ELLSWORTH — Nick Turner, executive director of The Grand, knows residents want to watch young Rey wield her light saber on the big screen during “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”
“I’d love that!” he exclaims. “Why doesn’t The Grand show first-run movies? It’s been a common question ever since I arrived, especially since the mall cinema closed.”
Since the Maine Coast Mall Cinema abruptly shut its doors in 2015, area residents have had to travel to Bar Harbor, Bangor or Belfast to get their new-release fix. Turner knows it’s been a frustration that The Grand hasn’t stepped in to fill that role. So he looked into it.
“Either you’re a first-run or you’re a performing arts space,” Turner said. “If the mission and vision of The Grand is to be something other than a first-run movie theater, we either have to be one or the other.”
Theaters lease films from a distributor. The distributor also dictates the terms of the lease agreement. There are hundreds of distributors in the United States, but Turner likes to use Walt Disney, one of the largest, as an example.
To start, Disney charges $500-$1,000 for the first year as a flat fee. It takes 65 percent of box office sales (as of Jan. 1, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” had grossed over $531 million nationwide). But the problem, said Turner, isn’t just the cost — it’s the commitment.
Distributors have strict rental agreements with the theaters they lease to. Disney, for instance, requires that a new release be shown two to three times per day, six days a week, for four weeks, and that no other programming take place in between showings.
“If you commit to doing first-run movies, you don’t have a lot of flexibility to do anything else,” Turner said. “I can’t rent the space to anybody, I can’t do our own shows, I can’t do the opera.”
At 480 seats and $8 a ticket, Turner estimates that The Grand would make $1,344 on a packed house after Disney takes its cut, not including concession sales and not accounting for what it costs to run the film. Filling the theater after opening weekend, Turner said, would be difficult. And without additional programming, which would be prohibited under the agreement with Disney, Turner worries the theater wouldn’t be able to stay afloat.
“The audience is going to thin out by the end of that four weeks,” he said. “But The Grand’s operating costs have not thinned out.”
David Weiss, executive director of Northeast Historic Film, which operates the Alamo Theater in Bucksport, cited similar constraints that prevent the Alamo from showing new releases.
Weiss also notes that he doesn’t feel comfortable charging the same amount as larger cinemas for concessions to make up for slow ticket sales.
“In a small town, you’re the community theater, and charging $6.50 for a popcorn just doesn’t go over,” Weiss said. “You can be mad at the mall cinema because it’s faceless. But we’re on Main Street, and people feel like you’re profiteering.
“The system is set up that way. The studio is saying we’re gonna take 90 percent of everything, you’ve gotta make money selling corn dogs.”
Weiss said the Alamo does show new releases after they’ve made their first run, when the fee to the distribution companies drops to around 35 percent and the strict rules have been lifted a little.
“We usually wait until we can get it for a weekend,” Weiss said.
In Bar Harbor, the Criterion Theatre is occasionally able to offer new releases, but Box Office and Marketing Manager Zachary Taibi acknowledged that there is “considerable expense” associated with doing so.
“For a single-screen theater like our own that is quite a commitment,” he said.
But the Criterion has managed to keep turnout high and new releases profitable.
“Thankfully, many of our first-run movies have a strong, consistent turnout,” Taibi said. “I think that has a lot to do with our historic space; the art deco-interior, the massive chandelier, the big screen. Being at the Criterion is an experience in and of itself.”
Taibi also feels the time commitment for a new release isn’t necessarily as restrictive as it seems.
“They give us time to be creative,” he said.
The theater organized a parade for the premier of “Star Wars” and plans to offer diversified programming in January.
Over at The Grand, Turner wants to make sure the theater is staying true to it mission. Right now, he says, that means offering movies and community theater productions. Showing new releases would complicate that.
“What is the mission and the vision of The Grand?” Turner said. “What is its purpose? To me, what’s good for The Grand is what’s good for the community. Its job is to serve the community.”