February 20

Exchange Street moviehouse lives on in series at Portland museum

Steve Halpert, who ran the former one-screen arthouse theater on Exchange, likes the museum’s room, but misses the 30 shows a week.

By Dennis Perkins

If you want to talk about independent movie theaters in Maine, you call Steve Halpert.

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Anna Kendrick and Ron Livingston in “Drinking Buddies,” playing this weekend.

Magnolia Pictures

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Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman in a still from “Liv & Ingmar.”

Janus Films

This is the second in a monthly series profiling indie moviehouses dedicated to providing the state’s film fanatics with the widest variety of films from Maine and around the world. This week: PMA Movies at the Portland Museum of Art.

As co-owner (with his wife, Judy) of the beloved, much-missed single-screen theater The Movies on Exchange Street for more than three decades, Halpert knows the arthouse theater business as well as anyone in the world. It’s a depth of knowledge he brought uptown with him when the Movies on Exchange became The Movies at the Museum in 2010, with weekend showings of the same adventurous mix of art films and documentaries in the spacious screening room of the Portland Museum Of Art. Recently renamed PMA Movies (portlandmuseum.org), this second life of The Movies has continued as a destination for Portland indie film lovers – and served to illustrate a lot about how the arthouse business has changed.

So how has The Movies changed since it moved to the Museum?

We tried not to change it any more than we had to. But at Exchange, we could offer a movie 30 shows a week; now, there are three shows a week at the museum. That makes a big difference to distributors, and alters our programming a bit. In the old days, 90 percent of what we wanted we got ... now a lot of those from major studios go to the Nickelodeon. But films from smaller distributors are still much more accessible. If their take is 35 percent of three days or 30 shows – that’s a big difference.

In what ways has the move been an improvement?

I love the room, I’ve always envied that. I always wished Exchange could be more like the museum. The image at museum is almost always Blu-ray rather than 35mm. And certainly all the people there are wonderful to deal with.

Is there a downside?

Not in the quality of the films; I think a higher percent of films are esoteric, a higher number of documentaries. (Halpert is especially enthusiastic about upcoming films “Drinking Buddies,” starring Portland’s own Anna Kendrick and playing this weekend; the Ingmar Bergman/Liv Ullmann documentary “Liv & Ingmar”; and the Oscar-nominated “The Great Beauty,” as well as the PMA’s upcoming collaborations with the Maine Jewish Film Festival in March and the Camden Film Festival in April. Check the PMA listings for details.) I do think the audience of Exchange was more diverse, and younger. Some people have the mistaken idea that there’s something almost formal about the museum – and less funky.

So why hasn’t someone else opened up another arthouse cinema in Portland?

I’m surprised in one way, but in another not. Exchange closed strictly for financial reasons. It’s very tough for a small, one-screen theater specializing in non-mainstream movies. Any number of people have approached us about opening one or reopening Exchange, and I tell them I’d give all the help I could, but it’s discouraging that they wouldn’t be able to break even unless they do things very differently. (Once open), multiple screens costs wouldn’t be much more at all, I think someone could make it even on a very small scale. SPACE Gallery may be doing that in a way – they’re not all movies, but almost always full when I go. If someone were doing that in a space that’s not too expensive it might work, although setup is expensive – digital is $60,000 and even a lot of existing theaters are closing down rather than convert.

Dennis Perkins is a Portland freelance writer.

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