On a typical night, Christopher Escobar might be picking up trash, scooping up popcorn or troubleshooting the projector at the 81-year-old Plaza Theatre he purchased three years ago.
This past Saturday evening, Escobar stood in the Dad’s Garage parking lot donning a yellow safety vest, blue gloves, a black mask and a baseball cap overseeing a pop-up drive-in he created to generate some income.
The pandemic forced him to close the doors to his Virginia-Highland theater in March and seek new ways to pay the bills. He quickly came up with the idea of a pop-up drive-in in his parking lot, which fits about 43 cars.
Even better, he was able to find a second site at Dad’s Garage two miles away for 53 more vehicles.
He held four screenings during the second weekend of May and six more this past weekend. (His Sunday screening was rained out.)
This weekend, offerings are “Jaws,” “Groundhog Day” and “Mars Attacks.” (Tickets sold here)
So far, Escobar has sold out all of his 9 p.m. showings and brought in 30 cars at each of his first 11:30 p.m. showings last weekend. The cost is $15 for one person in a vehicle with discounts for more, maxing out at $50 for five or more.
As customers drove in last Saturday at dusk, he made sure he didn’t touch anyone. People purchased tickets online in advance. On a clear, portable podium, he kept a list of ticket buyers and a map of the lot. He matched his smartphone reader up to the patron’s phone bar code through the driver’s side window.
Escobar then chose a spot for each vehicle based on availability as well as size and height to minimize sight-line issues.
“I feel like a weird version of a restaurant greeter,” Escobar mused.
He had a couple of auto repair car ramps on hand in case a car needed to be lifted a few inches. And he purchased special equipment that enabled him to turn off the five nearby streetlights. (Georgia Power gave him permission and even installed the equipment for him gratis.) He rented a high-end portable bathroom and required people to stay in their vehicles during the film.
Dad’s Garage allowed Escobar to use their parking lot for free since the improv theater has been shut down due to COVID-19. Escobar is giving the arts organization 10% of ticket proceeds for the hassle.
“The parking lot would otherwise just be sitting empty,” said Matt Terrell, Dad’s Garage spokesman. “They’ve been a great supporter of ours over the years so it was a natural partnership.”
At both sites, Escobar uses inflatable screens, 20 feet diagonally in size, placed on stages he had built to include storage space. He already possessed the screens as the head of the Atlanta Film Society.
And he selected classic films based on availability and a survey of 600 fans. On this particular Saturday, he screened “Clue,” a goofy 1986 ensemble comedy based on the board game that bombed at the box office but became a cult classic over time.
Escobar also had popcorn popped fresh at the Plaza and delivered straight to customers in the parking lot who paid for them online at $6 a bag.
For patrons, this event was a welcome break from sheltering at home.
Ashley and Tom Dobberke of Virginia Highland admitted they had never actually been to the Plaza Theatre, but when they heard about the drive-in, they jumped at the chance. They picked up dinner at Grindhouse Killer Burgers and ate in their car before the film began.
“We wanted to support the theater and get out of the house,” said Ashley, who said they had not had an evening out since they came back from the Charleston Wine and Food Festival March 12.
Gwyn Herbein, who works in publishing and lives in Midtown, said she was excited when she heard “Clue” was the film because it’s one of her favorites of all time.
After the film, Herbein said she enjoyed the experience.
“It’s been inspiring to see how creative people can be during this time,” she said. “And I also appreciate the precautions the staff took to make people feel safe.”
THINGS TO DO
“Jaws” at Dad’s Garage parking lot, 9 p.m., Friday, May 22
“Groundhog Day” at Plaza Theatre parking lot, 9 p.m. Friday, May 22 (sold out)
“Mars Attacks” at Plaza Theatre, 11:15 p.m. Friday May 22
“Groundhog Day” at Dad’s Garage, 9 p.m. Saturday, May 23 (sold out)
“Jurassic Park” at Dad’s Garage, 11:30 p.m. Saturday, May 23
“Jaws” at Plaza Theatre, 8:45 p.m. Saturday, May 23 (sold out)
“Mars Attacks” at Dad’s Garage, 9 p.m., Monday, May 25
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