George Lefont
George Lefont - photo on Instagram

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

When I heard that George Lefont, the man who made Atlanta a movie town for over 40 years, wasn’t doing well, I went looking for some of my old articles on him. After all, I’d been writing about him since the late 1970s.

What I found wasn’t a few articles but a file folder almost two inches thick. That’s the kind of difference Lefont made to Atlanta movie lovers. I shiver to think what movie-going would’ve been here without him.

Sadly, Lefont died this week at the age of 85 from complications related to Parkinson’s disease.

Lefont was the Reel Thing…. and then some. An enterprising and successful businessman who just happened to love film. And, luckily for us, shared that love with our city. He was, quite literally, the Man Who Kept Cool Movies Alive in Atlanta.

George and Donna Lefont at the Academy Awards in 2017 (Special: photo that ran in a Rough Draft/Sandy Springs Reporter story in 2020)

If it weren’t for George, there would’ve been no one to introduce Atlanta’s sometime recalcitrant, always unpredictable movie audiences to pictures that played Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, Berlin, Sundance and other world-class festivals.

If it weren’t for George, events like the Atlanta Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the French Film Festival…well, the list goes on and on…may not have happened.

If it weren’t for George, Atlanta would’ve never seen movies by Truffaut, Fellini, Tarantino, Kurosawa, Bergman, Merchant/Ivory, the brothers Coen, the brothers Taviani, Jon Waters.

If it weren’t for George, Atlanta would’ve been a pretty pathetic and cinematically bereft landscape.

In 1976, George moved here from his hometown of San Francisco, switching from software, where he made a small fortune, to celluloid. He bought a tiny theater (formerly part of a doomed chain of theaters named after Jerry Lewis) in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. He named it the Silver Screen and programmed a revolving calendar of art movies, indies, alternative movies and revival-house classics. One week he showed nothing but train movies.

In 1982, the building was razed, replaced by a Talbot’s and a nail salon. But that didn’t stop Lefont. His empire kept growing. Over the next several decades, he would own dozens of screens. The Ansley Mall, the Screening Room, the Garden Hills (where he showed “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for eons).  There was a theater in Toco Hills. Another in Marietta. In Athens. The Tara (rescued by Chris Escobar). The Plaza (ditto). The Midtown. The Lefont Sandy Springs.

George Lefont photo on Instagram. Photo originally appeared in Atlanta Magazine story published in 2018.

Only George would show “Caligula” and “The Story of O” (it ignited a court battle, which he won), then turn around and screen “Howard’s End” and “Room with a View.” His French Film Week earned him a Legion d’Honore from the French government. He once devoted a month – a month! – to celebrating Stanley Kubrick, showing everything from “Paths of Glory” to “The Shining.”  

When he played the sublime “Babette’s Feast,” he treated a handful of lucky movie folks to a re-creation of the picture’s glorious title meal at the Ritz Carleton.

George was too good of a businessman to put purity over profit. His philosophy from the very beginning was “Everything takes care of each other. A movie like ‘Amadeus’ helps cover the more marginal films like ‘Barfly’ and ‘Colonel Redl.’ (Great pictures! Stream ‘em!) He even showed “Jaws 3” at the Plaza, something he swore he’d never do again. Pragmatism can only take you so low.

Lefont dabbled in restaurants, too. The sexy, sorely missed jazz club, Zazus, across Peachtree from Piedmont Hospital, and later, a few blocks down the road, the elegant Coach and Six.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, his favorite movie was “Casablanca,” in which Humphrey Bogart runs a joint not unlike Zazus. When asked why he moved to Atlanta, George used to jokingly quote Bogart: “I came here for the waters. (Pause) I was misinformed.”

Whatever the reason, we were so lucky he did. 

Yet Lefont always thought he was the lucky one. He once said as much: “I’m lucky. It’s not everybody who can do what they love doing, make a pretty good living at it, and have people thank them for it.”

Thanks, George. Thanks a billion, zillion times.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE...

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  1. It was an honor to work with George Lafont for more than ten years. A very loving and kind person with a good soul. He’s now fairways of glory; George spirit is in the love we feel for each other, his essence has now merged with the moon, and the sky…

    Thank you George!

  2. Eleanor Ringel, I enjoyed your wonderful tribute to such an accomplished man who introduced me to great film in my youth! The cinephiles of Atlanta thank you and George!

  3. I met George once—a charming man—but I attended his theatres countless times. He was a treasure and a Gift to Atlanta. Lovely Column Eleanor!

    Ed Milton

  4. I thank George and my mother for inspiring my love for classic movies. My first, at 15 , a showing of West Side Story at the Screening Room. I still miss it. The first jazz club was Zasus and I remember getting yelled at for coming home at 3am after my first Rocky Horror. He has provided me with a lifetime of memories and good times.

  5. George worked very hard to create strong, lasting relationships with all the film distributors in NYC and LA, which guaranteed Atlanta would be able to see whatever he wanted to book. He advance-screened everything he could lay his eyes on, and when he wasn’t in a theatre, he absorbed The Village Voice and NYT to see what unusual or interesting films were on the horizon. And he loved Grace Kelly. Of course, without Eleanor’s AJC reviews educating the general populace every Friday, the theaters may not have been so full. Thanks for this fine tribute to a remarkable person and time.

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