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Going to the movies – Atlanta Film Festival reinvents the formula

Maria Saporta
A test screening before the opening of the 2020 Atlanta Film Festival's drive-in theater in Building 10 of Pratt-Pullman Yard (Photo by David Luse)

By Maria Saporta and David Luse

If you love to go to movie theaters to absorb the full effects of a film, then the COVID-19 pandemic has been a tough slog. (The same is true if you love going to live music concerts – indoor or outdoor – like I do).

But now we’re seeing a glimmer of hope that we will be able to resume some of our favorite activities in the not so distant future.

The drive-in theater at Dad’s Garage on the final night of the 2020 Atlanta Film Festival (Photo by Maria Saporta)

On Sunday, the Atlanta Film Festival wrapped up its 10-day 2020 season, when it had three drive-in movie theater locations – in the parking lots of the Plaza Theatre and Dad’s Garage, and a drive-in theater inside the open-air “Building 10” at the Pratt-Pullman Yard. It also had a digital element to this year’s festival line-up.

My son, David Luse, is an ambassador of the Atlanta Film Society, which puts on the Atlanta Film Festival (ATLFF). He was so impressed with the Pratt-Pullman movie experience that he offered to write about his experience for SaportaReport (please see below).

The two of us went to the closing movie of the festival – “For the Love of Rutland” – a documentary that was showing Sunday night at surface parking lot of Dad’s Garage.

“The Atlanta Film Festival, now in its 44th year, was the first major annual event to happen in person,” said Christopher Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Society since 2011. “I did have to keep checking my expectations at the door. It’s hard to compare because no one is doing in-person events right now.”

When asked whether the festival had been successful, Escobar said it depends on how one measures success.

Christoper Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Society, in front of Dad’s Garage Theatre (Photo by David Luse)

The fact that they were able to pull it off operationally and that people showed up made it a success for Escobar.

“We had 14 screenings that sold out,” said Escobar, adding that two screenings on the same night had to be canceled due to thunderstorms. “On the cash side, we ended up at a third of our average, so that was a big hit.”

In all, tickets were sold for admission of 1,000 cars, and Escobar estimates three people per car for about 3,000 in-person attendees. Another 2,000 people streamed movies, and they count two people per streamed movies. So, a total of 7,000 people participated in this year’s festival, compared to about 15,000 ticket sales during a normal year.

Contrary to what was written in an earlier version of this column, the ATLFF Creative Conference also happened virtually this year. There were 30 one on one master classes and panel discussions with Hollywood professionals available to stream all 11 days of the festival, according to Linda Burns’ comment on the post.

Originally, the festival was supposed to run from April 30 to May 10, but the Atlanta Film Society postponed it to September, hoping the Coronavirus would have run its course. In June, they switched gears and planned for a drive-in and digital film festival.

“We have faced some challenges before, but never one like this,” said Escobar, who said its top sponsors – WarnerMedia, Spanx and Mailchimp – hung in with them to put on the festival.

The Academy Award­-qualifying film festival had more than 8,700 submissions for its 2020 season, of which about 150 were selected to be shown.

Movie theaters also are opening up slowly but surely. On Sunday afternoon, I went to see the “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President” documentary at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema with a friend. There was only one other couple in the theater, and only every other row was available for seating to make sure there was social distancing.

Setting up of the Atlanta Film Festival’s drive-in theater in Building 10 of Pratt-Pullman Yard on Sept. 17 before the opening (Photo by David Luse)

It was my first “inside a movie theater” experience in six months, and I felt comfortable with the safety precautions. But I did wonder how long they would be able to stay in business with such reduced crowds.

Escobar, who bought the Plaza Theatre in 2017, on Sept. 5 began offering indoor screenings of movies in addition to its drive-in theater experiences.

But it only allows a maximum of 50 people inside the theater, which has nearly 500 seats. And it spaces out seating to make sure there’s social distancing.

“People should also be looking at what theaters are doing with their air filter systems,” Escobar said. “We installed bipolar ionization filters. We have five air conditioners, and every one of them has been upgraded.”

As far as he knows, the Plaza Theatre is the first movie theater in the region to have installed that system. Bipolar ionization is integrated into HVAC systems, and the process removes harmful substances like airborne mold, bacteria, allergens and viruses. Business Insider called it “a secret weapon” against COVID-19.

Now Escobar and the Atlanta Film Society team members are working on the 2021 festival, which will be held April 22 to May 2. They will stick with those dates even if they just stick to drive-in and digital screenings.

“My hope is we can have some limited indoor screenings and some version of a social element,” Escobar said. “This year’s certainly does give us a whole new level of confidence that no matter what comes our way, we will be able to bring folks together to watch incredible stories by incredible artists.”

David Luse’s experience:

There were three drive-in movie locations for this year’s Atlanta Film Festival. If you’ve supported the Plaza Theatre before its reopening, you would likely be familiar with its more permanent pop-up drive-ins at both the Plaza and Dad’s Garage.

The third location was special. When you drive up to it along Rogers Street, you pass a 27-acre block protected by a chain-link fence with banners masking the mystery of it. Pratt-Pullman Yards has been out of the public’s eye for some time, and a venture with the Atlanta Film Festival led to its first unveiling since construction started.

A test screening before the opening of the 2020 Atlanta Film Festival’s drive-in theater in Building 10 of Pratt-Pullman Yard (Photo by David Luse)

As I made the turn inside, the giant property opens up like a hidden landscape where nature and buildings have merged into one. This Atlanta treasure is still very much a construction site – made accessible by temporary barriers cordoning off the safe areas. I was able to see bits and pieces of the whole as I circled the festival’s makeshift car line.

Just before the movie started, an Atlanta Film Festival staff guided me into one of the giant warehouses. Built large enough to repair train cars, with some of those vestiges remaining, it hit me that this had to be one of the only “indoor” – and coolest – drive-in theatres of all time.

Temporary lights pointed to the ceiling in movie theater-style fashion, which illuminated the historic structures bones. I tuned my radio to the designated station, and an old-timey program blared COVID safety tips through my speakers. As the movie started, the lights turned off, and I appreciated the safe social space among all the other cars – it scratched the itch of my need for social interaction, but with the ability to keep my windows up.

I did miss the events and parties of this year’s film festival, but the Atlanta Film Society did an amazing job to make this a special year. Last Saturday, Pullman Yard had its first chef’s market, which featured its premier restaurant Abby Singer. If you can, I whole-heartedly recommend getting a sneak peek into a special piece of Atlanta history.

I look forward to seeing you at next year’s Atlanta Film Festival!

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Maria Saporta
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 stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Linda Burns September 29, 2020 12:53 pm

    Hey…just a quick correction – the ATLFF Creative Conference did happen virtually just like the films! We crafted over 30 one on one master classes and panel discussions with Hollywood professionals that were made available to stream all 11 days of the festival!Report

    Reply
    1. Maria Saporta
      Maria Saporta September 30, 2020 1:13 pm

      Thank you so much for the clarification. I will correct it in the story. That’s good to know.Report

      Reply

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