstrom likes to ski, mountain bike, hike, and perhaps surprisingly, when time allows, to watch a movie.Cliff Thompson can be contacted via e-mail at or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.

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