Last November, a movie called “Green Book” hit theaters in the United States and made quite the splash. In February, “Green Book” won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards. But rewind back a couple months, and the future award-winning movie was nowhere to be found at movie theaters in Bangor, or at many of the larger theaters around the state. Yet just an hour south, the Railroad Square Cinema can always be counted on as a home for the low-key indie movies before they’re in the news.
Tucked just past the railroad tracks in Waterville, Railroad Square Cinema is a quaint, three-screen independent movie theater that has been bringing indie movies to central Maine since 1978. Over the past 40 years, “The Square,” as it is sometimes referred to, has grown from one screen to three, been rebuilt after a fire and made the switch from film to digital. But it all started with a group of five friends who just wanted to watch good films.
“It really was for personal reasons,” Alan Sanborn, one of the original five owners, explained. “It was mainly so we could see movies.”
In addition to Sanborn, the group included Gail Chase, Ken Eisen, Lea Girardin and Stu Silverstein. Together, they decided that the best way to see good movies was to start their own movie theater; and so they did.
They opened the original theater in a former beverage warehouse with some money and equipment that each of them had scavenged together. The five did all of the construction themselves, with blueprints drawn up by Sanborn.
The original theater had a long way to go before it became what it is now. Initially, the cinema had just one screen, and due to the limited projectors that the group was able to scavenge up, the cinema was restricted to running a smaller size film than that of the industry standard. This left them no option but to wait until films came out in this smaller gage — usually about six months.
“We were falling further and further behind,” Sanborn said.
However, in 1994, the cinema received a blessing in disguise. A fire burned down the original location in the middle of the night, leaving the group wondering if they should attempt to move forward and reopen. Next to the cinema, a bookstore had put up a donation jar for the cinema’s reopening, and after someone put in a check for $1,000, the group realized that it wasn’t really a question. Nine months and $150,000 of donations later, Railroad Square Cinema reopened where it is today.
Now, the cinema is the quintessential indie-theater that central Maine needs. For students at the University of Maine, opportunities to see movies that aren’t necessarily Hollywood hits are slim. Movies such as “Green Book” might only make it to Bangor or Orono if they get nominated for an Academy Award, and many others don’t make it this far at all. Yet the ride to Waterville is short and well worth the experience.
And now, the Square is just that — an experience. Rather than stopping short at just films, the lobby of the cinema is home to a collection of art for sale by various Maine visual artists. Rather than the bright carpets and children’s birthday parties that are found in a typical movie theater, the Railroad Square Cinema lobby has the vibe of a modern art museum, a bright, quiet space with a modern color scheme. The cinema also sells a selection of wine and beer in addition to the typical movie snacks — although the popcorn, light and airy, seems to be a staple of the Square as it differs greatly from the bright yellow, salty popcorn of an average theater.
Of the original five owners, only Sanborn and Eisen still work for the theater, while the others have worked there on and off over the years. But regardless of the staff, the movie selection has stayed consistent throughout. So how does a three-theater indie cinema choose which movies are worth showing?
“When we started out, we would have meetings every so often with the five of us,” Sanborn said. “We all beat up on each other to see which films we were going to have and push our agenda.”
Within a few years, the role fell to Eisen, who now is the full-time programmer for the theater.
“Programming involves seeing an awful lot of films, staying on top of what’s out and coming out and in the works, and figuring out what will work to keep the theater solvent balanced,” Eisen said.
Eisen recently attended the Toronto International Film Festival, a nine-day festival that involved seeing about five films each day. Eisen also explained that part of the process is determining what needs to be screened “because it’s great art, regardless of whether it appeals to as large a constituency as some other films.” With his choices, Eisen brings movies to central Maine that likely will never reach the larger theaters. However, oftentimes these films end up at the Oscars, proving his taste to be spot-on.
Up next for the Square is a move to downtown Waterville. The new cinema will be in a new building, owned by Colby College, and will include rehearsal spaces for the Waterville Opera House, as well as the Colby College Museum of Art. The move is slated for 2021.
Overall, the Railroad Square Cinema aims to make going to the movies “an experience rather than a distraction,” as Eisen explained. And for the past 41 years, they’ve succeeded.
For more information on the cinema, check out railroadsquarecinema.com or mainefilmcenter.org.