By Maria Saporta
Success! The community has rallied behind the effort to reopen the Tara Theatre, contributing more than the needed $50,000 to do the basics so the four-screen cinema can start showing movies again.
Chris Escobar, the film aficionado who bought the Tara Theatre earlier this year after Regal Cinemas abruptly shut it down in November, shared the news in an exclusive interview at the Tara on April 7.
Escobar announced the purchase of the Tara at the closing night of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival – saying he needed $50,000 to reopen the theater. The community was asked to buy advance tickets or make donations to the effort.
“The community response has been really reassuring,” Escobar said. “What’s reassuring is that people have realized what they almost had lost forever. It’s been a reawakening for people.”
Now that they’ve hit the $50,000 mark, Escobar is announcing a stretch goal of $75,000 to make additional improvements to the Tara’s historic marquee sign.
“The changes we envision will restore or celebrate the original Mid-Century look for the “now playing” and “coming attractions” sign facing the intersection of LaVista Road at Cheshire Bridge,” Escobar said.
When Regal closed down the theater, it removed almost everything but the seats. For starters, Escobar needed to secure four digital projectors as well as four 35mm projectors and two 70mm projectors to make the theatre operational.
Escobar has drawn on his experience in buying the Plaza Theatre in 2017 – successfully operating it as an independently owned movie house and managing the theater through the COVID pandemic.
It’s an incredibly busy time for Escobar, who also is the executive director of the Atlanta Film Society and the Atlanta Film Festival, which is taking place from April 20 to April 30. The Atlanta Film Festival will show movies at the Plaza, the Rialto Center for the Arts and the Carter Presidential Center.
Escobar was at the Tara to meet with a company that will be cleaning all the theater’s vents. Since buying the theater, he has repaired the plumbing, secured the projectors, re-equipped the ticket booths, refreshed the concession stand and the lobby and painted part of the exterior.
(And he is thrilled to be replacing the Pepsi dispensers with Coca-Cola, his favorite beverage.)
“This is all the stuff you don’t learn in film school,” Escobar, who attended Georgia State University, laughed.
Before the theater can reopen to the public, it will need city permits. But there will be a pre-opening event on April 21 when it will be the location of an invitation-only opening-night reception of the Atlanta Film Festival.
“This is a risky project and a big expense,” Escobar said while sitting in one of Tara’s larger theaters. “It’s all just a guess. Will people come back? This is really me banking on pre-COVID attendance and what we’ve been doing at the Plaza – that we can give people a reason to come back to the movie theater.”
One of the significant contributors to Tara’s reopening is Kenny Blank, executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. Blank and Escobar have developed a close relationship over the years – seeing each other as partners rather than competitors.
In fact, the first time Escobar attended a movie at the Tara was in 2013 during the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.
“My relationship with Kenny Blank is strong,” Escobar said. “But it’s not just me and Kenny. It’s organization to organization. We have to find ways to work together, support each other and help the film-going community grow.”
In a telephone interview, Blank agreed, saying “Beautiful things can happen when people can work in partnership” and they both benefit by “cross-pollinating” their audiences.
“It’s an honor and a pleasure to help put the Tara over the finish line,” Blank said. “But what’s more important is the community getting behind this effort. Chris, the Atlanta Film Festival and the Plaza have been tremendous partners over the years. We are building this ecosystem for the culturally curious.”
Atlanta has about 26 different film festivals every year – with AJFF being the biggest in terms of audience and budget. The Atlanta Film Festival, now in its 47th year, is the second largest. Others include the Bronze Lens Film Festival, Out on Film, the European Film Festival as well as other niche festivals.
“Part of Chris’ vision is to open the Tara to other presenters,” said Blank, who added the AJFF is planning use the venue for next year’s festival. “My AJFF colleagues are over the moon. It will be a long-term home for our programming throughout the year.”
But if one combines all of the Atlanta film festivals together, Escobar said the total would be smaller than the Cleveland Film Festival. And several other places have much larger festivals, Sundance in Utah, Tribeca in New York City and South by Southwest in Austin, to name a few.
A challenge for Atlanta and Georgia is how can they become more prominent in the national film community especially because the state is now one of the top film production sites in North America.
“Compared to other festivals our size, they received a much larger share of funds from state and local governments,” said Escobar, who quickly added he appreciates the government funding he does receive.
But it’s an especially challenging time for ATLFF because, for the first time in decades, it is without a presenting sponsor. Historically, Turner Broadcasting and its subsequent owners, Time Warner, AT&T and Discovery, have been the festival’s lead sponsor. But this year, Warner-Discovery is not giving the festival any sponsorship dollars.
Escobar understands the value of the festival – highlighting Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee as a prime example.
“Spike Lee had his start with the Atlanta Film Festival,” Escobar said of when Lee was attending Morehouse and taking film classes at Clark Atlanta University. He made a short movie called “Last Hustle in Brooklyn” and submitted it to the Atlanta Film Festival in 1979.
“He won $25 in the student category,” Escobar said. “That was 40 years before he won the Oscar. The validation alone was huge. That’s when he decided he wanted to become a filmmaker.”
In many ways, Escobar, 36, is helping lift the mantle for Atlanta’s film community by having the only two independently owned movie houses in the state as well as the only two celluloid theaters — meaning they have the ability to show movies with 35mm and 70mm film. Combine that with his leadership of the Atlanta Film Society and the Atlanta Film Festival, Escobar has emerged as a cultural leader in the city and state.
“Chris is like the Willy Wonka of movies,” said Blank, who described Escobar as a “fearless leader” and someone he wanted to support. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of doing the right thing, and this was the right thing to do.”
Looking forward to the Tara reopening. Enjoyed this article. Nice to see a person like Mr. Escobar fully pursuing his passion and receiving support from the community. An inspiring ATL story.
The Tara has always been my favorite go-to place to watch independent films that don’t get played in suburban corporate theaters.
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