These are tough times for everyone, but independent and art-house cinemas have been hit harder than many other small arts organizations. Nowhere is this more apparent than at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, which for 33 years has been a bastion of indie, foreign and documentary films in central Maine. From mid-summer on, the cinema has seen ticket sales decline dramatically and has even had a hard time making payroll on a few occasions.
“In truth, it’s always been a struggle for us, but recently, it’s been quite a bit harder,” said Alan Sanborn, co-owner and one of the original founders of Railroad Square. “This time of year is always tough, partly because the film industry doesn’t release a lot of films in the fall, but this year it’s just dropped off the charts. It’s really been difficult.”
To that end, the staff at Railroad Square Cinema have issued an urgent appeal, asking film fans in eastern and central Maine to become members of the cinema. There are multiple levels of membership, starting at $25 for students and $40 for adults for the “Key Grip” level, which includes discounted admission of $5.50 (normally $8.50) on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesdays, 10-packs of tickets for $55 instead of $65, admission to free member shows and a free pass to use at any time. Levels go up to $60, $100, $250 and $500, which include all the aforementioned benefits plus 2, 4, 10 and 20 free passes, respectively. Levels top out at $1,000, which includes free admission, popcorn and beverages for the member and a guest for a full year.
“The word that really comes to mind when trying to explain why what we do here is important is community,” said Sanborn. “Seeing a movie with a group of people, and then talking about it afterwards, is something you just can’t replace.”
Sanborn points to the wide array of documentary films they’ve been showing each Wednesday with post-film discussions, sometimes with the filmmakers themselves. The film set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, is “Kumare,” about a fake spiritual leader who sets himself up in Arizona and amasses a loyal group of followers. A Skype interview with filmmaker Vikram Ghandi — who actually plays the leader, Kumare, in the film — will follow.
“We provide a lot of very unique opportunities for people to interact with the films they see,” said Sanborn. “People always have questions after movies, and here, you get to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. That’s pretty special.”
As the home of the Maine International Film Festival, Railroad Square also shines a spotlight on Maine film — they’re the only theater north of Portland showing “Question 1,” the new, controversial documentary about the 2009 gay marriage vote in Maine. It screens nightly at 7 p.m., starting Oct. 28 through Nov. 3.
And, of course, as Oscar season approaches there will be more higher-profile films being shown in the theater.
“We had ‘The King’s Speech’ for quite a while last year, and that kind of thing is always a moneymaker,” said Sanborn. “But that’s only a few months of the year.”
“Force of Nature,” “Silent Souls,” “The Debt” and “Higher Ground” are currently showing at Railroad Square Cinema; starting Friday, Oct. 28, the lineup will be “The Rum Diary,” “Question 1” and “Love Crime;” it will also show “Damnationland: The Way Life Should Bleed” at 9:15 p.m. Friday, Oct 28; “Yogawoman” at 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, and “The Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975,” as part of the Wednesday Doc Series, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2.