The downtown venue recently installed a new digital film projector and cinema screen, the result of a five-year fundraising effort. (Photo courtesy of the Rialto Center for the Arts.)

By Hannah E. Jones

The Rialto Center for the Arts, owned by Georgia State University (GSU), is returning to its roots as a downtown cinema. The downtown venue recently installed a new digital film projector and cinema screen, the result of a nearly-completed, five-year fundraising effort to raise $350,000 for the new equipment. 

In addition to its live events, the Rialto now boasts a new big-screen experience. The team has almost reached its goal but still seeks an additional $37,000 to upgrade the sound system.

The hoist-animated, motorized screen is a perforated, 35’ x 19’8” Stewart Luxus Grande S8. (Photo by Darlene Hamilton/Rialto.)

The addition harkens back to the early days of the Rialto. Downtown Atlanta and Peachtree St. used to be an “incredibly vibrant and lively scene” for movie-goers, Rialto Advisory Board Vice Chair Christopher Escobar explained, with the Loew’s Grand Theatre, the Paramount Theatre and the Capitol Theatre. Escobar describes them as “movie palaces,” which are single-screen theatres with over 1,000 seats and fancy finishings. Today, only the Rialto and Fox Theatre remain.

In an effort to restore some of its former glory, Escobar and Rialto Production Manager Michael Williams spearheaded this fundraising initiative. Escobar is the executive director of the Atlanta Film Society and owner of The Plaza Theatre and The Tara Theatre, and Williams is the founder of GSU’s student-run Cinefest.

The team sees the upgrades as a critical addition for the Rialto’s next chapter. Its screening opportunities dwindled over the years because it operated film projectors — a technology that has been phased out by the industry in lieu of a proprietary digital format. Due to this change, the team would have to rent equipment that costs upwards of $15,000 for a screening.

“We’re not just talking about HD projectors where you can use a computer or Blu-ray,” Escobar said. “It’s this format that connects to a server, uses hard drives and there are keys to unlock the films — It’s rather complicated and rather costly.”

The venue first opened its doors in 1916 as the Piedmont Theatre, making it the largest movie house in the Southeast. By the 1950s, the Rialto gained recognition as the South’s largest presenter of Walt Disney Productions films. The theatre closed its doors in 1989, reopening seven years later under GSU leadership.

“[The Rialto] really has beat the odds,” Escobar said. “Had Georgia State not invested in the ‘90s, almost certainly, that building would be gone today.”

The theatre is kicking off its new era in early April, starting with a private premiere of an undisclosed Universal film. On April 22, the Atlanta Film Festival is hosting two screenings that are open to the public. The first is a showing of “STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie.” Later that day, “Game of Thrones” Creator George R. R. Martin and actor Vincent D’Onofrio are joining for a premiere screening of the first episode “Night of the Cooters.” 

Ultimately, Escobar envisions a reinvigorated movie scene in Atlanta, where local cinemas are the go-to place for film screenings.

“If it’s a small screening — 40 to 300 people — it can be at the Plaza. If it’s a little larger, in 500-range, it should be at the Tara. In the 500 to 800 range, at the Rialto. Anything bigger than that should be at the Fox,” Escobar said. “[We’re returning to a] history of events, premieres and special occasions happening in unique, Atlanta-owned historic venues.”

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Hannah E. Jones

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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