Over at the Lowenstein project, Neighborhood Flix has gone dark. The combo food/flick operation stayed open for this past Saturday's Denver Zoo wildlife film festival, then shut down.
Eleven months. That's how long owners Melodie Gaul, Jimmie Smith and Michelle Dorant-Smith were able to keep the place going. I spent a long time on the phone with Gaul last week and got the whole play-by-play — how a brilliant concept, well executed, managed to crater in less than a year. But first I asked how she was doing — just a day after they'd broken the news to the staff and customers. "I could have a brain tumor," she said. "But I don't. Not that I know of. It could be worse."
In the beginning, she explained, they did "great business." The house was full; the restaurant, originally overseen by James Mazzio (also the chef behind Via and the winner of this year's Mile High Chef competition, as detailed in the Cafe Society blog at westword.com) was doing good trade. Some of this initial success she attributed to Flix flying somewhat under the radar — essentially ignored by the big chain movie houses and more established theaters in town. But then came the Academy Awards. Flix was showing many of the movies that were up for multiple awards (including There Will Be Blood, which I saw my first night there), and other theaters started to take notice.
"We're a family business," Gaul explained. "A start-up family business." And suddenly, that business was no longer able to secure prints of first-run films.
It was at this point in the conversation that I got a lesson in how film distribution works on the local level — something I'd never thought about before. The way it goes, a new movie comes out and every theater in the business (except for those that run specialty films — like moody Norwegian set pieces, French New Wave or porno) wants it. But the studios and distributors don't want to give it to everyone, because over-saturation will lower their per-screen gross. "The studios don't want to have the same print within so many miles of each other," Gaul noted, and usually the limit is around five miles. Which meant that Neighborhood Flix was located on turf where many larger, chain theaters (or older, independent theaters) already had established relationships with studios, allowing them to get first-run movies faster.
That was the first problem, and the partners had planned to compensate for it on slow weeks with restaurant receipts.
"We are film and food freaks," Gaul said, referring to herself and her partners. And with Flix, they wanted to take the notion of dinner and a movie "to the next level," with the food and movie experience blending seamlessly together. To make sure that happened, they even timed the trip from the theater to the counter where a customer would pick up his grub. "Seven seconds," Gaul told me. "Seven to thirteen seconds, depending on whether you need condiments."
Unfortunately, not everything went smoothly with the restaurant. While Mazzio had "written an excellent menu," she said, he had difficulties acting as general manager. (For his part, Mazzio told me that his biggest challenges came from customers' expectations — they wanted lamb shank and gourmet mac-and-cheese in ten minutes — and that balancing the restaurant-versus-movie-theater concept drove him a little crazy.) So several months ago they brought in the Wynkoop Group to manage the restaurant side, while the kitchen continued to cook from Mazzio's menu.
But there was still another problem: Crowds. Specifically, the lack of them.
"Traffic seemed to have dwindled dramatically," Gaul said, with regulars she was used to seeing once a week now coming only once a month or not at all. "The economy was clearly a factor."
It was a catch-22: Flix wasn't drawing big enough crowds to make it competitive with the more established theaters showing first-run films, and it couldn't get the first-run films it needed to draw bigger crowds. And even the bar business — which at most restaurants is kind of like a savings account when everything else starts going south — couldn't save Flix in this tough economy. "You'd think people would be out here trying to get wasted to forget about it," Gaul observed. "But no."
The partners didn't have any money left to pour into Flix, either; cost overruns and construction delays had used up all of their operating capital — just shy of five million dollars before the doors even opened. And so they had to close the doors of the building they still own, and are now looking for investors or someone to buy it outright.
"We're going to try whatever we can not to go into foreclosure," Gaul concluded. "But right now? There's no way to know."
Leftovers: Apparently undeterred by the bad news about Neighborhood Flix, a new dinner-and-a-movie joint just opened at the Thornton Town Center. Cinebarre already has two locations on the East Coast, and chose the Denver area because of its "coolness factor" and because it loves beer — and Cinebarre has more than twenty kinds available, as well as wine. The menu is a lot less ambitious than that of Flix, but the Thornton Cinebarre has other plans, including hosting happy hours and banning all children under six!
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