Can Plaza Theatre, with its rich past, carve out a solid future?

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Owner Christopher Escobar signs a new 25-year lease and begins big renovation plans.

Christopher Escobar, owner of the 83-year-old Plaza Theatre on Ponce de Leon Avenue, is convinced the building is a sanctuary for ghosts.

Films and lights have flickered for no reason. Faucets have turned on by themselves. One spot in a back stairwell is always oddly cold. Ghost hunters have even come in to commune with the spirits, and he’s heard them talking to each other.

The good news: Escobar said the visitors are not there to terrorize anyone, just to enjoy the ambiance and soak in the movies and memories.

“They’re just people who choose to be there,” he said. “I talk to them. I thank them for their help, ask them for their cooperation. Sounds weird, but they’re stakeholders, too.”

Even paranormal skeptics can’t deny that this particular theater has a rich, soulful ― and sometimes dirty ― past.

What Escobar wants to ensure is that the theater has a future as well.

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com

Located in the Briarcliff Plaza shopping center, now branded Plaza on Ponce, the Plaza is the only independently owned movie theater remaining inside the Perimeter and the longest continuously operating one of its kind in Atlanta.

Escobar, 35, purchased the Plaza in 2017 and recently signed a 25-year lease with Asana Partners, who bought the shopping center five years ago. He is putting all his chips in this venture for his wife, Nicole, and their three children, ages 1, 6 and 9.

“I want my kids to be running this theater,” he said.

It doesn’t hurt that the City of Atlanta in 2017 designated Briarcliiff Plaza an historical landmark, giving the retail space some level of protection from being turned into a condominium complex or Micro Center.

Escobar is well aware of the societal challenges working against him: the rise of at-home streaming, consumers buying bigger and higher-def TVs, the lingering pandemic keeping crowd-wary people away and ever fancier multiplexes with leather seating and fine dining.

But he sees a pathway to make the Plaza even more of a neighborhood magnet, a community hub, a gathering spot.

His voice grows animated as he outlines his ambitious, $4 million renovation plan, paid for with a mix of loans, grants and donations. He has procured about a quarter of the funds so far, but he is confident an upcoming fundraising campaign will help him tie down the rest by the end of the year.

“That’s why I needed 25 years,” he said, “enough time to make that back.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Escobar has already started phase one: building two 50-seat screening rooms where the balcony is located, leaving 324 seats in the main theater space below. This will enable him to screen more movies and generate more income.

That’s just a teaser for his other ideas as more money comes in. He wants to bring back an old-school ticket booth at the entrance, install an art-deco inspired concession stand and bar, and create a more robust backstage dressing room/green room space with a toilet for actors and VIP guests.

“When Mark Ruffalo was here,” Escobar said, “he asked for a bathroom, and I told him he had to wait in line with everybody else.”

But Escobar’s dream pièce de résistance is a rooftop bar dubbed the EscoBar with an elevator, reception space, an outdoor screen and a lovely, 360-degree view of the city.

“I want every moment here to be memorable,” Escobar said, “every moment to be transformative. That’s what going to the movies used to be. That’s what movie theaters should be.”

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

A story of survival

When the Plaza Theatre opened in 1939 in what was the first Atlanta shopping center with off-street parking, it wasn’t considered all that special. There were about 100 other neighborhood theaters in Atlanta, from Temple Theatre in Grant Park to the Avondale Theatre in Avondale Estates.

And it played second fiddle to the much larger, more extravagant theater palaces, many on Peachtree Street, like the Paramount, the Fox and the Loew’s Grand.

The Plaza, which seated 600 in its early days, was not where big movie studios launched films in Atlanta. “Gone With the Wind,” for instance, held its world debut at the Loew’s in December 1939 and came to the Plaza in June 1940. “This is probably your last opportunity to see ‘Gone With the Wind’ in Atlanta until next year,” an ad in The Atlanta Constitution noted at the time.

Credit: Atlanta Constit

Credit: Atlanta Constit

Through those early years, the Plaza played many of the biggest movies of all time, from “Gaslight” in August 1944 to “Singin’ in the Rain” in May 1952 to “Guys and Dolls” in June 1956 to “To Kill a Mockingbird” in July 1963. For a time, it was dubbed “The Plaza House of Hits.” Its neighbors included Plaza Drugs, Nick Caruso’s Big Place hat repair shop, Blick’s Bowling Alley and the Majestic Diner, which remains to this day.

White flight and suburbanization, along with the rise of TV, caused business to decline in the 1960s. The owners in 1970, Escobar said, sent the Plaza into “hospice” by airing X-rated movies and holding live burlesque shows starring the likes of Torch Diamond and Machine Gun Kelly (a female dancer, not the gangster or current male rapper).

Credit: Dwight Ross Jr./AJC

Credit: Dwight Ross Jr./AJC

This kept the theater opened another 13 years, but then VHS began killing off even this once profitable business. In 1983, Atlanta cinema impresario George Lefont swooped in to save the place from likely death and transformed it into more of an art house. In 1992, AJC movie critic Eleanor Ringel noted how Lefont had a knack for giving indie films like “Barton Fink” and “The Commitments” a much needed second life.

Even his magic touch couldn’t stop nearby rival Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema and its eight screens, which opened in 1987, from stealing the Plaza’s thunder. Lefont put the Plaza up for sale in 2004 for a mere $100,000, unsure if anyone would take it at that price.

Jonathan Rej and his wife, Gayle, bit.

“It was one of our favorite spots,” said Jonathan Rej, a former skateboarding punk rocker who was running a film production company. “Nobody wanted it. It was going to close. Walgreens wanted the space.”

Credit: Jamie Gumbrecht

Credit: Jamie Gumbrecht

But they faced the same challenges as Lefont. “If we wanted the latest Wes Anderson movie, Midtown Arts got it,” Rej said. “We couldn’t get the movies we wanted, so we had to hold more special events.”

By then, the LDOD (once the Lips Down on Dixie) acting troupe was already well established, performing a live version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on a stage in front of the actual movie every Friday. The Rejs worked with a group to start Splatter Cinema focused on 1980s horror movies and hosted monthly Silver Screen Spook Shows featuring Vaudeville-style, horror-comedy performer Shane Morton. They held “Grease” singalongs and a “Summer Camp” series of campy classics like “Barbarella” and “Some Like It Hot.”

But Rej said they kept it going on “Band-Aids and duct tape. The whole month would be horrible, and we’d count on a special event or two to keep us going.”

Exhausted, they were ready to shutter the place in 2012.

Enter “Movie Mike” Furlinger, a lover of film and vintage theater, who had deeper pockets and more business acumen. He took over in 2013 and pumped six figures into the theater to install digital projectors, new seats and more mainstream movies that helped him turn a profit relatively quickly, he said.

Furlinger procured a liquor license and nabbed international headlines by being one of the few theaters in the country willing to run the 2014 Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy “The Interview” despite threats of violence from North Korea.

With Hollywood productions flooding the state, thanks to enhanced tax credits, Furlinger opened the doors to productions like AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire” and BET’s ‘Being Mary Jane” for location shoots. He also hosted crew parties and screenings. Revenues grew from $180,000 in 2011 to $600,000 in 2016.

But Furlinger was in his 50s and wanted someone else with more energy and vision to keep the place going long term. He found that person in Escobar. “I saw a little bit of myself in him,” he said.

A true calling

Escobar was born in Miami from Colombian-born parents but had family in Atlanta and spent years as a child lobbying his single mom to relocate there. She finally made the move in 1999 when he was 13. He found Atlantans friendlier and appreciated the change of seasons.

The movie bug bit him in eighth grade at Chapel Hill Middle School in Douglasville when a teacher assigned him to analyze a film of his choosing from the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American movies of all time. He rented No. 1 film “Citizen Kane” from Blockbuster and was transfixed. “That’s the first time I saw a movie as film, as opposed to escapism and entertainment,” he said.

At Georgia State University, Escobar received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in film production. At age 25, in the summer of 2011, he took over as executive director of the struggling Atlanta Film Society, which presents the annual Atlanta Film Festival.

At that point, he ― a film buff ― had never been to the Plaza Theatre. And he found it odd that the two entities had never worked together. So he began screening Atlanta Film Festival movies and holding other events at the Plaza. The synergy worked.

“The film society and the theater saved each other,” Escobar said. “We serve the same independent film crowd.”

Furlinger appreciated Escobar’s hard work and vision. When he was ready to sell the Plaza, he had two prospective buyers willing to purchase the space. But instead, he did something he had never done before: He acted as a bank and provided Escobar a long window to pay him back over time. Escobar, Furlinger said, is already 70% there.

Going it alone was not Escobar’s first option, but the board of the Atlanta Film Society was unwilling to take on the financial risk. So since 2017, he has basically juggled two full-time jobs: Plaza owner and Film Society executive director. Both have flourished under his oversight, he said. The Film Society has grown from a $400,000 a year operation with a single employee to a $1.8 million-a-year operation (counting in-kind contributions) and 15 full-time employees, he said.

And he increased the Plaza’s revenues 50% in three years to $900,000 in 2019 and was on pace to exceed $1 million in 2020, then COVID-19 hit and he was forced to pivot, he said. He convinced the landlord to let him host COVID-safe drive-in shows in the parking lot for 20 months. He also used the Old Fourth Ward parking lot at improv theater Dad’s Garage for a second drive-in theater for about a year. In the end, he did 550 drive-in screenings for 23,000 people.

With the income from that, as well as a “Save the Plaza” campaign that generated donations and income from merchandise sales, he was able to keep everyone on the Plaza and Film Society payrolls throughout the pandemic without laying anybody off, though some people did leave voluntarily.

Matt Rowles, GSU technology manager and Escobar’s technical advisor for the Plaza, said Escobar’s success has everything to do with his innate networking skills. For instance, Escobar created partnerships with Wussy, a local Southern LBGTQ magazine, to screen films. And he teamed with the only video rental store left in Atlanta, Videodrome, to show obscure films once or twice a month.

“It’s symbiotic,” said Aron Siegel, who is producer of the “Rocky Horror” troupe LDOD and has been active with the group since 2000. “The more Chris contributes to the community, the more it gives back.”

In the midst of the pandemic, Escobar added 35mm and 70mm capability, which enabled him to show films such as “Tenet,” “The Shining” and “Malcolm X” in the crisper, wider 70mm format.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The goal is to “make it a celebration of film as opposed to just showing films,” said long-time Plaza employee Brent Costin.

This approach has helped keep the theater buzz alive. Actor Tony Todd, star of the horror series “The Candyman,” appeared at a screening of the latest film last August. Actor Josh Brolin, who now lives in Atlanta, came by in November to discuss the new version of “Dune.” Singer Rebekah Del Rio last month performed songs from the film “Mulholland Drive” before a 20th anniversary screening.

Actors and crew members often just come by unannounced to see movies or hold private screenings. Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood have been seen traipsing through the lobby.

During a recent Videodrome screening of the 1979 Matt Dillon coming-of-age drama “Over the Edge,” Timothy Simons of “Veep” fame came by to say hi to Videodrome owner Matt Booth and introduce himself to Escobar. He is in town to shoot the Hulu true-crime limited series “Candy” with Jessica Biel.

“Filmgoing is underrated as a communal experience,” Simons said after the screening. “I’m always excited to find a place that builds community through weird movies. Going to Videodrome and the Plaza have made my working experience in Atlanta feel more like I have a community here.”

Anna Kramer and Theodore Williamson, both 52 and long-time Atlanta residents, were munching popcorn awaiting “Over the Edge” to begin. They’ve been coming to the Plaza since they were teens.

“My friends in high school used to work here,” Kramer said. “I remember RuPaul in his roller skates working here.”

“I love that I could consistently see content here not available at the multiplexes,” Williamson added.

Escobar only spends a day or two a week now in the theater. But he spends many more hours thinking about how to make it better and talking it up to others. He even keeps a waterproof notepad in the shower to jot down ideas. Balancing family and work is his biggest challenge. “I’m terrible with time management,” he admitted. “I tend to be late to things.”

He hopes his obsession will pay off. His landlord, Charlotte-based Asana Partners, is investing in him as well, giving him just over $500,000 to renovate the place on top of the extra-long lease. Seth Black, managing partner at Asana, lauded Escobar’s “long-term view and appreciation for what makes this property special ... We’re excited to watch the transformation there.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Escobar said he has worked hard to emulate the strengths of his predecessors: Lefont’s quirky programming, the Rej’s community connections and Furlinger’s financial wisdom.

Once phase one is finished, he plans to name each screen after the three previous owners. “Legacy,” he said, “is important.”

“We choked up,” Jonathan Rej said when Escobar told him. “What he’s done is amazing. He cares about the history of the Plaza. That’s what makes it special. It’s how the movies and the events there make people feel. Otherwise, it’s just a building.”

Just ask the ghosts, if you run into them.


Credit: AMAZ

Credit: AMAZ

Movies and TV shows that have filmed at Plaza Theatre

Amazon Prime rom-com “I Want You Back”

HBO sci-fi drama “Watchmen”

“Doctor Sleep” starring Ewan McGregor

BET drama “Being Mary Jane”

OWN drama “Love Is”

FX dramedy “Atlanta”

AMC drama “Halt and Catch Fire”

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