In honor of tonight being our last drive-in show, check out this great tribute video that our very own Production Manager, AJ Holder put together reflecting all the thought that went into making a quiet little parking lot behind our building into an in-town drive-in for the last 87 weeks.
It reminds me of how much we went through to make it happen. It was a scary time, early in the pandemic (as it was for everyone), but there was something especially scary about the Plaza Theatre closing its doors for the first time in over 80 years and not knowing when we could open them again.
I was committed to keeping any staff willing to work (even if we couldn’t open) employed anyway. We also weren’t getting any break on our bills, and running an indie historic movie theatre is already tough enough to make ends meet so it’s not like there’s a big rainy day fund—so there was a lot at stake! So we got to work finding a way to make a drive-in come to life with what was available to us: we had to figure out the angles, the tech, the layout. Went through many different iterations, and evolutions. We started early in the pandemic (tossing ideas around in late March of 2020) and to be extra safe, as we knew we would be many people’s first time back out in public, we knew we had to make it completely contact-free. That meant tickets, concessions—everything had to be possible without having to leave your car or come in close contact with another person and no drive-in has ever run that way. It actually worked! On May 9, 2020 we started showing our first screenings with Back to the Future. Not only was it fun, but it was safe! The relief people had to get out of the house and go do something, the joy they’d experience—especially when they’d invite their friends and family to come in their own cars and pull up beside them and share the moment even in adjacent car-bubbles, and feel like we weren’t all trapped. It was magical.
It made me realize that it’s not just the big screen, and the loud sound, but it’s really about getting together with people you enjoy, neighbors you haven’t met yet, and experiencing something together and at the same time—being in the moment—that makes going to the movies awesome.
Don’t forget: It was a while before there was any sort of safety nets of unemployment or financial help for businesses, and bills never stopped for a moment so there was a very real threat the Plaza would stay closed forever. Doing the drive-ins helped us keep our business open looking after this treasured Atlanta landmark, helped us keep people employed and most of all, gave us all a chance to safely get together and escape the world for a few hours a night and actually enjoy ourselves.
We made national press, being covered everywhere from the New York Times, Time Magazine, NPR, NBC Nightly News, CNN and CBS Face the Nation among over 40 other outlets easily becoming the most talked about cinema in America. Even though being this busy ironically didn’t add up enough to making all the ends meet (because capacity was still limited), it kept us going. It also inspired others to start outpouring with the support and generosity by buying new merch, vouchers for future shows, and even contributing to our kickstarter. Eventually other help came in the form of some grants and government relief dollars followed.
It also wasn’t just us who benefited. The drive-in at Dad’s Garage (that ran from May 2020 until May 2021) generated revenue we were able to share with them while they weren’t able to make people laugh on their stage.
Our friends at Videodrome continued to work with us to bring our “Plazadrome” partnership and friends at Wussy Mag to the events we used to do indoors to the drive-in and create unique screenings that generate revenue for both of us at a time when it was in limited supply. Our neighbors were able to start opening up as a result as well. Our friends at Southern Belle started a special drive-in menu and would run orders to our movie-goers to their cars carhop-style. Our friends at Righteous Room were able to start service again patio-style at our front and back on tables they put together. Our community was coming back together and finding a way.
The drive-ins (both at Plaza and Dad’s Garage) made it possible to host the 2020 & 2021 Atlanta Film Festival and even the Sundance Film Festival Satellite screenings. The two of them ran for 87 weeks, presented nearly 550 screenings and served nearly 23,000 people during a pandemic unlike the Plaza has ever been through in its 83 years.
None of this would have been possible without the incredible ideas, hard work and dedication of the staff that helped us get it up and running: Richard Martin, CJ Swank, AJ Holder, Tia Webster and Brent Costin. Once we had it figured out and up and running, we had several more staff join us to keep it going AND launch a 2nd location in the parking lot of our friends at Dad’s Garage Theatre: Zach Pyles, Barbara Pita, Danny Davis, Ben Gravitt, Michael Fittro, Greg Bishop, Kimberly Klabel, Genie Key, Courtney Hitt, Luna Stroud, Graham Ulicny, Thomas Rahill, Sean Kirkendall, Matthew Turner (and there might be a name or two I fear I’m forgetting). For a while, our staff size grew to double pre-pandemic and created employment for many people left without work in the early days of the shutdowns.
This brings me to my next acknowledgement: This wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible help and generosity of our friends at Dad’s Garage, Gary Seputis and Ignacio Rivera at JJA Project Management, Southern Production Design, Steven Eisenstein at Classic Tents & Events, Cem Drake and Juan Chavez at Metro Studio Services, Lonny Jennings and David Luse for help, expertise and favors to get us up and running. We also have to thank RLand, Dean Velez and Whitney Stansell for contributing their art for some awesome Plaza merch items.
I go through the effort of listing all these people not just to give them due credit, but to point out: look at the village it takes to make something like this happen (especially under the circumstances)! While mega-corporations have tremendous resources, and do things to make it hard for small businesses to compete—not a single one of the multiplexes was able to do what we did because of the incredible community that was with us. That’s the kind of support that has made the Plaza last this long, that made this possible and the only way it’ll stick around.
While the pandemic is certainly not over and we’re not by any stretch in the clear, this mile marker of a moment is making me stop to think about how incredibly lucky I am and the Plaza Theatre is to have been able to come this far and still live to tell the tale. I’m maintaining hope and enthusiasm for the possibilities ahead, and not be dragged down by fear knowing what we’ve been through. Though the crowds are smaller than they were last summer, we’re not closing the drive-in by choice as the revenue it still generates helps while things are still so uncertain. Despite that, we have some exciting things in the works that’ll allow us to navigate the years ahead with confidence and protect the Plaza’s place in Atlanta.
Lastly, but certainly not least, thanks to each of you that bought a ticket, and came to the movies with us. Hope to see you all again one day.
Gratefully & Nostalgic,