Cinemagic didn’t say on Monday what it plans to do with the buildings that house its movie theaters in Westbrook, above, and Saco and South Portland. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The movie business will look very different in Greater Portland when – or if – it bounces back from the pandemic, now that three popular first-run southern Maine theaters have closed for good.

Cinemagic announced the closing of all eight of its New England movie theaters Monday, including large multiscreen venues in Saco, Westbrook and South Portland. The company is the first major theater operator in Maine to announce during the pandemic that it would close permanently. Smitty’s Cinemas, a movie and restaurant chain that had five New England locations before last March, permanently closed its Biddeford location last May because of the financial impact of the coronavirus shutdown.

In a release sent to the Portland Press Herald on Monday, Cinemagic management announced with “a heavy heart” that its theaters would not reopen. The release gave no reasons for the closing and management did not respond to emails asking for more details. The chain had tried to reopen its theaters during the pandemic last summer, but with small crowds coming out and few new movies coming from Hollywood, it announced in early February it would have to close its locations until sometime in the spring.

Cinemagic’s closing leaves a huge void in Greater Portland’s movie theater landscape, as the three Cinemagic locations had more than 30 screens between them. Theaters in or near Portland that remain in business – though some temporarily closed – include the Nickelodeon downtown, Flagship Cinemas in Falmouth, Nordica Theatre in Freeport and Smitty’s Cinema in Windham. Smitty’s also has locations open in Sanford and Topsham.

The Cinemagic closing also raises serious questions about how the pandemic has forever changed the movie-going experience and the way Hollywood gets films to audiences. Last year, as theaters shut down in March then slowly began to reopen in the summer, Hollywood delayed several major films for months and released others to cable and streaming services. The much awaited “Wonder Woman 1984” debuted on HBO Max the same day it opened in theaters, and Disney’s “Mulan” streamed on Disney Plus. Many of the leading contenders for the best picture Oscar nominations, which will be announced March 15, were released to streaming services, including Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” on Netflix and “One Night in Miami” on Amazon. Warner Bros. recently announced it will release all its 2021 films simultaneously on streaming services and in theaters.

Cinemagic was one of several Maine theater operators that planned to reopen in midsummer last year, but then delayed that decision by several weeks because Hollywood was not releasing enough new movies to attract audiences.

Local theater operators and a spokesman for the National Association of Theater Owners told the Press Herald Monday they were optimistic that once a large portion of the population is vaccinated, people will want to come out to theaters again and Hollywood will release major films again to meet that demand. But none could say for sure what the movie house landscape will look like a year from now.

“We do know that people still love to go out to movies, and when most people are vaccinated, Hollywood will need to get more product to them,” said Andrew Poore, vice president of Flagship Cinemas, which runs 19 locations nationally and six in Maine. “We’re certainly hoping that’s what happens, but I can’t say with any confidence exactly what things will look like.”

An empty theater at Flagship Cinemas in Falmouth in 2016. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Flagship has had two of its locations – in Auburn and Waterville – open for several months and is planning to open the Falmouth location on weekends only beginning March 5, Poore said. He said the sizes of the audiences in Auburn and Waterville, while small, have been slowly growing recently as COVID-19 cases numbers in Maine drop significantly and more people have gotten vaccinated. He said that several major films are slated to be in theaters in May – after even more people are vaccinated – including Marvel’s action film “Black Widow.”

David Scott, general manager of the Nickelodeon in Portland, said on Monday that he’s heard from distributors that films will flow once again from Hollywood to his six-screen theater at some point in the future. His theater reopened briefly last year but has been closed since the fall, partly because of a lack of films and because the audiences were so small, with not enough people feeling safe seeing an indoor movie.

“I think vaccination is the key. Once people feel safe, Hollywood will start putting films in theaters again,” Scott said.

Phil Contrino, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners, said Hollywood is closely watching what is happening in China, where COVID numbers have dropped and movies are making a comeback. Two Chinese-made films, “Hi, Mom” and “Detective Chinatown 3,” are in theaters now and have each made more than $600 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

“This is not blind optimism to say Hollywood will release films to theaters again, the way they did. There will be a pent up demand for films,” Contrino said. “People have been watching movies from home because they’ve had to.”

Contrino did not have numbers of how many movie theater companies have closed permanently in the pandemic, but said so far none of the largest theater chains have closed for good. Though some, including AMC, have reported huge losses and debt. Another large national chain, Regal, temporarily closed all its locations – including in Brunswick and Augusta – in October.

But some movie theaters got help in December with the passage of legislation known as Save Our Stages Act, which earmarked $15 billion in relief for concert venues, movie houses and other cultural institutions, Contrino said.

Smitty’s Cinemas saw their best week in long time during the recent February school vacation week, proving that families still want to go out to movies, said Albert Waitt, director of operations for Smitty’s. Waitt believes that the current model followed by several studios – of releasing films to theaters and streaming at the same time – will help draw audiences to theaters. For family movies, for instance, parents can check out a movie online but then bring the children out for the experience of seeing it on the big screen. Waitt feels that as long as theaters get new releases, even if they are streaming, people will come out. Smitty’s locations are also restaurants, which has helped them weather the pandemic so far, Waitt said.

Both Poore and Scott – at Flagship and Nickelodeon – think someone will fill the void left by Cinemagic in Greater Portland eventually, though the future of Cinemagic’s buildings is unclear. The company’s release made no mention of selling the buildings.

The company paid more than $100,000 in taxes for its Westbrook location last year, said Daniel Stevenson, that city’s director of economic development. Stevenson said besides the tax revenue, the theater building brought thousands of people to Westbrook and also employed a significant workforce, though Stevenson did not know exactly how many people worked there.

One possibility for filling the movie void left by Cinemagic in Greater Portland could be another multiscreen movie theater planned in Westbrook before the pandemic. The national theater chain Cinemark announced in May 2019 that it would open a 12-screen theater in the Rock Row mixed-used development, near the Portland line. A representative of Rock Row’s developer could not be reached Monday to answer questions about whether the theater would still be built.

Cinemagic, based in Bedford, New Hampshire, had been been in operation for 20 years, and also had theaters in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Poore, at Flagship, said that Monday was a “sad day,” for moviegoers and those who work in the movie theater business. In its release, Cinemagic thanked its employees and customers.

“To the thousands of ‘Cinemagicians’ who have joined us in providing the magic of movies on the big screen over the past two decades and the generations of moviegoers who we have served, we thank you for being part of our family. It has been an honor and a privilege to provide our communities with the magic of cinema,” the Cinemagic announcement read.


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