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Barron’s and MarketWatch will check in regularly with entrepreneurs across the U.S. as they confront the challenges of reviving their business amid the Covid-19 crisis.
- Plaza Theatre
- Owner: Christopher Escobar
- Location: Atlanta
- Employees: 10 pre-virus, a mix of part-time and full-time; average of 11 currently, a mix of part-time and full-time
- Status: Open for indoor and drive-in movies
Christopher Escobar is hoping for “a little Sundance bump” in late January as the pandemic-adapted Park City, Utah, festival plays out online and on a network of satellite screens across the country, including his historic Atlanta theater’s auditorium and two pop-up drive-ins.
“I keep finding these things to look forward to and hold out hope for,” he said. “This is my next one.”
The Plaza will have to set aside up to a quarter of each screen’s capacity for Sundance badgeholders, as well as handle the legwork of local marketing, putting tickets on sale, and operating the actual screenings, Escobar said. But the festival will also pay the Plaza a small fee, provide the content and national marketing, and allow the theater to keep the other 75% of capacity, he said. The partnership, meanwhile, is ripe with sponsorship potential.
The arrangement “is a very fair one that does really have the potential to help independent theaters and organizations,” Escobar added. “It’s empowering the theaters to potentially make more money than they would from sheer ticket sales.”
Escobar is optimistic that the event will draw more business during the film festival itself, but also generate excitement and awareness around the Plaza in the weeks and months that follow.
As for Warner Bros.’ recent announcement that it would release its 17 films scheduled for 2021 straight to HBO Max at the same time they hit theaters, a move that has jolted the industry and drawn high-profile backlash, Escobar said he understands the need to think outside the box right now—and actually isn’t against the idea of playing a film that’s simultaneously available in-home. But the studio isn’t taking into account the extent to which its decision could hurt theaters, he added.
Plaza Theatre in Atlanta Reopens as a Drive-In
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Owner Chris Escobar on the marquee of the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
Photograph by Melissa Golden/Redux
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Warner Bros. would need to offer more flexibility on theaters’ commitments to showing a film (the number of weeks and times per day) as well as on the percentage of ticket sales it takes, he said. Studios typically take north of 50%, he said; an arrangement like this “needs to be more like 35% and play whenever you want.”
“There is no way this won’t harm theaters and storytellers—us included—and that is not in line with a studio that has historically been a champion for storytellers and the theatrical experience,” Escobar said.
Warner Bros. declined to comment.
The Plaza has seen some improvement in business after continuing to tweak and adapt programming. Escobar is now considering not just the drive-in’s weather constraints and which days make most sense to operate, but also the inclusion of date-night and family films and whether he can squeeze in a second nighttime drive-in movie based on runtimes.
From a revenue standpoint, the first 10 days of December looked better than the first 10 days of November, “so that’s promising,” Escobar said. “The best-case scenario for this month is still going to end up in a loss — that’s the problem,” he added. “The question will be how much of a loss.”
“This [Covid-19] surge is definitely going to take its toll on us,” Escobar said. “There was already a small portion of people who were willing to go to the theater in the first place—it’s going to be even smaller now.”
Meanwhile, a second federal relief package has stalled over disputes on state and local government aid and protections shielding businesses from Covid-19 lawsuit liability. Escobar, who is anxious for a lifeline to his struggling business, said it makes sense for companies that have adhered to public-health guidelines to be protected from liability—but believes there should be “some reasonable strings” attached.
“If you’re following some basic guidelines, you shouldn’t be scared about being held liable,” he said. “But if you won’t take reasonable measures, that’s on you.”
Advice for Other Business Owners
Finding nuggets of motivation to keep your head up will be just as critical over the next few months as wearing a mask, Escobar said. Recent nods from local media outlets Atlanta INtown and Atlanta Magazine have buoyed his spirits, even if they don’t pay the bills.
“Look back over the last eight months,” he said. “What are the moments that either people have really been there for you or you’ve done something meaningful for the community?”
Small Business in Crisis
Barron’s in coming months will be exploring how the pandemic’s impact on small business is playing out, and how small businesses’ struggles will affect the broader economy and financial markets. Please reach out to us with your stories, questions, and tips to [email protected]