For all of Portland’s artistic diversity and activity, the fact that our fair city doesn’t have a single independent arthouse cinema remains a continual puzzler. Especially when a small midcoast Maine city with roughly one-tenth Portland’s population has one of the most vibrant indie theaters in the region.
The Strand Theatre (rocklandstrand.com) was founded in 1923, refurbished and re-energized in 2005, and now packs in supportive audiences from the midcoast and further afield with an eclectic roster of films, concerts, and other events (its live HD broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera are a huge draw).
So the question is, how is The Strand making it work so far away from the bustling (art-cinema-less) streets of the big city?
“One of the main things I attribute our success to is that people in Rockland want to see this important part of their Main Street thrive,” explains Strand executive director Sarah Ruddy. “Plus, we never take that for granted.”
With potential movie audiences increasingly seduced by the lure of digital media (not to mention multiplexes), Ruddy sees several factors contributing to The Strand’s enduring popularity.
“In a lot of ways, indie theaters are starting to benefit from the revolution in entertainment,” says Ruddy. “People who come to independent theaters are not going to be swayed by a 60-inch flat screen in their house. Once the novelty has worn off all that digital media, we have people coming to The Strand for a different sort of experience.
“We have a core crowd but we definitely count on those other types of people who might otherwise stay home and watch Netflix – like parents getting their kids out from behind a computer screen and getting outside. Multiplexes aren’t going to suffer in that regard, so we can’t stop trying.”
To that end, Ruddy cites The Strand’s ability to respond to community needs and desires – a quality that corporate theaters just can’t match. “An independent venue like us can’t be too specialized and esoteric. The term ‘arthouse theater’ is one we’re trying to get away from – ‘independent theater’ is a more inclusive term to use,” Ruddy continues.
“As an independent theater, we can be more mobile. One of our most successful recent runs was for the motorcycle racing documentary ‘Why We Ride.’ It wasn’t on my radar and isn’t an ‘art film,’ but people in the community and several local motorcycle clubs really wanted to see it. Only an indie theater can do something like that.”
In addition to that sort of programming mobility, Ruddy says, The Strand benefits from the patronage of the region’s “baby boomer” retiree population (“If there’s a new Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, or Helen Mirren movie, we’re gonna book it!”), and the theater’s recent acquisition of 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.
“We’re really lucky,” says Ruddy. “The Simmons family (who oversaw the 2005 renovation of The Strand) gave us the building this year, so now we have our building for free. Plus, with our nonprofit status, we were able to receive a grant to convert to the new digital format. And we’ve just launched a membership program. We make about 10 percent of our operating budget from members – they feel a real sense of ownership of a thing that’s a vital part of their community.”
And what about attracting viewers from other parts of the state? “Lucky for us, Rockland is a really great place to come for a night or a weekend,” says Ruddy. “People seem happy to come here. I like it when we have a special event and I see a dozen people out of 350 that we know. We think that’s great.”
Dennis Perkins, a Portland freelance writer, covers the indie film scene for GO.