Atlanta movie theater owners: not opening yet but drive-in, private events in play

Credit: A test run of an outdoor drive-in set up behind the Plaza Theatre on April 22. CR: Christopher Escobar

Credit: A test run of an outdoor drive-in set up behind the Plaza Theatre on April 22. CR: Christopher Escobar

Atlanta movie theaters by and large are not going to open up next week despite Gov. Brian Kemp allowing them to.

Most theaters in the area are owned by major chains such as AMC Theaters and Regal Cinemas. They have largely furloughed or laid off almost all their employees nationwide due to the pandemic. According to Variety, it would take more than a week to re-hire staff and train them on proper safety procedures.

None of the theaters are opening the week of April 27 despite the fact they can, according to their respective websites. 
A spokesperson for New Vision, which operates theaters in Cumming and Stonecrest, said in email Monday they remain closed and "are still in the planning stages figuring out what steps we will need to take place in order for use to ensure the safety of our guests and staff. In addition given that the major movie distributors have pushed all releases back there is essentially no viable product to play available until July."

One exception is the Starlight Drive-In. The operation shut down last month but reopened Wednesday, April 22, with the concession stand shut down. The website notes that "you must view the movie from within your vehicle" and "you must practice social distancing at all times."

Metro Atlanta has only a handful of movie theaters owned by individual entrepreneurs, including the Plaza Theatre in Midtown and The Springs Cinema and Taphouse in Sandy Springs. 

"I think like any sane person, we're not jumping to open up the inside," said Christopher Escobar, owner of the Plaza, which last showed films March 18. "I still don't know when that will make sense."

He said he is taking advice from “actual public health officials. Right now, they are vague as can be. Until what they say creates confidence with our customers and staff, coming inside the theater is a dumb idea.”

Brandt Gully, who purchased the theater in 2017 and spent $2.5 million to renovate it, said he too has no plans to open next week or any time soon.

“I should have been excited when Kemp announced that,” Gully said. “But I was uncomfortable. If you have to make a decision between money and the right thing to do, you hope you always choose the right thing to do, but it’s difficult.”

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He thinks if he did open The Springs next week, some people would show up, but he worries about opening his theater to liability if customers or staff catch COVID-19 there.

“I don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause the community or customer base to take a step backwards,” Gully said. “I want to do the right thing for my staff. It doesn’t feel like the socially responsible thing to do right now.”

As a away to generate some income and provide a communal experience, the Plaza Theatre is planning a pop-up drive-in in the parking lot behind the theater.

Escobar tested the drive-in operation Wednesday and thinks he could start as soon as early next month. He said he could fit 49 vehicles in the lot.

“I’m going to encourage people to buy carry-out food from neighboring restaurants,” said Escobar.

He said some companies with classic movies are open to providing films to him at a discount and heard IFC said he can use their films for free.

To raise funds, he has held a GoFundMe, raising $15,000. Fans of the theater have also purchased vouchers and merchandise, totaling another $15,000.

Escobar compared his situation to that of Indiana Jones during the “Last Crusade” film. “Indy is on the ledge about to fall to his death, but he had faith and believed so he took a step into the void and found out it was an obstacle illusion. He was able to step across  a bridge and survive. That’s what I hope happens for me.”

Gully, whose background is in finance, works with movie theater owners nationwide and feels most owners who are in decent financial shape could survive a short-term break, but those already in trouble could close. 
He himself said his landlord is for now deferring his monthly rent of $50,000. But he said the longer he goes without commensurate revenues, the harder it will be to play catch up down the road.

Gully said he has brought his family to his Springs theater a couple of nights a week for private “movie nights.” He’d be open to consider doing the same for others as private rentals.

Escobar said he’s pondering a similar concept for the Plaza.

Gully is also opening up take-out beer, wine and popcorn sales, with the proceeds going to Cure Childhood Cancer. (His oldest daughter battled and survived cancer.)

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