Railroad Square Cinema has been a beacon for film lovers throughout eastern and central Maine for decades.
A rendering of what the completed Paul J. Schupf Arts Center in Waterville will look like when it opens next month. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Film Center

Nearly 45 years ago, a group of Maine cinephiles started showing foreign films on 16 millimeter government-issue projectors in an old beverage warehouse in Waterville. They hadn’t set out to make any money or receive any recognition. They just loved movies, and wanted to share the films they loved with other people.

Decades later, Railroad Square Cinema and the Maine Film Center, the nonprofit organization that grew out of those DIY cinematic experiences, will move next month into the brand new, $18 million Paul J. Schupf Art Center, alongside art galleries, a cafe and the center’s parent organization, Waterville Creates.

For co-founder Ken Eisen, who was among that ragtag group of film nerds showing Ingmar Bergman and Bernardo Bertolucci movies in a working-class Maine mill town in the late 1970s, it’s hard to fathom how far it’s all come.

“If you told us back then that something like this was going to happen when we opened our tiny little theater with the 15,000 bucks we’d scraped together, we would have found that completely ludicrous,” Eisen said. “All we wanted back then was to just stay open as long as possible. And here we are. It’s kind of incredible to think about.”

For decades, Railroad Square Cinema has been a beacon for film lovers throughout eastern and central Maine. Even well into the era of streaming media, everyone from college students to retirees has driven to Waterville to see the movies that you just can’t see at your local mainstream multiplex. If you live within an hour of Waterville and you want to see the latest film by directors like Pedro Almodovar, Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater, you’re most likely going to Railroad Square.

Railroad Square Cinema has been a beacon for film lovers throughout eastern and central Maine for decades.
The exterior of Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. The old cinema will close on Nov. 23 and will reopen in the Paul J. Schupf Arts Center in Waterville on Dec. 17. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Film Center

That’s still true, even after streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon revolutionized the way people see movies, and the pandemic closed movie theaters for much of 2020 and 2021.

Mike Perrault, executive director of the Maine Film Center, the organization founded in 1998 that now runs both the cinema and the Maine International Film Festival, said arthouse and independent cinemas are as much community-building spaces as they are forums for the art of cinema.

“Arthouse cinemas enhance the cultural life and economic vitality of their communities,” Perrault said. “For so many, Railroad Square Cinema has exemplified these values for 44 years, and that’s just the beginning of what the Maine Film Center intends to do for decades to come.”

There are only a few independent cinemas remaining in Maine, including Reel Pizza Cinerama in Bar Harbor, Eveningstar Cinema in Brunswick, Narrow Gauge Cinema in Farmington, the Magic Lantern in Bridgton, the Harbor Theater in Boothbay Harbor and the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport — the latter two of which are programmed by Eisen. The Colonial Theatre in Belfast closed indefinitely in September, awaiting a new owner for the cinema. Several multi-purpose theaters show films as well, including the Strand Theatre in Rockland, the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft and the Criterion Theater in Bar Harbor.

The new Maine Film Center space will boast three cinemas, with the main theater space — lovingly dubbed the Railroad Square Cinema — seating 115 people and offering both upgraded laser projection and Dolby sound, as well as the ability to project 35 mm films. The other two cinemas will seat 43 and 22, respectively. It’ll also make a significantly upgraded home for the Maine International Film Festival, the 10-day festival held each July in Waterville, which was founded nearly 25 years ago by Eisen and company.

The Paul J. Schupf Art Center is the culmination of years of work by Colby College, Waterville Creates, the city of Waterville and a number of donors to help revitalize the city’s downtown. Other projects in the effort include the Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, an apartment complex that houses about 200 Colby students; the Lockwood Hotel, now open to the public; and Greene Block + Studios, an event and artistic programming space.

The old three-screen Railroad Square Cinema, located at 17 Railroad Square in Waterville, opened in 1995, not long after its original location across the street burned down. The cinema will show its last film on Nov. 23, with a screening of “Casablanca” preceded by a goodbye party. Leading up to the final day, the cinema will show an array of classic and indie films, ranging from “Harold and Maude” to “Do The Right Thing” to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and an interactive screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It will reopen in the new space on Dec. 17.

For Eisen, who has spent thousands of hours at the cinema but now splits his time between Maine and Argentina with his wife Karen, saying goodbye to the old theater is bittersweet — but as they famously said in “Casablanca,” it’s really the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“It’s an odd feeling, to be sure. There are a lot of wonderful memories,” he said. “But to me, it’s about so much more than arthouse movies, or independent films. It’s really about community.”

Correction: A previous version of this report misstated who books films for theaters in Bucksport and Boothbay Harbor.

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Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.