R.I.P Maine’s Independent Cinemas?
The conversion to digital threatens Maine’s downtown movie theaters.
If a movie were made about a typical Maine downtown movie theater, it would play out in three acts. The first depicts it as the life of Main Street — the theater is packed, and everything’s just swell. The second act shows the theater’s tough transition to a digital age — large multiplexes invade, television grows, iPhones distract, attendance dissipates, and, at its dramatic low point, Hollywood studios force the theater to abandon its traditional 35mm reels and convert to digital projection. This is where the plot stands right now, and it’s fight or flight for many of Maine’s independent cinemas as they enter the third act of their story.
Independent cinemas everywhere are in trouble thanks to the need to go digital. “One thousand theaters will soon close nationwide,” says Barry Norman, owner of Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick. Right now a typical 35mm film print costs a studio two thousand dollars, but creating a digital version costs only the price of a hard drive. Warner Brothers saves, but small downtown cinemas suffer. Mike Hurley, owner of the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, which just celebrated its one hundredth anniversary, says the cost of switching to a digital projector ranges from $45,000 to $100,000 per screen. “I’ve talked to half the theaters in Maine and they’re all in it up to their eyeballs,” he explains.
Casablanca Cinemas in Bethel closed as a result. Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema, faced with a two hundred thousand dollar bill, was bailed out by the nonprofit Maine Film Center. And the owner of the Harbor Theatre in Boothbay Harbor needed the community to raise enough money, or else his business would have shuttered.
“These cinemas are incredibly important to so many towns,” says Shannon Haines, executive director of the Maine Film Center. “The Railroad Square Cinema has been a real economic driver for Waterville. It would be huge if it were gone.” It’s a nationwide problem, but with the country’s most rural and decentralized population (according to the 2010 census), Maine could be particularly affected. Even Portland, Maine’s largest city, relies on just one cinema, the Nickelodeon, to regularly show films with smaller theatrical releases.
“If theaters like mine go under, movies for an older audience that want artier films might not get released around here,” explains Norman, who put forward the money himself for the conversion. “I’m such a movie buff. I couldn’t live with myself if I knew I was the one that closed down the theater for this part of Maine.”
Although some theaters face an unhappy ending, the communities of Damariscotta and Boothbay Harbor successfully scraped together the funds themselves to save their respective theaters. The future remains uncertain for many of Maine’s independent cinemas. But let’s hope this story plays out closer to that of It’s A Wonderful Life than Apocalypse Now.
— Will Bleakley