WATERVILLE — The 15th annual Maine International Film Festival opened Friday night to enthusiastic applause from about 500 people who packed the newly renovated Waterville Opera House.

Academy Award nominated actress Karen Black sat with audience members to watch the world premiere of “VacationLand,” a Maine-made film starring Black and directed by Jamie Hook.

Opera House Executive Director Diane Bryan welcomed the audience back after it was closed to the festival last year because of renovations.

“We missed you last summer, so we’re very glad to see you here again,” Bryan said.

Film patrons from all over the world will spend the next 10 days watching films, attending parties and discussing filmmaking with actors, producers and writers. The festival will showcase about 100 American and foreign-made films at both the Opera House and Railroad Square Cinema.

Festival Executive Director Shannon Haines drew loud applause when she entered the stage, promising patrons they will be able to explore the world through film over the next 10 days and interact with Black, the festival’s special guest; Academy Award-winning film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who on Tuesday will received the festival’s Mid-Life Achievement Award, and acclaimed film producer James Stark.

Haines also touted Maine-made films and “rediscovery,” or preserved and restored films, including “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” as highlights of the festival.

“These are once in a lifetime opportunities to see some of the best films ever made, the way they were meant to be seen, on celluloid,” she said.

Haines also thanked many festival sponsors, including major sponsors, Colby College and Bangor Savings Bank, which have made multiyear commitments to the event.

Colby President William Adams called Waterville an “epicenter of the visual arts,” with assets including Colby Museum of Art, Waterville Opera House and Railroad Square Cinema.

Kelly Winslow, branch manager of Bangor Savings Bank, thanked patrons on behalf of 700 bank employees statewide.

“This is a wonderful event,” he said. “It’s one of the best events we have. It’s wonderful to come back year after year.”

Mayor Karen Heck could barely contain her excitement as she welcomed patrons.

“I know it’s totally uncool to be so excited, but I am really jazzed to be able to welcome you all,” she said. “I absolutely adore the festival.”

Festival Programmer Ken Eisen introduced “VacationLand,” a film about an unusual family reunion in the western mountains of Maine and featuring Black, Peter Pentz, Sarah Paul Ocampo and Ivy Girdwood. Hook, the director, said it is a very humble film, made in his backyard with a small group of friends.

Darrell Bulmer, acting director of the Maine Arts Commission, thanked Haines for her hard work. He also thanked the audience.

“Without you, none of this would be worthwhile,” he said.

The excitement was palpable as patrons lined the stairs to the Opera House lobby before the opening, chatting and greeting old friends.

Lynn Sawlivich of Deleware, who has attended the festival all of its 15 years, said he expected to see big changes with the Opera House renovation, but many of the changes include items less visible to the public, such as new dressing rooms and behind-the-scenes equipment. The renovation included an expanded lobby, an addition with the dressing rooms, restrooms, freight elevator, set construction room, reconfiguration and replacement of balcony seating, a new screen and permanent 35 mm and digital projection equipment.

“It’s the same Opera House, only better,” Sawlivich said.

Sally Gould of Vassalboro sat on a restored couch in the lobby as she waited with fiancee, Ken Vlodek, for the show to start. She said she has attended the festival three years.

“It’s a very eclectic collection of films that are very serious topics to very young-at-heart kind of films, so it’s very, very enjoyable to come every year,” Gould said.

Earlier Friday, festival patrons trickled into Railroad Square Cinema to pick up tickets and festival passes.

The hot, humid weather outside did not deter them from milling about and discussing upcoming films under a white tent pitched outside the cinema’s entrance.

Inside the air-conditioned lobby, Dick Thomas of Waterville picked up a partial festival pass, which allows admittance to 10 movies.

Arriving with his son Chris, Thomas said he has probably attended the festival for all of its 15 years.

“It’s kind of inspiring because usually we can find at least 10 films that we really like,” he said. “Last year, the documentaries impressed us an awful lot.”

He said he planned to attend the opening ceremony at the Opera House later in the evening.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

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