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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: September 10, 2014

The secrets to Railroad Square’s success in Waterville: 36 years as a small-town independent movie theater

Written by: Dennis Perkins
Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville is home to the prestigious Maine International Film Festival. Courtesy photo

Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville is home to the prestigious Maine International Film Festival. Courtesy photo

As all Maine film fans know, Waterville’s Railroad Square Cinema is where it’s at. The “it” being home to both the state’s most prestigious movie festival every year (the Maine International Film Festival, duh) and Railroad Square’s signature roster of the best indie films the world has to offer. So, while Waterville’s a solid hour away, true movie fans should regularly make the trek – you know, because Portland (with twice Waterville’s population) still doesn’t have a dedicated art theater of its own.

I spoke to Railroad Square’s theater manager Alan Sanborn about how the venerable (established in 1978) independent theater attracts audiences and competes against the chains, and what a Portland art house would need to do to finally end our city’s shameful art theater drought.

In talking with other independent film venues (The Strand, Frontier), a common theme is connection to the community. How does Railroad Square reach out to the Waterville audience?

We’ll have been here for 36 years come October, and I’d say we’ve built up a loyal following. We’ve got ties with other organizations in the community – we’re part of the Maine Film Center, there are people from Colby College on our board. Often we’ll have special shows – either someone will really want us to book a film or is teaching a class, so we make theaters available at odd hours for them. Sometimes it’s just for the organization, but more often the screening is made open to the public. For example, on Friday, we’re showing the Japanese anime film “Akira” in conjunction with the Waterville Public Library. There’s an organization associated with them called Cirque du Geek who wanted us to screen the film. Plus, we’ve got our art gallery. Basically, with our programming we just try to be accessible.

Another common theme is the need to balance art films versus commercial considerations. What’s the strategy for Railroad Square?

It’s always a tightrope act between what we prefer to see and what our audience might prefer to see. In the old days, we’d program around what we really just wanted to see, but that didn’t last long. Ken Eisen’s our programmer – he’s in Toronto (at the Toronto International Film Festival) right now, looking at films from when he gets up until the middle of the night. He judges if it’s going to be something for our audience. Thankfully, that’s Ken’s job – he’s constantly looking for films, accepting, rejecting and deciding.

How easy is it to predict what audiences will respond to?

That’s why it makes a huge difference having three screens. You really need to have that flexibility. There might be a really terrific film, but no one’s coming to see it. So then maybe we only show it for a week in the small theater, or only have one showing a day. That way, we can hang onto a film that is doing well, but also bring in the next one as well. For example, the new Woody Allen film has held on quite a bit longer than I thought it would, mainly because it has that terrible title (“Magic in the Moonlight”) – someone said “that was my prom theme!”

So, not to bring in more competition, but what advice would you have for anyone looking to open an art house theater in Portland?

It’s always shocking to me, too, that Portland doesn’t have one. I’d say make sure you have more than one screen – if you only have the one and the film you’re showing doesn’t make it, you’re screwed. Other than that, keep the prices reasonable, and find a place with cheap rent, if possible down there. Railroad Square became nonprofit (in 2012), so that allowed us to get grants as well. But the most important thing about us is our programming – we like to promote the fact that watching a film with a live audience, on a big screen, is a better evening than watching something on Netflix.


Thursday-Saturday: Head over to the Portland Public Library for this series of environmentally-themed films: “Damnation” (are dams really a good thing?), “The Lorax (Dr. Seuss’ little orange activist still speaks for the trees) and “Bag It” (is your life being buried in plastic?) Presented by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.


Friday: “The One I Love.” Plug your ears whenever anyone tries to spoil the plot of this strange indie comedy/drama about an unhappily married couple (Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass) whose last-ditch effort to save their marriage with a visit to a mysterious retreat goes … in unexpected directions, let’s say. The buzz is that this is a movie to just take a chance on – so you have my permission to whip your popcorn at anyone caught blabbing.


Tuesday: “Nas: Time Is Illmatic.” Coinciding with the 20-year anniversary of the release of rapper Nas’ influential rap album “Illmatic” comes this documentary where Nas looks back on the album’s creation and the troubled life that formed it.

Maine’s Indie Film Houses

With a focus on independent film and community events, Maine’s home to a number of indie film houses – from Portland to Rockland to Waterville. Read about all of them in these movie house profiles: Maine Indie Film Houses

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