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Plaza Theatre Battles Pandemic and Social Injustice with Drive-in Movies

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

Third time’s the charm!

After two unsuccessful attempts, I was finally able to make it to a screening in the Plaza Theatre’s drive-in series. The first drive-in movie I hoped to attend was Jaws (one of my favorite films of all time) which was unfortunately rained out. The second screening was likewise canceled as a result of the citywide curfew due to protests. But at long last, with luck finally, on my side, there wasn’t a rain cloud in sight as I settled in my car for my first-ever drive-in show – a screening of Rob Reiner’s 1987 fairytale The Princess Bride. And it was an inconceivably good time!

You’ve probably heard about the Plaza’s drive-in shows by now – I would’ve written this review much sooner if only the weather hadn’t conspired against me. But even though it might be old news, I just had to take a minute to gush about my experience and commend the Plaza for keeping the moviegoing spirit alive during this pandemic. It’s as if cinema goers had asked for a safe and fun way to enjoy their favorite films and the Plaza Theatre, like Westley from The Princess Bride, replied: “As you wish!”

The historic Plaza Theatre, an Atlanta staple whose glittering marquee has bedazzled Ponce de Leon Avenue since 1939, is the city’s oldest operating cinema. In recent days, however, showings have moved from the cozy confines of the Plaza’s auditorium to a giant inflatable screen in the parking lot of Dad’s Garage. While most movie theaters were forced to close their doors in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Plaza has proven its ability to adapt with the times. Not only have they continued to provide regular programming for moviegoers, but they’ve done it with a retro flavor that feels true to the Plaza’s signature nostalgic style. The Plaza Theatre has resurrected the drive-in movie.

Yes, a handful of drive-in theaters still exist around the country. But there’s something special about seeing classic movies on the silver screen presented by a nearly 81-year-old independent cinema. Were it not for the digital projector or the fact that I was sitting in my 2013 Ford Fiesta, I might’ve thought I’d time-traveled back to the 1950s. Fittingly, Back to the Future was among the first films the Plaza screened in their drive-in series, among other classics like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Groundhog Day.

The experience itself was charmingly novel, and the staff went above and beyond to make guests feel both comfortable and safe. The drive-in is set up so that you never need to leave your car. You can purchase all the usual movie theater concessions – popcorn, soda, candy – but orders are placed via mobile app. Just make a note of your spot and a mask-clad staff member will deliver the snacks to your vehicle door. And if you’re feeling dinner with your movie, just order from Uber Eats or Postmates; they’ll deliver your order to the staff who will then personally drop it off at your vehicle. It couldn’t be simpler. (I ordered from Five Guys and enjoyed a nice juicy burger as Inigo Montoya and Dread Pirate Roberts traded quips and blows on-screen.) As for the sound, gone are the days of having to share a speaker with the car next to you. The Plaza solves this problem in a way that both maximizes social distance and enhances each viewer’s individual experience. All you have to do is tune into a specific channel on your car’s radio and your vehicle will instantly be filled with the soundtrack of the movie you’re enjoying. It’s like having your personal surround sound system!

I regret that I wasn’t able to attend more of the Plaza’s drive-in screenings, particularly a couple of weeks ago when they presented a Black Cinema series featuring titles such as Do the Right Thing, Purple Rain, Sorry to Bother You, and Black Panther. These films would have been amazing to see on the big screen, especially since the Plaza donated its $6200 in proceeds to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, which helps to bail out activists arrested on the social justice frontlines. Hopefully, some of you made it out to these screenings! And a huge shout-out to the Plaza Theatre for using the power of cinema to take action, help educate, and support the Black Lives Matter movement during this turbulent time when speaking out matters now more than ever.

The future of the Plaza’s drive-in series is unclear, as theater chains like AMC and Regal have announced plans to reopen their doors in July. It remains to be seen whether the Plaza will continue to offer drive-in shows or if they will return to normal business operations as usual. However, I don’t think it’s entirely out of the question—now that many moviegoers have tasted the drive-in experience and would likely still opt for social distance—for us to see a resurgence of the drive-in cinema. Perhaps the drive-in will go from a mere novelty to standard business practice as we enter this new era, where health and safety will be a top priority. Only time will tell.

Until then, be sure to catch some of the Plaza’s drive-in shows while you still can! They’re a ton of fun, their programming has been fantastic, and the historic theatre has gone a long way towards keeping spirits high in the Atlanta film community during this unprecedented and uncertain time. And I can’t commend them enough for taking a stance in the fight for social justice. There’s a reason they’re going on 80 years in business. Just pray that it doesn’t rain!

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