Ann Baughman Walsh of Buckhead was overjoyed when she heard the Springs Cinema and Taphouse in Sandy Springs had reopened last month after two months of pandemic-induced shutdown.
When she spied owner Brandt Gully as she entered the theater last Thursday, she told him, “I’m so happy you’re open! I posted like crazy when I saw the news.”
She brought her two kids and a neighbor and her kids to see “Pitch Perfect.”
“We’re just happy to have a fun outing,” said Walsh, 46.
Gully was thrilled to see her but wished there were more people like her coming around.
As the first movie theater in the area to open just over two weeks ago, he said attendance has been softer than he expected.
“You’d think with nobody else open, we’d benefit,” he said.
While attendance was up 30 percent this past weekend over the second weekend, Gully said he still has a long way to go: “I’ve had fewer customers in the past two weeks total since reopening than I averaged in a single day over the previous few months prior to COVID.”
But with no new films until at least mid July, he has had to rely on older movies such as “Jurassic Park,” “Batman,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Dirty Dancing” instead. “The Big Lebowski” did relatively well, as did the original “Psycho.” He is charging just $7 per ticket.
He has also rented out theaters to families and friends for up to 25. “We’ve done a few graduation parties,” he said.
While senior citizens are generally avoiding theaters given their relative susceptibility to COVID-19, he has seen couples in their 30s and 40s, families and teens.
“I’ve been incredibly patient,” said Gully, who bought and renovated the theater in 2017, spending more than $3 million to overhaul the former LeFont theater. “Spirits are high. But this past week, it’s starting to get to me. People are still afraid to be out and about.”
The big protests in town over racial injustice following the George Floyd death made potential theater goers even more wary, he added.
Gully takes pride in his movie theater, a true passion project. The lobby is swathed in warm blues and vibrant yellows with a bar packed with local craft beer, wines, and specialty cocktails. The eight theaters all have $700 heated recliners.
He wants customers to feel comfortable by keeping 12 to 15 employees, more than he really needs based on attendance.
Gully purchased plexiglass partitions at the bar and all his employees are required to wear masks. His seating and ticketing system automatically blocks out seats two to the right and two left of the spot a customer picks.
He also created cheeky signs attached to the carpet to encourage social distancing while waiting in line.
“I’m gonna to give you to the count of three to get back 6 feet,” said one of the signs with a photo of Kevin McCallister from “Home Alone” in his classic hands-on-cheeks pose.
Gully is experimenting with a pop-up drive-in outside, with a capacity of up to 100 cars per showing.
He is charging $25 for vehicle if you are solo and $5 for each additional person per vehicle. He is allowing tailgating and has a outdoor sound system set up as well as the FM option for sound. He even received permission to have open containers in the parking lot and sells alcohol outside by the curb. This weekend’s offering? “Jaws.”
Justin Dike, a regular Springs customer who owns a company that handles reservations for neighborhood pools, said he had never been to a drive-in before until this past Saturday. He and his family watched “Back to the Future” in the front row of a full parking lot.
“It was amazing,” he said. “My wife came home and texted about 50 friends about it. It was loud, but it was awesome. Even my two-year-old stayed up for the entire movie! It had that 1950s feel to it.”
He plans to go every week he can this summer.
Gully is happy the drive-in is drawing customers, but he would prefer more folks in seats inside the theater itself.
“I am trying everything I can,” Gully said. “I’m scratching and crawling. I had zero intention of being the first one open. But it was evident nobody else was going to do it.”
He has deferred rent to pay and expenses are higher with COVID-19 procedures. Plus, capacity is limited under current rules. He hopes the movie studios will bring out some much-needed big-budget films later this summer to help draw fans back into seats.
Zilah Messica of Sandy Springs last Thursday brought her three young kids to see “Trolls World Tour.”
“I was curious to see how it would go down,” she said and was satisfied with her experience.
“I love seeing businesses making it work,” she told Gully. “Thank you for trying.”
“We can’t be faulted for trying,” he said.
The only other theater in town he knows is open is NCG’s brand new Brookhaven cinema, which launched last Thursday. (The other NCG theaters in town are still closed.)
Of the big chains, AMC is on the verge of filing for bankruptcy and Regal remains shut down. The various Studio Movie Grills around town, Aurora Cineplex in Roswell and New Vision Stonecrest 16 in Stonecrest have not reopened either.
Since last month, the Plaza Theatre in Virginia-Highland has had two pop-up drive-ins: one in its parking lot and one at Dad’s Garage. And the existing Starlight Drive In in Atlanta was able to reopen in May as well.
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