Atlanta’s Plaza Theatre ends drive-in screenings, but fond memories of the pandemic pivot remain

As we slowly win back some of the hallmarks of normalcy, we must also bid goodbye to the quirky innovations that took their place during the early days of the pandemic

Plaza Drive-In ends
The Plaza Theatre’s drive-in service, a lifeline during the early pandemic, is closing down.

Photograph courtesy of the Plaza Theatre

Though most of us can only recall Year One of the Covid-19 pandemic through a miasma of monotonous anxiety, there were still moments of joy—glimmers of an almost-normal life—that burn extra bright in our memories against an otherwise bleak landscape. Such a moment in my own Covid haze was seeing Wonder Woman 1984 with my girlfriend one cold winter night at the Plaza Theatre drive-in. The Plaza announced this week that it’s ending the drive-in movie experience—indoor cinema is back with Covid precautions in place—but I know that, like many Atlantans who spent an evening there, we’ll cherish the memory forever.

Our drive-in movie date was a much-needed reprieve from weekends at home. Oversaturated on Bananagrams, puzzles, and each other, and starved for the feeling of being in a crowd—this was during those grueling months when the novelty of apocalypse had worn off, but vaccinations were still a far-off dream—my girlfriend and I ventured out for what was billed as an entirely contactless cinema experience. It was a Covid-safe dream: a perfectly orchestrated and fully masked staff waved us into the lot behind the theater and backed us, aircraft marshal-style, into a parking spot carefully angled for optimal screen view. Concessions were ordered by phone and delivered to the door of our car, while sound piped in seamlessly through our radio. WW84 was a total disaster of a film (Kristen Wiig is an angry cheetah—that’s all you need to know), but no matter: I’d have watched anything that night through the back of our open Subaru, smiling at other audience members, all of us bathed in big-screen light behind our car windows. In a time of isolation, the Plaza figured out how to bring us together for some good old-fashioned movie magic.

My girlfriend and I were among the 23,000 people who watched a drive-in movie at the Plaza over the last two years: what began as the theater’s desperate bid for survival turned into 87 weeks of outdoor cinema, bringing eager audiences from across the state and earning write-ups from the New York Times, NPR, and CNN. The drive-in allowed Plaza owner Christopher Escobar to keep his staff employed, generate revenue for local restaurants, and support other struggling Atlanta businesses through event collaborations. Even as regular indoor business returned, the drive-in endured as an option for both the Covid-cautious and those who enjoyed the novelty of a mostly bygone format.

Though Escobar said he’s loved offering the drive-in movies, the once-empty storefronts that share the lot with Plaza have now been rented and will need parking space, and an incoming ramen restaurant plans to paint a mural where the outdoor screen is currently mounted. Indoor cinema is up and running again, though Plaza is still adhering to safety procedures like blocking off seats and proof of vaccination or negative tests. As we slowly win back some of the hallmarks of normalcy we were forced for so long to do without, we must also bid goodbye to the quirky innovations that took their place.

“It takes a village to make something like this happen,” Chris reflected in a post on the Plaza website this week, accompanied by a tribute video created by Plaza production manager AJ Holder. “Not a single one of the multiplexes was able to do what we did because of the incredible community that was with us.”

The 83-year-old Plaza is Atlanta’s oldest operating cinema and one of only two in the metro area that are independent and locally owned. As Chris told Atlanta, being so small made the financial squeeze tighter, but it was also key to Plaza’s success. After the initial shutdown in the early weeks of the pandemic, Governor Brian Kemp allowed movie theaters to reopen in April 2020, but megaplex chains had laid off all their staff and struggled to nimbly reopen in only one part of the country.

“All the focus went to the only locally-owned and run movie theater in the city,” Chris said. Indoor screenings were off the table, so Chris and his team began building a drive-in cinema from scratch. It was an idea he’d had before as a one-off event, but creating a semi-permanent, Covid-safe drive-in theater was another project entirely. “Elements of this are very throwback; they’ve been done for half a century,” Chris said, “But some of [what we did] has never been done by anyone, ever.”

The early ingenuity paid off: the drive-in became a popular destination for pandemic-fatigued households across Atlanta and beyond, and helped keep the theater afloat and its employees paid. It also helped other businesses in the shopping center: Joey Ward’s Southern Belle restaurant started a drive-in menu and ran orders, carhop-style, directly to movie-goers, while the nextdoor Righteous Room offered patio service before and after films. Through the drive-in, the Plaza was able to host the Atlanta Film Festival in 2020 and 2021, as well as Sundance Film Festival satellite screenings. Collaborations with the comedy theater Dad’s Garage, old-school video store Videodrome, and the queer media outlet Wussy Mag brought in diverse audiences and supported those organizations when they needed it most.

Jon Dean, editor-in-chief of Wussy Mag, said in an email that the drive-in gave the outlet the opportunity to keep hosting its Wussy Wednesday film series, while also offering something “new and exciting” to the event’s regular attendees. “It was such a relief to keep the tradition alive in the safest way possible,” he said.

Reflecting on the end of the theater’s outdoor cinema, Chris is thankful the community managed to pull it off. “This mile marker of a moment is making me stop to think about how incredibly lucky . . . the Plaza Theatre is to have been able to come this far and still live to tell the tale,” he wrote on the website. “Thanks to each of you that bought a ticket and came to the movies with us.”

The lights may indeed be going down on the Plaza’s scrappy drive-in, but those of us who bought a ticket will remember it for a long time to come—that flash of movie magic we were lucky enough to snatch out of the dark.

Disclosure: Writer Rachel Garbus is the culture editor at Wussy Mag.