WATERVILLE — The parent organization of the Maine International Film Festival plans to buy Railroad Square Cinema Dec. 18, a move that will help guarantee the cinema’s long-term health, officials said Monday.

The Maine Film Center Inc. is a nonprofit entity based in Waterville, where the annual film festival typically draws hundreds of film enthusiasts to the cinema and Opera House for 10 days in July.

The Film Center plans to buy digital projection equipment for the cinema and improve the theater, according to Shannon Haines, the Film Center’s new executive director.

For the first time, cinema supporters’ donations will be tax-exempt and the theater will be eligible for grants as it will be a full nonprofit entity. Currently, it has state, but not federal 501(c)3 nonprofit status.

“Ultimately, we also hope to develop new special programming, including a children’s film festival during April school vacation and a food and film series,” Haines said.

Haines, who tonight will ask the City Council for theater and food licenses for Railroad Square, also is director of the annual film festival.

That festival brings about 100 American and foreign-made independent films as well as actors, directors, filmmakers and producers to Waterville each summer.

The Film Center and Railroad Square

The Film Center was established in 1986 as Friends of Art & Film in Central Maine, which changed its name last year. Haines’ position with the film festival had been part-time. She also was Waterville Main Street executive director for 10 years before becoming the Film Center’s first executive director in October.

Now, she works full time for the Film Center, whose mission is to enrich, educate and entertain the community through film and art, she said. It has worked with the cinema over the years to bring programs including MIFF in the Morning and the American Film Institute’s Project 20/20.

Railroad Square has three theaters that seat 150, 90 and 48 patrons and is one of the best-known art houses in the country, Haines said. She believes that once the area establishes itself as a hub of film and film education, other film-related businesses will want to come here.

“Long-term, I think that this initiative has a lot of economic development potential for Waterville,” she said.

Railroad Square Cinema was started as a corporation in 1978 by Ken Eisen, Alan Sanborn, Lea Girardin, Gail Chase and Stu Silverstein. While all those players are still part of the corporation, Eisen and Sanborn are the only members active in the cinema, with Eisen as its president and programmer, and Sanborn as vice president and cinema manager. With the sale, Eisen will continue as programmer and Sanborn, as manager.

As a nonprofit corporation, Railroad Square has no owners and no one profits from it. All its revenues pay for the mortgage and other costs associated with the cinema, according to Eisen.

Becoming nonprofit

The intention of Railroad Square founders all along was was to have both state and federal nonprofit status, but getting federal status long ago was difficult, Eisen said Monday. The Film Center’s buying the cinema will allow it to pursue non-taxable donations and institute programs not based purely on commercial considerations, he said. The sale also will allow the cinema to get the backing it needs to have more innovative programs, according to Eisen.

“It’s really a dream come true for us in that way,” he said.

He called the upcoming purchase fantastic and said it is happening at a time when cinemas are being required to convert to digital projection.

Haines said the digital equipment will cost about $200,000, a cost that is prohibitive for many small theaters.

Both she and Eisen emphasized that the 12 cinema employees, nine of whom are part-time, will remain and it will continue to offer the types of independent, American and foreign-made films it has in the past. Now it will be able to expand offerings, they said.

They also said Railroad Square memberships will continue and current members will automatically become members of the Film Center.

Haines said Railroad Square was one of 12 independent cinemas invited to take part in the Sundance Film Institute’s Art House Project, which annually brings hundreds of people involved in film together to discuss what works best.

Seventy to 80 percent of art houses are federal nonprofit organizations, she said.

The Film Center has worked during the past year to raise money for the cinema’s purchase, according to an announcement Haines prepared for later this week, but provided to the Morning Sentinel Monday.

Private donors include Colby College, whose president, William Adams, has supported connecting the college’s mission to arts entities in the community, it says.

“Colby has always considered itself lucky to have Railroad Square Cinema and the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville for the significant cultural offerings they bring to our students and employees and their families,” Adams said in the announcement. “The chance to work with the Maine Film Center to enhance our curriculum is unparalleled and we are excited to be supporting the initiative.”

The digital equipment is scheduled to be installed in January and other improvements, including painting and landscaping, will be begin in the spring, according to Haines.

Haines, 37, is the only full-time employee of the Film Center and its office is expected to open by the end of the month at 76 Main St., above Barrel’s Community Market. She said her primary goals are to raise funds for programming and operations, which includes applying for grants, developing memberships and developing a sustainable plan for the cinema.

The Film Center in January will launch a new film series, Monday Night Movies, at the Waterville Opera House, she said. The Film Center installed 35mm projection equipment at the Opera House as part of recent renovations there. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” will be the first film shown as part of the classic series.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]