Comedian Dan Donahue takes center stage at Smitty’s Cinema in partnership with the Best of Boston Comedy Festival. Courtesy of Smitty’s Cinema

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, movie theaters saw new releases dry up and their usual clientele stayed home to stream. To survive, they had to pivot to alternative forms of entertainment to stay viable, and that trend continues four years later.

With fewer movies coming out due to pandemic disruption, Smitty’s Cinema in Topsham had to brainstorm new ways to get people back into the theaters.

“As everybody knows, the movie content coming out of the pandemic was highly disrupted by studios limiting their releases because there weren’t movies in production for much of the pandemic,” said Albert Waitt, president of operations for Smitty’s Entertainment Group.

Smitty’s started doing live, in-person comedy shows after the pandemic lockdowns lifted in Maine 2021. The venue partnered with the Best of Boston Comedy Festival for live comedy events, with the movie theaters ramping up the comedy schedule in spring and backing off in the summer.

“We like people to think there’s always something to do at a Smitty’s,” Waitt said.

The GameLAB, a videogame arcade, first expanded beside the Smitty’s Cinema Sandford location in 2019, just a year before the pandemic hit. Since coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, another GameLAB was added to the Topsham movie theater, along with other locations in Tilton, New Hampshire, and plans to add another to its Windham movie theater.


The Topsham location started offering axe throwing and the Sanford theater brought in bowling. The goal was to become an entertainment hub with more options instead of a single-use facility for watching movies.

This year, R-rated hypnotist shows and dueling pianos are some of the new additions to Smitty’s entertainment lineup. Some of the hypnotist shows have been selling out a week or two ahead of time, with live comedy shows, such as the Jack Lynch comedy night on May 31, bringing out about 40 people.

“The movies aren’t the touchstone of culture as they once were; they have been a little coopted with streaming services,” Waitt said. “So, we are giving people more reasons to come out.”

They’ve also introduced Rockstar Bingo, a music-focused bingo game played in two of Smitty’s cinemas. Smitty’s Cinema plans to book a psychic medium and explore trivia nights in the GameLABs.

When the summer blockbuster season rolls around, Smitty’s Cinema schedules more movies because they can still perform well, with last year’s hits being the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” combo. Waitt expects the Marvel crossover “Deadpool & Wolverine” movie to do well for the summer blockbuster season. He also expects movies like “Despicable Me 4” to do well based on the family demographics Smitty’s Cinema sees in its customer base.

Last year’s writers and actors union strikes slowed movie production and limited the steady stream of movies to theaters like Smitty’s Cinema and Eveningstar Cinema.


Movie theater patrons participate in Rockstar Bingo, one of many entertainment events at Smitty’s Cinema. Courtesy of Smitty’s Cinema

Eveningstar Cinema has been located across the Androscoggin River in Brunswick since 1979. Eveningstar focuses on arthouse releases like “The Boy and the Heron,” “Robot Dreams” and “The Bikeriders.”

“We might be Brunswick’s only cinema now, but we do bear in mind that there’s a cinema across the river that might play some of the stuff we want to play and might not do us any favors to play it at the same time,” said Eveningstar Cinema Manager Gracia Babbidge.

Eveningstar Cinema began offering DVD rentals two years ago. Even with streaming services being present, some areas of Maine do not have the most reliable internet access. Eveningstar focused on putting movies into the rental collection that are hard to find on streaming services. Another part of the rentals available is the offer of movies that have played at Eveningstar Cinema.

Eveningstar Cinema underwent some changes post-pandemic, with a remodel being done with better air ventilation and more square feet added, and the theater’s owner, Shaun Boyle, was coming up with new ways to bring people back into the movie theater.

“Sometime before I started here, somebody had rented the theater to show a special movie he had made to propose to his girlfriend, which was really sweet,” Babbidge said.

Eveningstar Cinema has shown throwback blockbusters for the past few years, including all three “Back to the Future” movies, “Jurassic Park,” “E.T.” and the original summer blockbuster “Jaws.”

“We are always looking towards what we can do to entice people to return to the theater just because movies should be seen on the big screen as they are designed to be,” Babbidge said.

Comments are no longer available on this story