WATERVILLE — The 14th annual Maine International Film Festival overcame losing a popular venue to draw nearly 8,000 people, who watched more than 100 films screened since July 15.

While attendance dropped slightly from last year, festival director Shannon Haines called the number of filmgoers this year a major success, especially since it was the first time without screenings in the Waterville Opera House, closed because of renovations.

People still flocked to films during the 10-day festival, which screened a record number of films at Railroad Square Cinema and Colby College, she said Sunday before the festival’s closing ceremony.

The 325 seats in the college’s Given Auditorium couldn’t replace the opera house’s 750 seats, but the festival screened its highest number of films this year to give the audience more choices, Haines said.

Dan Marra and his wife, Barbara Leonard, are veterans of all 14 festivals.

The couple from Winslow said the caliber and selection of films this year made up for losing the opera house.

Marra watched 20 films and Leonard caught 9, saying a film they watched Sunday afternoon about a forgotten Native American language being rediscovered won her vote for “best of fest.”

“We Still Live Here (As Nutayunean)” told a moving story that just stood out from the rest, she said, explaining her vote.

Marra reeled off a list of films he thought should be recognized.

“There’s a lot of good films. It’s hard to vote for just one,” the 50-year-old attorney said.

The couple watched one film each at Colby College this year. They called the college’s auditorium a nice venue with plenty of space, but they also talked about missing the atmosphere of the opera house.

“There’s just something lovely about being in that historical building,” Leonard said, leaving the Railroad Square Cinema.

She said the festival should keep screening some films at the college in Waterville, however, because it can help people discover the Colby College Museum of Art.

Some friends from Hallowell said they didn’t know about the museum until visiting it after catching one of the festival’s film on campus, Leonard said.

Festival programmer Ken Eisen called the attendance figures this year remarkable because people had to adjust to the new venue.

“We got out to a little slower start at Colby than we expected because people were used to the opera house,” Eisen said.

But attendance picked up at the college’s auditorium after the fourth day, which is traditionally when the festival sees a spike in ticket sales.

“Every year the festival gains momentum after the first few days,” he said.

This year, a total of 7,009 admissions were counted by the end of Saturday, compared to 7,800 at the same point last year, according to Haines.

The total attendance this year will be announced today, but organizers believe it will be close to 8,000, she said. She said more than 8,500 people attended last year.

This year, as in past years, the festival drew filmmakers and tourists to Maine from across the U.S., as well as many other countries, Haines said.

But Haines spoke with some business owners who say fewer people spent time shopping and eating at restaurants in downtown Waterville, where the opera house is located just off Main Street.

The college’s auditorium is located on Mayflower Hill, a few miles from downtown, and the distance kept people from spending as much time on Main Street, Haines said.

“The downtown community suffered a little bit,” Haines said.

Joel Johnson and his wife Alice have attended all 14 festivals.

This year, the couple from Augusta found themselves going to fewer restaurants than in past years, when they would sneak out between films to downtown eateries.

It’s tougher to fit a meal in when you have to drive from the college, instead of walking from the opera house, the 57-year-old husband said.

“The Given (Auditorium) is isolated away from places where you can catch a meal,” he said, after leaving a film Sunday afternoon at Railroad Square Cinema.

For people who watch a lot of films, the festival is about scheduling the rest of your day around the screenings, according to the couple.

“I missed the opera house, it keeps you connected because its downtown,” Alice Johnson said.

Haines said the festival hopes to return to the opera house next year, if renovations are finished in time, while keeping a few screenings at the college.

Eisen praised the college for opening its auditorium to help screen the nearly 120 films screened this year. The ability to show the record number of films helped keep attendance figures from dropping off significantly, he said.

“To me it was the strongest program we’ve had,” he said, referring to the quality and variety of films.

The audience favorite this year was “Stella,” a French film by director, screenwriter Sylvie Verheyde about a child growing up in Paris.

Second place went to “In Good Time, The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland,” a film by Maine-based director Huey.

The audience awarded third place to “Sarah’s Key,” a French film by Gilles Paquet-Brenner about an American journalist living in Paris.

Audience members picked these winners from 44 of the festival’s films, eligible for the award based on guidelines that include being a new feature-length film, according to Haines.

Leaving a screening Sunday afternoon, a filmmaker from Armenia reflected on his visit to Waterville to screen his first film “Yerek Yereko.”

Arshak Amirbekyan spent 10 days in the city, making his first visit to the East Coast. The 40-year-old said he traveled to other parts of America and didn’t know what to expect from people at the festival in Maine.

He was most impressed by the audience’s ability to ask informed questions about his film, which is about a Soviet scientist living in Armenia.

The quality of directors drawn to the festival is matched by the knowledgeable people who go to see the films, he said.

“I was very surprised by the people here, and it’s the people that make the festival great,” he said.


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