Independent film: Amid pandemic challenges, Belfast’s Colonial Theater changes direction

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Nothing like a highly contagious global pandemic to teach us all how fragile some of our favorite institutions are. And few have proven more vulnerable than local, independent movie theaters. It may have something to do with people being rightly afraid to congregate for a few hours in an enclosed space, but that’s just a guess.

Either way, for independent theaters in Maine, it’s been an unprecedented two-plus years. Just ask Kyle Walton, Operator and Director of Digital Media at The colonial theater, Belfast’s gem of an independent film house. “Like everyone else in March 2020, we closed, thinking we might stay closed for weeks or even months,” Walton recalled ruefully, noting that The Colonial ultimately closed for almost a year and a half.

The Colonial eventually reopened to the public, but at 50% capacity and with new air filtration and strict safety guidelines for guests. They’ve even set up a series of “vaccination proof Wednesdays,” in an effort to make COVID-wary moviegoers feel a little safer, even if it’s just for one night. Like many local theaters, The Colonial has also introduced virtual screenings which, as Walton notes, have barely made up for the loss of regular in-person revenue, although he is still happy to have provided midcoast entertainment. “We still have people coming up to us and saying, ‘You gave us something to watch in a really dark time,'” he said.

And that’s fine. One of the main themes of this column has been my assertion that a local, independent movie theater is the true heart of a community. And The Colonial, with its responsible policies, varied bookings of big-budget and independent films, and live on-stage music and stand-up events, has indeed functioned as an entertainment hub for all of Waldo County.

But, as the effects of the pandemic continue to hit small businesses like The Colonial hard, theater owners Therese Bagnardi and Michael Hurley have made the decision to completely change The Colonial’s screening model — at least for the moment.

Citing the effect of the pandemic on audiences’ willingness to go out to theaters, Walton explains that The Colonial is largely dropping the first-run exhibit for the time being. Instead, the theater will focus on themed revival nights featuring still-popular older movies that most fans never got to see on the big screen.

The first such screening will be the Coen Brothers’ universally beloved cult classic “The Big Lebowski” on Saturday, an event Walton says The Colonial is pulling out all the stops for, complete with canned White Russians, prizes and a raffle – perhaps for a rug to “really tie the room”.

As Belfast native and filmmaker Walton explains, during the pandemic a few big Hollywood movies (with James Bond and Spider-Man) helped, but other, less successful indie films only helped the theater. ‘to “stop the bleeding”. “So for now, The Colonial is shifting gears, as only creative, local, independent cinema can. Walton says upcoming screenings of The Colonial are still in motion, but Edgar Wright’s so-called Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End”) is coming in near future while well.

Additionally, Walton (who has worked at his hometown theater over the years in various capacities since he was a “popcorn shoveler” as a teenager) announced that The Colonial was opening its screens to filmmakers from around the world. Maine under this new direction. Noting that “Truth Tellers,” Maine director Richard Kane’s documentary on painter Robert Shetterly, has recently made big numbers for theater, Walton says it’s part of The Colonial’s plan to be a premier destination for that other Maine filmmakers use this century-old theater. as a filming location for their films.

“I’m from this area,” Walton said, “and it’s a very lonely existence being a Maine filmmaker. We want, as much as possible, to be a way for Maine filmmakers to be seen. There’s so much of creative energy in the region, both with local filmmakers and others who have migrated here from major media markets. With all of these forces combined, our plan is to book more local films, more independent films and small collections of works.

As for the future, “how the pandemic unfolds will dictate a lot of that,” Walton said. “Ideally, we will be a hybrid between a first-run exhibit and our already established relationships with Maine filmmakers and organizations. There were already a lot of problems, before the pandemic, with the way we were able to do business. »

The Colonial is exactly the kind of local-minded, vibrant indie cinema that Maine needs more of (in Portland, for one glaring example). And it’s people like Kyle Walton and owners Therese Bagnardi and Michael Hurley who keep Belfast’s exemplary film palace alive. Even through it all.

For more on The Colonial Theater (and to explore screening options if you’re a Maine filmmaker), check out colonialtheatre.com.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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