Mike Perreault, executive director of Maine Film Center and the Maine International Film Festival, announced the annual festival will have a change of venue this year, with screenings taking place outdoors at the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre. The drive-in can accommodate 350 cars, according to owner Don Brown. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The 23rd annual Maine International Film Festival will operate differently this year as organizers considered the restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and came up with a viable alternative.

The festival will now screen its features at the Skowhegan Drive-In Movie Theatre to abide by social distancing guidelines set by the state and the Center for Disease Control.

“The wheels started turning not long after Railroad Square closed in March,” said Mike Perreault, executive director of the festival and the Maine Film Center. “(With) lots of uncertainty of when we could reopen it, so we wanted to explore all the possibilities that we could in order to still put on a festival this summer. We’ve hosted events there in the past, and it seemed like a really awesome opportunity to deliver the program safely but also in a really cool and unique way.”

The festival is typically held at the 810-seat Waterville Opera House and Railroad Square Cinema, which has three screens, in Waterville.

But after the coronavirus pandemic began to pick up in severity and restrictions on social gatherings were implemented by Gov. Janet Mills, organizers for the festival began to think of ways they could adjust the operation.

Mike Perreault, executive director of Maine Film Center and the Maine International Film Festival, visits the festival’s new venue Friday, the Skowhegan Drive-In Theatre. The coronavirus pandemic forced organizers to make changes, including how in-person audiences would view the films. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“There really weren’t a lot of options,” said Ken Eisen, programming director for the festival. “We couldn’t count on being able to use the theaters and the opera house, and with that gone we did start to immediately look at other possibilities, and we love the drive in anyway so we thought, let’s make it happen.”

The drive-in theater, at 201 Waterville Road, can accommodate approximately 350 cars according to theater owner Don Brown.

Because of the location change, the 10-day festival, scheduled to begin on July 7, will feature fewer films than it has in prior years.

Ken Eisen Morning Sentinel file photo

“It’s going to be a smaller festival because at the drive-in we can’t start screening until it’s dark out,” Perreault said. “It’s going to be a reduced program this year, but the lineup is going to be excellent.” 

Eisen said that cutting down the number of films was tough but worth it.

“It’s a little strange cutting 100 films down to a fraction of that, but it’s a whole lot better than not having the festival at all,” Eisen said during a phone call on Friday. “We’re just really happy we’re able to do it, and we hope everyone is as excited about it as we are, even though it’s frustrating not being able to do it the way we normally do.”

In addition to the drive-in venue, the festival will have some features and short films available online, something organizers previously said they were avoiding.

“This has really challenged arts organizations to think outside the box and be creative,” Perreault said. “And I think online is one way to interact with our audiences. Obviously that doesn’t replace the experience of going to the theater, but it provides access to more people who want to enjoy the films.”

The Skowhegan Drive-In Theater was opened in 1954 and bought by Brown in 2012.

Brown, who resides in Felton, Delaware, during the winter, said he’s excited to provide the venue for this prestigious event.

“We’re very excited about this opportunity for the drive-in to help maintain an event that is so crucial to the central Maine community,” Brown said. “It’s really a privilege to be able to help maintain the tradition in this uncertain moment, and this really determined the direction we would go in with the drive-in for the season.”

Kristina Cannon, executive director of the nonprofit organization Main Street Skowhegan, said she was thrilled to learn that the festival was coming to the drive-in.

“When I saw the announcement this morning, I was very shocked and excited,” Cannon said during a phone call on Friday. “I think the opportunity for a historical piece of Skowhegan to host something of this magnitude is really awesome for our community and hopefully we’ll see the economic benefit of having people come eat and shop in our local businesses here.” 

The focus of Main Street Skowhegan is to revitalize the town while celebrating its history.

According to Brown, specific precautions regarding concession sales and spacing are being mapped out to ensure the safety of all attendees at the festival.

The festival is a project of the Maine Film Center, a local nonprofit that aims to educate and entertain through art and film. The center also operates Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville.

The festival lineup will be announced in June, according to Perreault.

“I think people are eager to have a cultural experience, especially given we’ve all spent the last few months indoors,” Perreault said. “So we’re really proud to bring MIFF to Maine this summer despite all of the challenges we’ve had to face.” 

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