It’s always been tough to top a cool movie theater on a sweltering summer day. While the current heat wave has driven crowds of Mainers to catch blockbusters like “Top Gun: Maverick” at multiplexes, owners of smaller independent theaters say business still hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels.

“I think it’s recovering more slowly than I expected,” said Shaun Boyle, owner of Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick. “We’re still in the pandemic, right? A lot of people are still hesitant to come back, especially in the older demographic.”

Eveningstar, like theaters everywhere, closed in March 2020, Boyle said. Though loosening government restrictions and the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine allowed the arthouse theater to reopen last July, many cinema fans remained reluctant to share an enclosed space with strangers; at the reopening, the theater saw a 70-80% decline in ticket sales from pre-pandemic levels.

While business has bounced back somewhat in recent months on the back of hits like “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” and “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” Eveningstar is still only doing about half as much business as it did before the pandemic, according to Boyle.

Larger theaters have done better, as younger audiences seeking a return to normalcy have begun filling auditoriums to watch an extensive backlog of big-budget Hollywood action movies, according to Albert Waitt, director of operations at Smitty’s Cinema.

“This summer, there’s a ton of great movies out, and it’s all due to the pandemic that stopped releases for 18 months,” said Waitt, who said the chain is selling as many tickets as it did in 2019. “Studios did not want to release any of their big movies because they weren’t going to make enough money.”


He cited “Top Gun: Maverick,” which has pulled in over $1.2 billion this summer after a two-year delayed release.

“I think that’s the one that really broke the doors open,” Waitt said. “It really delivered.”

Yet theaters that focus on indie flicks, art films and documentaries haven’t had the same luck. New documentaries, which often take around two years to produce, have been hard to come by at Frontier in Brunswick, according to Program Director Sean Morin.

“We’re seeing the content shortage now,” said Morin, who estimated movie ticket sales are down as much as 80% from pre-pandemic highs. “If we used to have 10 great documentary titles in the summertime, now we’re only seeing two.”

Like other theaters and music venues, Frontier, which also hosts a gallery and performance space, has relied on grants to survive the pandemic, Morin said. One major initiative, the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant program, provided over $16 billion in federal funding to aid entertainment venues before it recently ended.

“If we were what we had been for decades, a small arthouse theater just depending on ticket sales, we would have folded so long ago,” said Alan Sanborn, manager and co-founder of Railroad Square Cinema the in Waterville. “Three weeks into the pandemic, probably.”

Instead, Railroad Square and the Maine Film Center now exist as part of a larger non-profit organization called Waterville Creates, which has helped secure grants and other funding to keep the theater running. While attendance was down at the organization’s 25th Maine Annual Film Festival earlier this month, Sanborn was hopeful that crowds would return soon.

“We’ve got to really strong films starting tomorrow,” he said, citing “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” and Jordan Peele’s “Nope.” “Everything I said about attendance being down may go right out the window.”

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