When James Lane was living in Rifle, Colorado, teaching middle school, he couldn’t possibly have imagined how drastically different his life would turn out.
James moved from California to Colorado when he was 13. After graduating from Rifle High School, James joined the Air Force, went to college, and began dating Jane Elizabeth, whom he’d known since childhood. They married, and he decided to become an educator. James, or Jim to most, graduated from Colorado University, and he and Jane moved back to Rifle. He settled into a routine, teaching math and computer science in middle school and college. He obtained a master’s degree in Education, with his focus on becoming an administrator for the district, and became the union president. But after 17 years of teaching, something happened that changed his course in life.
It seemed simple enough. Jim knew the owner of the movie theaters in Rifle. Her parents also owned some theaters in Heber City. They had just purchased the Heber buildings and were beginning to remodel them. But tragically, the father passed away. The mother wanted to find someone to buy the Heber theaters. So, she asked her daughter, the owner of the Rifle theaters, to find someone who might be interested.
“She twisted our arm for several months and we finally came out to look at them over spring break of ‘05,” Jim recalled. “We left pretty much horrified because they were in really bad shape!” However, something in those buildings had taken root in Jim and Jane. Jim remembers, “We went home and thought about it. We approached her [the owner] and said, ‘It depends on the price you want for them.’ She gave us a price, and we decided ‘Well, let’s raise our kids for a while, instead of everyone else’s.” Jim left his teaching career, and he and his family became theater owners in Heber City, Utah.
At that time, he and Jane had two children, a daughter in preschool, and a son in elementary school. They listed their home, at a time when nothing on the market was selling. The house sold at full price in 3 days! “That kind of indicated we were supposed to do this,” Jim said. That confidence in his decision was fortunate, because what happened next almost ruined everything!
Saving Heber’s History
After cashing in their retirement, selling their home, and buying a new home in the Heber Valley, the family arrived in Utah in summer of 2005 to find out that the bank had changed its mind about financing the theater project. Jim and Jane were at a loss for what to do.
But then, the tide turned yet again for them. “I was out in the garage building shelves, taking out my aggression on the wood,” Jim said with a smile. “I got this phone call from a guy named Gordy down in Salt Lake. The first thing I thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the mafia!’”
But in truth, Gordy and his brother ran some banks down in Salt Lake. They were interested in financing the theaters. After coming up to Heber the next day, they agreed to finance the buildings and construction loan. The project moved forward —there was so much more to do!
The Lane Family was right about the theaters being in bad shape. “The Avon was condemned at the time, and the Ideal probably should have been,” Jim said. The family completed a quick remodel of the Ideal. They closed the theater for just 14 days and did the work themselves. They’d brought Jane’s sister, Margaret Stalcup, in on the project as a partner, and Jim, Jane, Margaret, and the two very young children all worked together to put in new ceilings, new curtains, new chairs, a new screen, and refurbished the projector.
The Ideal was reopened just in time for one of the Harry Potter movies. “We were very busy, to say the least,” Jim recalled. “When we got into the theater business, we were completely green. We didn’t even know how to change a bulb,” laughed Jim. Jane had gone to school to be a bookkeeper, and she took over the books, with Jim taking care of maintenance and Margaret helping out wherever she could. The Avon was reopened in May 2006 with a very fitting free feature, Jim Carrey’s The Majestic, for the grand opening. The Sweet Shop reopened a year later. The nostalgic location had been an ice cream parlor and spudnut shop when it was first built. Since that time, it had been transformed into an arcade, a video shop, and a restaurant. The Lane’s decided to turn it back into an ice cream shop.
They restored a portion of Heber’s history that could have so easily been lost forever. The Avon Theater was built in the 30’s. “From what I can glean and from what I’ve read, there was a theater here prior to this building,” Jim explained. “It was called the Wasatch Theater, and it burned down. And then they built this one.” The building date for The Ideal is unclear. “The best I’ve been able to find is the mid-teens,” said Jim. “It opened as a Vaudeville Theater initially, and was changed into a movie theater probably in the 30’s, and it’s been remodeled a number of times since then.” It was smaller with balconies, but was changed in the 1960’s. The theaters had their ups and downs throughout the years, until they settled in a dilapidated state, waiting for Jim and Jane to rescue them. The Heber Theaters were back serving the community once again.
The first three years of theater-running went well, and they were busy! Jim even considered finding a property for a multiplex theater, but he held back because of the cost of property and impending recession. “I’m glad we didn’t build one,” he said, “because…we would’ve gone bankrupt very quickly.”
Surviving a Slump and a Sickness
“We made it through the recession,” Jim remembered, “but we had to refinance about halfway through because we needed to go digital in order to stay in business. And we upgraded to digital projection in 2010.” This time, a local bank financed the reconstruction and going digital. “At that point, we owed more on the equipment than we owed on the buildings!” Jim laughed.
Making it through the recession was difficult, but in 2020, Covid hit even harder. “We have not recovered as far as attendance from Covid as of yet,” Jim explained. “Part of that is because of lack of content that people in Heber will watch, and the other part is, of course, because of the reluctance to get in large crowds that people have, and also the streaming phase that we’re going through right now, which I believe will pass.”
Theaters are at a critical point in time right now. Regal is closing several hundred screens nationwide. AMC and Regal both filed for bankruptcy around the time of Covid. The multiplexes are struggling to survive. Small town theaters have a lower overhead, but they, too, are trying to make it through. “It involves a lot more than what most people think,” explained Jim. “It’s not just putting a picture on a screen and selling concessions.”
The big studios sign profit-sharing contracts with the theater owners. “When we started the business, the rental price of movies was about 40-45% of sales. And it’s consistently gone up over the years to this point. Now it’s like 65-70%,” Jim clarified. “So when people say ‘your concessions are too expensive,’ I tell them it’s the only thing that keeps the theaters open. It isn’t the tickets.” In fact, if a movie does well enough, the studios have what’s called the 90-10 rule, where they then take 90% of the ticket income instead.
Jim is extremely concerned about the future of film if locally owned theaters close. “It may cost less to watch it at home, but if theaters go away completely, we’re all going to be at Hollywood’s mercy, and we’ll have to pay whatever they want to watch their movies,” Jim reasoned. “So, I highly suggest that people continue to support theaters, otherwise, well, there’s no telling where it will go at that point.”
There is hope, however. “I would encourage people to get back into the habit of going to the movies,” Jim entreated. “I understand that, if you have a large family, going to the movies is a very pricey proposition, but, as I’ve said before, if the theaters close, we’re going to be at the mercy of Hollywood. And I don’t think you could watch a movie for $20 on home streaming if it’s the only way of getting it. I think the studios will charge much more.”
The Family’s Future
Jim and Jane have enjoyed owning the Heber Theaters, but they’ve decided it’s time to retire and sell them to a new owner. “We wanted to put them back on the map, and I think we’ve done that,” Jim said. “We’ve had our ups and downs. My goal is to sell them to somebody who will keep them theaters.”
In the meantime, the Lane’s have other plans. Their son is living in Delta, Colorado, and their daughter is now with her husband stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. So, the Lane’s are empty nesters. “When we’re done running the theaters, […] we would like to travel,” Jim said. “We bought a motor home. We’d like to enjoy the last 20 years we have on this planet.” They’ll likely still be seen around Heber, though. Jim and Jane have a home in Daniels, and they love having an international airport so close. “I think we’ll stay,” Jim said, then laughed as he added, “I might not spend winters here.”
As far as the theaters go, Jim is hopeful they will continue to survive with the support of the community. “The fact of the matter is that if people want to keep these theaters, they’ve got to be used,” Jim states. “And it can’t be minimally, because the cost of running a theater is expensive. I’m hopeful that [the theaters] will be very profitable and a part of the community for many years to come.”