Rockport’s New Drive-In Is a Beacon for Film Buffs

From its projector room in the top of a lighthouse, the Shotwell Drive-In marries the new and the nostalgic.

By Jesse Ellison
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
From our September 2021 issue

Until last year, Maine had just seven drive-in theaters left, most of them at least 60 years old. Since then, though, the count has risen to eight, after the Points North Institute, organizer of the Camden International Film Festival, opened a new one in Rockport, the Shotwell Drive-In. It didn’t take long for local attendees to master the art of drive-in viewing — setting lounge chairs in their pick-up trucks, flipping seats down to fashion beds in their Subarus, and packing extra napkins on account of the on-site food trucks.

Plans for the outdoor theater got underway in the spring of 2020, when Ben Fowlie, executive director of Points North and founder of CIFF, called up longtime technical director Colin Kelley and asked, “What’s the projector you’ve always thought we should have?” Kelley’s answer: an 18,000-lumen projector capable of playing cutting-edge Digital Cinema Package formats of movies in dazzling quality on a huge screen. It was still the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite the prevailing uncertainty, Fowlie saw an opportunity. “Our whole industry was disrupted,” he says. “The Shotwell was an idea to serve CIFF’s needs and also to say that we as an organization are not going to just accept that we can’t bring people together safely to enjoy cinema on the big screen.”

Fowlie homed in on an empty lot at the busy intersection of Routes 1 and 90 and worked with the town to secure a lease while his team brainstormed configurations for the screen and projector. For a while, they thought maybe they would mount the projector in a lobsterboat on stilts. Eventually, they settled on a lighthouse, which, for Fowlie, underscored a notion of “cinema as a beacon.” Building a lighthouse to hold an expensive, finicky projector that needed to be 25 feet off the ground was no small task. “We had no idea what we were in for,” laughs mechanical engineer and CIFF volunteer Matt Wall. “There’s no fake-lighthouse aisle at the True Value Hardware.”

Typically, high-end projectors go in climate-controlled rooms in big movie theaters. This one arrived just two days prior to the drive-in’s opening and was hoisted by crane and bucket truck to the top of the plywood lighthouse, which sits atop a shipping container housing the electrical controls (the projector is designed so that it’s never supposed to be turned off between shows). White paint on the 25-by-42-foot plywood screen was still wet for the inaugural screening, the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s first concert tour in England. “Aptly titled, looking back at it,” Fowlie says.

In its second year, the lighthouse now has heat pumps for climate control, but the programming focus is the same: documentaries, classic concert films, and narratives new and old, earnest and amusing — from Coda, a recent drama about growing up with deaf parents, to Caddyshack. Because of the state-of-the-art digital set-up, plus its industry connections through so many years on the festival circuit, Points North can bring in films that are still in prerelease, like Roadrunner, a documentary about Anthony Bourdain that played to a sold-out crowd earlier this summer. For the film festival, in September, the Shotwell Drive-in will host screenings, Q and As, and other gatherings.

Shotwell, though it has the ring of adjectival praise for a good movie, is the namesake of longtime CIFF supporter Bob Shotwell, who passed away in 2018, at age 97. For Fowlie and Kelley, the highlights of the past two drive-in seasons have been when the Shotwell produced surprising shared moments, like at last summer’s showing of the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. In the throes of a pandemic, people were dancing in the parking lot and even on the roofs of their cars. “It’s about creating a meaningful experience that helps you better understand the world or unplug from the world and just be entertained, while also doubling down on building community,” Fowlie says. “Everyone needs some grounding and community — a real sense of belonging.”