Alan Sanborn, seen Saturday at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, is set to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maine International Film Festival, which begins a 10-day run this weekend. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Throughout his life Alan Sanborn has been drawn to films. The devotion to celluloid led him to help establish the Maine International Film Festival a quarter of a century ago and Railroad Square Cinema, where he’s worked for more than 40 years.

Most people likely don’t realize the amount of the time, effort and work he’s put in to ensure that central Maine has access to an independent theater.

All that effort, over the course of decades, has led the festival to announce Sanborn is set to receive its Lifetime Achievement Award. And yet, when asked about receiving the award, Sanborn says he doesn’t want to take too much credit.

“I’m really flattered, and I feel as though I’m accepting this award for a whole lot of people that have worked on this theater over the years, and in particular the other four founders of the cinema,” he said.

Sanborn, 76, will be honored during the 25th film festival, which opens Friday and runs through July 17. An institution in the Maine film community, the festival will feature nearly 100 films and draw thousands of people.

Alan Sanborn reminisces Saturday about the 25 years of the Maine International Film Festival. He’s standing in a hallway at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. MIFF announced Sanborn will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award; the festival begins a 10-day run this weekend. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

It will be the festival’s final year at the Railroad Square location. The Paul J. Schupf Art Center will open late this year downtown on Main Street and will include several cinemas.


“It’s exciting and it’s bittersweet,” said Mike Perreault, the festival’s executive director. “We want to make this just a true community-based celebration of the place where it all began at Railroad Square.”

And if that weren’t enough for the end of an era, Sanborn said he is planning to retire when the festival moves to the art center. He said he got a taste of retirement when Railroad Square Cinema closed for 15 months at the start of the pandemic.

“When we get set up there, it’s such a perfect break, because everything will be different there,” Sanborn said. “So I’ll be retiring, but I’ll probably be doing volunteering, probably with the film festival, and watching movies. That’s one of my conditions for retirement — that (my wife) Sam and I get a lifetime pass.”

Sanborn was one of the five founders of Railroad Square Cinema who came together nearly 50 years ago in search of a place to watch films. Some may question why Waterville and not Portland or Bangor, but Sanborn said it had to be here because that’s where the founders were.

Alan Sanborn sets up a film to be digitally projected in a theater Saturday at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. Sanborn is set to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Maine International Film Festival. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

They didn’t have lofty goals at the time, Sanborn said, it was more of a selfish endeavor.

But even if the founders weren’t looking for a community, they certainly found one. As manager of the cinema, Sanborn does all the behind-the-scenes work, making sure everything stays on track — from working the projectors to checking the lights and selling tickets and concessions.


Even though he isn’t out front all that often, returning visitors to the cinema and the festival know Sanborn and his friendly disposition. Ken Eisen, another founder, said that Sanborn is genial and dependable and that the cinema would never have opened without him. Eisen said he’s pleased that Sanborn, in receiving his award, will finally get public recognition for his contributions.

“He eminently deserves it,” Eisen said. “There wouldn’t be a theater without him, and he’s just been a rock for all of that period of time.”

During the course of the festival, Sanborn said he doesn’t usually manage to watch many of the films. When he’s in the audience, he finds himself wondering if festival operations are going according to plan.

“Really, it’s not that I don’t have the time, it’s that I’m too freaked out,” Sanborn said. “I will sit in the movie theater going, ‘God, I hope Cinema 2 started. I wonder if they remember to do (this or that).'”

Alan Sanborn sits Saturday in one of the theaters at Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville. Sanborn is one of the founders of the cinema and the Maine International Film Festival. He is set to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the festival for his contributions over the years. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Sanborn considered studying film in college but ended up focusing on zoology and then photography. It’s hard to call those detours mistakes when he met his wife Sam while working at a photo lab in Boston.

He grew up in Saco, and as a young man he couldn’t wait to get out of Maine. But as soon as he moved to Boston, he just wanted to come back, so after a few years he moved to Canaan.

The cinema and the film festival have always been a family affair for the Sanborns. Sam Sanborn worked as office manager for many years before retiring four years ago, although she still helps out on occasion. When their three daughters were younger, Alan Sanborn recalled nights when the couple would be working and the girls would go to sleep in the projector room.

As Perreault explained, “He’s just been such a positive light for all of us on the staff, and he’s made so many friends in the community, and we couldn’t think of a better person to honor this year than Alan.

“He raised his whole family while running this place, and they’ve continued in large part to carry that legacy forward as well. So it was just the right time to do it.”

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