NIANTIC — The sounds and aroma of popcorn popping filled the lobby of Niantic Cinemas Wednesday morning, making ready for the theater’s reopening this Friday.
“We closed twice during the pandemic — first in April for about three weeks, then we reopened for about six weeks but we were only getting about eight people per day, so we closed in July,” said Peter Mitchell, concessions and box office manager, whose family bought the theatre in 1978.
In 1979 the Mitchell family’s first film as the new owners of Niantic Cinemas was Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman, shown on a single screen.
“It’s an excellent movie if you’ve ever seen it, but they were new to the whole process,” said Mitchell, 49. “I think they began to realize quickly it wasn’t working because duplex theatres were popping up in Norwich, Old Saybrook, Groton and Madison, and there were drive-ins in Waterford and Groton.”
It was one of many hurdles — the latest being the pandemic— that the cinema, which started as the Niantic Theatre in 1950, has encountered over the years.
Mitchell said his uncles, George Mitchell and John Kendros, and his father, Terry Mitchell, decided to make some changes.
“Single-screen theaters were going down, so they closed the theatre, subdivided it into three theaters — a triplex,” said Mitchell. “They jacked the roof up, the balcony became the upstairs cinema, and it was plenty big enough. They reopened in 1980.”
Up until that point, single screen theaters were almost the only way to see a movie, so the business model worked, but as technology evolved, movie theaters had to adapt, he said.
“There really was nowhere that you could see “Gone with the Wind” except in a movie theater. Televisions weren’t quite up to the point where they were taking movies and moving them over to a rebroadcast on television,” he said.
Besides bigger movie theaters with more screens, television and videotape sales began to increase the competition for movie audiences.
In response, the cinema bought the bowling alley and a carpet store next door and turned the building into a fourth screen in 1980. In 2003, a fifth screen was added.
Those extra screens have grown the theater’s audience, Mitchell said.
“We’ve always just tried to do a little bit of everything. We have enough screens where we can kind of cater to enough different tastes,” he said.
Luck, timing, and simply having more seats than most theaters on the shoreline also helped attract audiences over the years, he said.
“We ended up in a position where I think we had some first run movies — “Indiana Jones” was the first one,” he said. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was probably the longest playing movie we’ve ever had, it probably played for like 10 months.”
Mitchell said there were some surprise hits too, like when a neighbor insisted that the theater show “Das Boot.”
“We had it in the original German with subtitles and no one else had it — and it played for months and months and months. I think it was unique because it’s about a German submarine that’s under fire by the Americans and so you get a vantage point of desperation and sadness, but from the Nazis point of view. And so all of the people from the sub base came to see it, and people just kept coming and coming and coming,” he said.
He said his Aunt Emily was a French teacher and when she came to work in the local school system she started arranging field trips to the cinema for the foreign language department, which helped cultivate a foreign film audience for the theater in the early 1980s.
“I remember coming to the theatre and watching ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’ and ‘Manon des Sources.’ We were really the only theater doing foreign movies and so we built up a pretty decent audience for foreign films and we were able to get them right off,” he said.
Another hurdle for the theater was the digitization of film and projectors around 2013, with system that reports back to the studios via the internet every night exactly what movies were shown and how many times — plus the cost of buying the projectors was high.
“Everything is locked with keys and they have a code number to open up the file before you load it onto the projector. So what I felt like they were selling us eight, nine years ago with these new projectors was ‘Oh, you can run them whatever you want. This is going to open up everything.’ But it’s still very much like they’re trying to keep a lid on the availability of movies,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said a more recent hurdle that turned off audiences was Movie Pass, a subscription service that offered unlimited moviegoing for $9.95 a month, and recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive practices.
COVID has also heightened the new challenge of studios releasing and streaming movies on the same day, which started in late 2020.
“It’s compressed everything,” Mitchell said. “I think a lot of theaters have gone out of business. It’s a hard path that we’re going down, but it’s always kind of been there — there’s always been this expectation that it’s going to be tough.
This summer the theater will feature mostly mainstream movies, but Mitchell said he plans to include foreign movies and documentaries even though local competition for that audience has grown.
“It becomes very hard when you have multiple theaters doing these foreign movies. It would be great if we were the only one, but Mystic and Madison also like to run these movies. As the audience sort of contracts, it just gets a little harder,” he said.
He said younger people are watching movies through services like Netflix and many are not going to movie theaters.
“Habits clearly have changed and so we have to sort of find our audience again,” he said.
Mitchell said the cinema is reaching out to the surrounding community more, especially through movies like “In the Heights,” a musical set in a bodega, and by connecting with influencers on TikTok and YouTube.
“I think the movie selection has to be a little bit different. I think we have to appeal to more people, be more aggressively out in the community, inviting people into the community,” he said. “We’re trying to find our way and it’s always changing.”
Niantic Cinemas is located at 279 Main Street in Niantic. Call 860-739-6920 for more information. Click here for the films being shown this weekend.