UPDATED: Niantic Cinema closes permanently
East Lyme — Niantic Cinema is closing permanently.
The theater, located on Main Street in Niantic, shut its doors in September, citing a lack of quality films. The plan was to reopen in mid-December, when better movies would presumably be released, George Mitchell, whose family owns Niantic Cinema, said at the time.
But the building – which has been a movie theater for seven decades and which the Mitchells have owned since 1978 – is closing for good.
A notice from the theater on email and Facebook Monday said, “After much thought, we decided to close the Niantic Cinema. Over the years we have noticed a continuous decline in our attendance. During the COVID-19 pandemic film studios launched their own streaming services which now are how the majority of the public enjoys movies. Along with the decline in attendance our operating costs have skyrocketed.”
Reached by phone on Monday, George Mitchell said, “We’ve done a lot of thinking and a lot of analyzing and a lot of anguishing and soul-searching and everything else, but it’s hopeless really.”
It was a confluence of damaging factors: more movies are being released straight to streaming; fewer people are going to theaters after the pandemic; and costs have increased dramatically for the theater, that led to the closing, he said.
The challenges for cinemas goes back to when companies started releasing movies on TV and created streaming services, Mitchell said.
“It got worse and worse; they were releasing movies to streaming the same time as they were releasing them to the theaters. And then the coronavirus hit us, and that was like a death blow. We had to close during the worst of it, and we’ve never really recovered. I don’t think people want to be closed into a theater with other people; there are a lot of people that are afraid still,” he said.
“Not only that, but when people change their habits, it’s hard to change them back to where they were.”
Another significant issue is costs that “have gone crazy,” he said. The theater was paying more than $5,000 a month for electricity, for instance. Heating costs have doubled since last winter.
Mitchell said the family crunched the numbers, and it just didn’t work.
“Things change, and I can accept that,” he said. “We’re in a different world now. Young adults especially are happy to watch a movie on a 3-by-6 screen held in their hand. And then you have the 70-inch screens people have in their home theaters.”
It was different when the theater opened back in 1951, and movies were a main form of entertainment. Mitchell was 15 years old at the time and living in East Lyme, and he recalled, “It was a big thrill in my life to have a theater in Niantic. I never thought I’d see it.”
After buying the cinema, the Mitchells remodeled what had been an 800-seat single auditorium space into a three-screen venue in 1981. They opened with “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Being There,” and Mitchell recalled people being lined up around the block.
With the interior as it is – sloped floors, a balcony – the theater building wouldn’t be easy to convert to another use. Mitchell said at the very least, the whole thing would have to be gutted.
The Mitchell Trust owns several other buildings in town in addition to the cinema and rents them.
“If we found a good tenant (for the theater space), we could accommodate them,” he said. “People are looking for spaces in downtown Niantic. There aren’t many vacant stores.”
A loss to downtown
East Lyme First Selectman Kevin Seery said of Niantic Cinema’s closing, “Obviously, it’s a terrible blow and a loss to the downtown area.”
But he said he knows that the closing isn’t unique to East Lyme and that other theaters are suffering as fewer people go to the movies.
Indeed, cinemas around the country are having trouble. Regal shut down its Stonington multiplex in September; Cineworld, which bought Regal Cinemas in 2018, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that same month. Regal’s Waterford location remains open.
Marquee Cinemas closed its Westbrook location in September as well.
‘An icon in town’
“That’s heartbreaking. It really is,” said Sue Kumro, the vice president of Niantic Main Street, which helps promote and implement downtown revitalization efforts.
She said that Niantic Cinema is “an icon in town. It’s a beautiful part of Main Street. Everybody in Niantic Main Street and everybody in the town is going to be heartbroken over (its closing).”
Seery and Kumro both talked about having hoped for future events with Niantic Cinema like the successful “Elvis” celebration this past summer. That was a downtown-wide event including an Elvis impersonator and a vintage car show held in conjunction with the first screening of the new movie “Elvis” at Niantic Cinema.
“Niantic Main Street would do anything we could to keep that cinema open,” Kumro said. “It’s really an important part of the whole Main Street.”
Seery said that people who grew up in town remember going to the cinema, including back when it had 99-cent movies. Heading to the village for a movie and for dinner before or afterward was a great night out.
He said that the Mitchell family has been a mainstay of the community for decades. He added that Peter Mitchell, the cinema’s manager and George’s nephew, “is a fixture down there. People in town know Peter. He’s been such a great ambassador for the town and the theater.”
Niantic Cinema will honor refunds on passes and gift cards through Jan. 15 of 2023, if people mail those to Niantic Cinema, P.O. Box 713, Niantic, CT 06357.
George Mitchell said, “Times change, and movies served us well for over 100 years. It was great entertainment. And they’ll continue to serve us, but in a different format.”