It’s been two months since the Plaza Theatre was open and showing movies to the public. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, owner Christopher Escobar was forced to shutter the 80-year-old movie theater in Poncey-Highland. Now, as the city begins to slowly reopen for business, Atlanta’s oldest operating cinema has temporarily transformed into a drive-in movie theater in order to operate safely during the COVID-19 crisis. Neighboring restaurants serve as the Plaza’s drive-in concession stand.
March 20, 2020 is a date Escobar will likely never forget. It’s the day he closed the Plaza Theatre as a result of the global pandemic, not knowing when (or if) the Atlanta institution would reopen again. Escobar, who also serves as the executive director of the Atlanta Film Society, purchased the old movie theater on Ponce De Leon Avenue in 2017. He was in the midst of planning a one-night drive-in experience to be held in the Plaza’s back parking lot when the pandemic shut down the city.
“We were already in talks with the property owners about the logistics of operating the drive-in theater. The wheels were in motion. Then COVID-19 hit, and everything in Atlanta just stopped,” he says. “We can’t do carry-out movies. We lost our only source of income overnight.”
Escobar estimates the Plaza typically generates around $80,000 in revenue each month, which is what he says it takes to run the theater, too. During the first 30 days of the closure, Escobar managed to whittle down the theater’s expenses to about $55,000, allowing him to keep his staff on the payroll. A series of online movie screenings, a GoFundMe campaign, vouchers purchased for future shows, sales from to-go concessions, and Plaza-inspired art sold through the theater’s new online shop raised a little over $30,000 by mid April.
Then came the news from Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp that certain businesses, restaurants, and movie theaters could reopen across the state by the end of April. In an instant, Escobar’s pop-up drive-in night became the Plaza’s lifeline for the foreseeable future.
“The first thing we needed to figure out was how to make this experience safe for everyone and as contact-free as possible,” says Escobar. “That meant setting up advanced ticketing online, reserving spaces for each car in the parking lot, and purchasing concessions ahead of time to be delivered to people’s cars. I wanted to promote the open restaurants in the area for concessions, especially those in the same complex as the Plaza.”
Southern Belle, chef Joey Ward’s new restaurant next to the theater, has already signed on to deliver concessions for the drive-in with a special takeout menu. People are provided Southern Belle’s drive-in menu upon arrival, which includes a QR code for ordering. To order, people scan the code using their phone, enter their order and parking space number, and pay online. Food is delivered to the car and placed on the hood.
Escobar is working to add more neighborhood restaurants to the delivery roster to be listed on the Plaza’s square site, like Insomnia Cookies in the Plaza complex. He’s also encouraging people attending the drive-in to grab takeout from other nearby restaurants in the neighborhood.
“The restaurant community here has always been very supportive of the Plaza, like Sweet Auburn Barbecue, The Righteous Room, and Southern Belle. We just want to be able to support them in any way we can right now.”
The Plaza’s drive-in accommodates just 40 cars, and features a 24-foot inflatable screen. An additional drive-in location resides in the parking lot at Dad’s Garage, which accommodates 50 cars. The Old Fourth Ward-based community theater shuttered temporarily in March. A portion of the proceeds from the drive-in goes to support the struggling theater.
“We’re hoping to provide movie-goers at the Dad’s drive-in with concessions from a food truck,” Escobar says. “We don’t want people lined up in front of a food truck, so we’re hoping whatever food trucks we get can allow people to order and pay online from their cars, and then be notified when the food is ready to be picked up from the truck.”
People listen to the movies through the car radio, just as they would at other drive-in theaters like the Starlite on Moreland Avenue in southeast Atlanta.
Now with two sold out weekends under his belt showing throwback movies like “Back to the Future”, “The Dark Crystal”, and “Clue”, Escobar is hoping to expand his new drive-in operation to Wednesday through Sunday, with multiple shows on the weekends.
“This drive-in wasn’t what we had originally intended it to be. Now it’s about allowing people to get out of the house, support the theater and local restaurants, and escape reality for a while.”
Tickets for the Plaza and Dad’s Garage drive-in locations can purchased online, and range from $15 for one person to $50 for five or more people per car.
Concessions from both the Plaza Theater and any participating restaurants offering concession food for the evening are purchased online and delivered to the hood of the car. Click here for a list of other restaurants open for takeout in the Poncey-Highland and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods.
Memorial Day weekend shows include “Jaws”, “Groundhog Day”, and “Mars Attacks”. Tickets for new shows go live each Monday evening. Follow the Plaza Theatre on Instagram for updates.
Stay home if sick. Check the Georgia Department of Public Health website for guidance and twice-daily updates on the latest number of reported COVID-19 cases.