The Plaza Theatre on the opening night of the 2023 Atlanta Film Festival (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

It’s a tale of two festivals. The Atlanta Dogwood Festival is now in its 87th year, and the Atlanta Film Festival is now in its 47th year.

When spring arrives in Atlanta, regional festivals blossom – offering people an opportunity to enjoy the cultural offerings in our community.

Too often, we don’t appreciate how much festivals contribute to our quality of life.

During the difficult COVID years, most festivals went on hiatus, scaled back or experimented with virtual offerings. Now, 2023 has provided an opportunity for all of us to enjoy each other, our city and the arts.

But nothing is guaranteed.

In 2022, the Dogwood Festival wasn’t sure it would be able to hold a festival in 2023.

Organizers were able to cut back some of the festival’s offerings, and the three-day event, from April 14 to 16, enjoyed its best attendance in years. Click here to view Kelly Jordan’s photo gallery of the 2023 festival.

Brian Hill, executive director of the Atlanta Dogwood Festival, at the closing day of the 2023 event. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“Some of the vendors gave me a big hug,” said Brian Hill, executive director of the Dogwood Festival for the past 15 years. “Sometimes folks forget how many people depend on the Dogwood Festival for their livelihood.”

Hill then shared good news – with a caveat.

“We will definitely be back next year, but I don’t know what the long-term prospects are for us and for free community festivals,” Hill said. “The costs keep spiraling up – police and security, EMS, staging, sound equipment – all the basic infrastructure costs have increased by 30 percent or more. We can’t keep pace with the rise in prices.”

Hill said it’s not just Atlanta that’s feeling the festival crunch.

“There are many festivals around the country that have gone under or are struggling,” Hill said.

In Atlanta, the Candler Park Music Festival has announced it will not happen in 2023. The Decatur Book Festival has canceled its event for 2023, but it hopes to relaunch in 2024. Fortunately, the Inman Park Festival – founded in the early 1970s – will take place from April 29 to 30.

And the free Atlanta Jazz Festival is back to three days this year – from May 27 to May 29 – featuring 15 artists at Piedmont Park.

Also, thanks to partnerships with multiple community partners, the Atlanta Film Festival is thriving – despite having lost several of its top corporate sponsors due to mergers and acquisitions. The 2023 ATLFF opened on April 20 and will continue through April 30.

On opening day, the executive director of ATLFF – Chris Escobar – launched the festival with an ode to Atlanta’s movie history with an emotional event at the Plaza Theatre.

Sitting in the “Rej” auditorium: (left to right) Mike Furling, Chris Escobar, Gayle and Jonny Rej — all are now in the Tara Theatre ownership group. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Escobar bought the Plaza in 2017 from Mike Furlinger, who had owned it since 2013. Furlinger had bought the theater from husband and wife team – Jonny and Gayle Rej – who acquired the Plaza in 2006 – taking over the historic theater from the legendary George Lefont, who had owned it since 1983.

The Plaza’s three auditoriums were named in honor of the three former owners. Furlinger and the Rejs attending a special film splicing — in lieu of a ribbon-cutting — event for the naming of the three auditoriums.

Escobar told the intimate gathering that the Plaza Theatre is thriving – enabling him to invest millions of dollars in renovations. He also said he had secured a 25-year lease, the longest in the theater’s history. Remember Escobar also bought the Tara Theatre, which closed last November, and he is planning for it to open in May.

“Jonny, Gayle and Mike will be joining us in the ownership of the [Tara] Theatre,” Escobar announced at the Plaza naming event. “It’s all coming together.”

The next night, Friday, April 21, Escobar was at the Carter Center for the rescreening of “Carterland” – a documentary about former President Jimmy Carter.

“It’s such a treat to be here in this incredible space and this incredible place,” Escobar said. “This is a historic moment for all of us to be here.”

After that screening, the ATLFF held its opening party at the Tara Theatre, the first major event held there since it closed in 2022.

Then, on Saturday night, Escobar was at it again.

This time Escobar was at the Rialto Theatre, where he serves as vice chair of the advisory board. Thanks to a five-year, $350,000 fundraising effort (still $37,000 short), the Rialto christened a new film screen, a new digital projector and an upgraded sound system. A major donor to that project was the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The official unveiling of improvements at the Rialto on April 22 (left to right) Lee Foster, Rialto’s executive director, with Chris Escobar and GSU’s First Lady Bridget Blake and GSU President Brian Blake. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

For Escobar, it’s all about promoting grassroots, independent cultural offerings and building Atlanta as a thriving center for film and creativity.

The ATLFF – put on by the nonprofit Atlanta Film Society – received nearly 10,000 submissions for the 2023 festival. Of those, 155 creative works were selected to be shown during the 10-day festival, which also had scheduled 110 different events including its four-day Creative Conference.

With the help of multiple community partners – including the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival — Escobar is working to make sure Atlanta has a thriving cultural community.

Festivals are one key ingredient in creating a cultural environment and fostering a creative economy. Just ask Austin, Texas what South-by-Southwest has meant to its evolution as a creative center for innovation.

Hill bragged that the Dogwood Festival has more than 20 countries involved as well as 83 high schools participating in its art exhibition, saying: “I can’t think of another festival in Atlanta that’s more diverse than our festival.”

But the value of festivals and events goes even deeper.

“It’s part of the cultural heritage of Atlanta,” Hill said. “If communities don’t have a way to come together and celebrate, then we become more and more divided.”

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news...

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