Nestled in the back of the Fort Andross building directly overlooking the Androscoggin River, Frontier has served as a community gathering place for over a decade. In addition to a restaurant and a coffee bar, Frontier is an event space that showcases art, music, performance and film. Usually a bustling hub of activity, the venue has been dormant since March.
“So much about what we’ve created is the space itself, bringing people together into the space … so the major challenge is pivoting the business to not be something different than we are, but so much of [Frontier] is the space, so that becomes the prevailing dilemma,” owner Michael Gilroy said in a phone interview with the Orient.
Since Frontier’s initial closure at the onset of the pandemic, staff have been working to create a plan that would carry its mission into a new operating model while maintaining the integrity of the business and keeping the Brunswick community as safe as possible.
“The whole mission of our business is about bringing people together,” Gilroy said. “The challenge of bringing people together—around food, around film, around music, around art—really brought the entire business to a standstill back in March. At the same time, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. On a personal level, it’s been a tricky time since March.”
In an effort to maintain its relationship with the community, Frontier began offering virtual cinema screenings roughly a week after closing. At first, the revenue from the virtual screenings was roughly 20 percent of what the business made prior to the pandemic, but that number has since dipped to around 15 percent, program manager and longtime employee Sean Morin said in a phone interview with the Orient.
“It was great right out the gate. A lot of people were wanting to help support the theaters,” Morin said. “Over time it diminished.”
Late last month, the cafe reopened its kitchen for curbside pick-up, which required Frontier to place virtual cinema offerings on the backburner.
“We had to take so much of our energies and reimagine our space, and I had to shift my attention from programming to the restaurant,” Morin said. “Now that we’re in the swing of things with our new curbside model, we certainly hope to bring back more virtual offerings.”
Before the shutdown, Frontier had one screen for viewing films in their Fort Andross location and would typically show one on-demand film per week. In its virtual format, Frontier made six films available for purchase, though more were available over the summer when Morin was able to work closely with distributors.
“Now the plight that we’re facing is that there’s less content available virtually,” Morin said. “Most distributors are holding onto their content for next year, not offering it virtually anymore and instead just looking to screen it in-house when theaters are back open.”
Additionally, many film distributors have taken offerings directly to commercial streaming services, like Netflix and HBO, instead of offering screenings directly to smaller venues like Frontier.
Currently, films available for virtual screening through Frontier include Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG,” Hubert Sauper’s “Epicentro” and Dawn Porter’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” which are all in keeping with Gilroy and Morin’s hope to share art and culture with the community.
“It’s not about showing a holiday flick; it’s not about showing a big blockbuster,” Morin said. “Our ethos here, and what we hope to bring to our community, is arts and culture, and that’s why we show primarily documentaries and films that we feel like nurture our community and educate our community.”
Despite structural operating changes and shifting circumstances, Frontier employees have worked hard to maintain engagement with the community however possible until they are fully able to welcome community members back into their physical space.
“To me, [Frontier is] the community hub in Brunswick,” Morin said. “We don’t have the place to hang out anymore with our community or offer that space to our community. It’s just a different model. But we’re doing okay, I can say that we’re not going anywhere. We’re here, and we’re here to stay.”