CARIBOU, Maine — One of Aroostook’s four movie theaters will close after losing most of its audience.
The Caribou Theater will likely stop showing movies within the next few months, according to owner Arlen Dow.
Fans aren’t showing up like they did before the pandemic. As Hollywood relies more on streaming and makes fewer cinema-worthy blockbusters, theaters have struggled to get people in the seats. If Fort Kent’s Century Theater makes its temporary closure permanent, County residents from Caribou north will have to travel to Presque Isle to see movies.
Faced with rising operational costs and an uncertain economy, local owners wonder how long they can keep going.
“From June to December 2022, we sold 6,900 tickets in Caribou. We sold just under 17,000 in Presque Isle,” Dow said.
The low traffic in downtown Caribou prompted Dow to seek potential buyers for the four-screen Caribou Theater on Sweden Street. He hopes someone will repurpose the building.
Dow and his family also own The Braden Theater in Presque Isle, which is still financially stable enough to continue operating, he said.
While “Top Gun: Maverick” led to sold-out opening week shows at The Braden last May, the same movie failed to bring out significant crowds in Caribou. Films like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and “Avatar: The Way of Water” brought in hundreds of fans to Presque Isle, but not to Caribou, Dow said.
The Caribou Theater is located on Sweden Street. Once a bustling business district, the area now contains business offices and a few specialty retail shops.
The city has struggled to lure retail businesses to Sweden Street since several department stores left in the wake of Loring Air Force Base’s closure in 1994. Many longtime residents have also blamed the Downtown Mall, a complex created in the 1970s that aimed to boost the area but instead gutted the business district.
With few shops to attract customers, the area doesn’t draw moviegoers, Dow said. Dow Theater Company received COVID relief money, but it wasn’t enough to sustain business, especially in Caribou.
“If you look out the window here, you’ll see a steady flow of traffic,” Dow said while at The Braden in Presque Isle. “But people just aren’t coming back to Caribou.”
Dow purchased and renovated The Braden in 2008. The historic theater was iconic to Presque Isle’s downtown until it closed in 1994 due to competition from an eight-screen theater near the Aroostook Centre Mall. When that theater closed in 2005, Dow knew he wanted to restore The Braden as the go-to movie destination.
He purchased the Caribou Theater in 2010. But with fewer people showing up, Dow now only operates three of the screens and often plays the same movies as The Braden.
Sometimes there are as few as five people at a movie, he said.
In the St. John Valley, lack of attendance has shuttered the Century Theater, and owner Ben Paradis is not sure when it might reopen. It might also be at risk of closing for good, Paradis said.
Paradis bought the Century in 2014 from another family member. He closed it during the pandemic and reopened in summer 2021 with the help of his granddaughter, Anna Paradis, and her boyfriend, Brandon Goding, who run the theater as volunteers along with other community members.
Attendance hasn’t equaled pre-pandemic levels. He and the family opted to close the theater two weeks ago to reassess their options. They might turn the theater into a nonprofit so it can be run by volunteers, Paradis said.
The theater operates under the name Plourde Century Theater, named for former owner Jeff Plourde.
With the exception of “Top Gun: Maverick,” fans weren’t turning out like in the past, Paradis said. An average of 75 people a week visited the two-screen theater. He blamed low attendance on people streaming movies at home during the pandemic.
“There hasn’t been as much of an incentive to go to the movies,” he said.
Charlie Fortier, owner of the Temple Theater in Houlton since 2016, has seen a similar trend since reopening in summer 2021.
Though he doesn’t anticipate closing anytime soon, fewer people go to the movies because there are few Hollywood blockbusters. “Top Gun” did well, but “Avatar” didn’t do as well as he had hoped, Fortier said.
Part of the problem is how Hollywood distributes films, he said. Studios often require that a small theater like his run a blockbuster for four weeks, even if people stop showing up. That often prevents him from acquiring another movie that could perform well locally.
Fortier hopes upcoming movies like “80 For Brady,” “Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” will draw more people.
“[Whether we stay open] will depend on if people come back and if we make enough to cover our costs,” Fortier said. “You have to heat the building whether four or 100 people show up.”