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Archive for February, 2012

‘Gone With The Wind?’

An historic movie theater in Maine struggles to find its place in modern cinema.

It’s the summer of 1977 and Ogunquit, Maine is teeming with tourists. Flip-flop wearing beach bums are strolling down Main Street, a few families grab an ice cream and go for a picturesque walk along the Marginal Way, while others hit the chilly and choppy waters of the Atlantic. But as the sun sets and the street lights begin to glow, another attraction catches the eyes of red-faced vacationers; the town’s movie house, the Leavitt Theatre.

The original “Star Wars” is opening for the first time in the seaside burg and the Leavitt’s new owner, Peter Clayton, is trying to avoid a disaster; not being able to show the hit film to a sold out crowd.

“I was at the bus station and the bus was late,” Peter recalls. “And I finally got the film and I was stuck in traffic on the turnpike. I think I came running into the theater at about 7:30 with these two big heavy cans of film and everyone was about to leave and they were like ‘when is this show ever going to start?’ ”

Thankfully, everyone got to go to a “galaxy far, far away” that night and to hear Peter tell it, few have left the Leavitt disappointed over the last three and a half decades.

“We have never had to refund people’s money because we couldn’t run the show,” Peter told me as we sat in his office at the Leavitt Theatre; a room that, much like Peter himself, clearly has stories to tell. Movie posters and playbills of all kinds and eras line the walls and litter the floor, as do at least two or three guitars. A vintage tallying machine even sits on the desk, no doubt to count each night’s receipts, instead of simply using a computer. The auditorium serves as a stark contrast to Peter’s office. It’s a true majestic throwback with more than six hundred seats, all wooden with leather backs. The lighting is white, not neon and film tickets are of the “admit one” variety. It’s like the theater has been living in a time capsule and that’s the way Peter likes it. But unfortunately, outside the walls of the Leavitt theatre, time has moved on.

In the seventies and eighties, film was king. Home video and cable came along to play queen in the nineties, but once the internet booted up, all the cards were off the table. iPods, iPads, Netflix, On-Demand TV and hi-tech home theaters all offer quicker and sometimes better viewing experiences for consumers.

“Things have changed so much,” Peter told me. “There’s so much access to films that they’re not as special as they used to be.”

And that’s part of the reason why small, independent movie houses like the Leavitt have become an endangered species. In fact, this historic venue could be just a few years away from extinction. Built in 1923, the Leavitt started out showing silent films and is one of the oldest theatres in the country. Peter bought the place back in 1976 from a Massachusetts lawyer who left the theatre in disrepair. Over the next two decades, Peter brought the Leavitt into its heyday. He typically opens on Memorial Day weekend, goes full-time in the middle of June and then back to weekends after Labor Day. Leaf peepers may even get a chance to catch a flick in the fall, if they are willing to bundle up.

“It doesn’t have any heat and it can get pretty cold in here,” Peter explains with a wry smile. “I have a ‘bring a blanket’ sign for when it gets really cold.”

Peter’s love for this old building has spilled over into his home life. He essentially turned the theatre into a family business. His wife often helps with the concession stand. At the age of seven, his youngest son would rip tickets, and just a few years later he turned into a cashier.

“When he was probably twelve years old, he would be out in the ticket booth selling the tickets himself,” says Peter. “People would go ‘wait a minute, buying tickets from this little kid?’ He learned to deal with the public and had a great time of it.”

In addition to his offspring, Peter says the Leavitt would not be where it is without the help of one incredibly dedicated employee, Kevin Hickey. He has been a projectionist at the theatre since 1974.

“The guy who has run the projection booth since I bought the place,” Peter explains with admiration. “He has maintained the equipment spectacularly and has sort of been instrumental in keeping everything running.”

It’s this small band of brothers that has kept the Leavitt alive and profitable, but for all the blood, sweat and tears they have put in, the last grains of sand are starting to trickle down to the bottom of the hourglass.

The financial machine of Hollywood is churning faster than ever and has little use for the “mom and pops” of the movie world. The Leavitt is still a first-run theatre and in years past, several theatres used to share a new film, shipping it up and down the coast of Maine every few days. But now, many of those theatres have closed (the York Beach cinema was demolished in 2006) and Peter says most studios want him to run a movie for two weeks straight. Meaning, tourists are not given much of a selection and tend to seek out a multiplex instead.

And that is not the only studio requirement hurting the Leavitt’s bottom line. The percentage of ticket sales given to the film companies has skyrocketed. On opening weekend, it used to be split 50/50 and the amount the theatre could retain would keep going up each week. But now, it’s more of a flat rate for the film’s entire run. To Peter, the Leavitt is more than just a statistic, but he knows the film studios do not see it that way.

“There’s none of the good, old-friendly bookers in Boston, knowing that’s a good theatre in Maine,” Peter says frustrated. “Let’s make it so they can stay in business. They don’t care at all anymore.”

And it’s the last studio edict that may bring the lights down on the Leavitt for the final time. In 2013, Hollywood is doing away with 35mm prints of its films. Instead, all of the movies will be digital. Each film will be sent to theatres on a satellite, downloaded onto a hard drive and shown through a digital projector. The Leavitt’s current projectors are from the seventies and not compatible with that technology. And for Peter, an upgrade to a digital projector with a $100,000 price tag, is just not feasible.

“If I said, ‘well, now I have a digital projector,’ you think we’ll get more people to come?” Peter questions. “No. It would just not make sense to purchase one of those projectors.”

That leaves this aging movie house owner in a rather unenviable position; either sell the theatre and risk having it destroyed or drastically change how he runs the Leavitt. He has a handful of ideas, none of them ideal. Recently, he purchased a projector capable of showing blu-ray discs, hoping audiences may come to see older movies on the big screen. Peter’s also considering putting on more film festivals, booking more live acts and even getting a liquor license. Another possibility is having the Leavitt become a non-profit, an option that has worked with varying success for theatres in Booth Bay Harbor and Bar Harbor. Still, it seems, deep down, Peter realizes his days of creating movie magic in this small seaside town are nearly at an end.

“I love it as the old Leavitt movie theatre, the way it used to be,” Peter says with a sense of pride wrapped in nostalgic sadness. “I do know that people will really miss this place when it’s gone.”

posted by Seth Szilagyi in Local Cinema and have No Comments