George Lefont, Atlanta’s king of cinema, takes a bow

Lefont operated several movie theaters over his 40-year career, bringing Oscar winners, indie flicks, and foreign films to Atlanta
George Lefont
George Lefont retires after four decades in the cinema industry.

Photograph by The Sintoses

In the summer of 1976, George Lefont was still in his thirties but already mulling his second act. Having moved to Atlanta from his native San Francisco a dozen years earlier to take a job in management consulting, he had launched a successful computer software company and was looking for another opportunity.

On a short trip to Manhattan, Lefont, who’d developed a passion for old movies while attending the University of California at Berkeley, decided to go see the 1948 Humphrey Bogart classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. When he reached the theater, the line for the box office wrapped around the building. “When I saw all those people,” he recalls, “I said to myself, ‘George, this is the business for you!’”

If Lefont’s name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve patronized the Plaza Theatre, Screening Room, Garden Hills Cinema, or one of the other half-dozen Atlanta movie theaters he operated during the four decades since his epiphany in New York. For much of that time, if you wanted to see a foreign, independent, or revival film, Lefont was close to the only game in town.

With last November’s sale of his final theater, the eight-screen Lefont Sandy Springs, the 79-year-old father of Atlanta’s art-house scene retired, rolling the end credits on a career that survived the transition from film sprockets to digital streaming and saw the neighborhood movie house supplanted by the multiplex.

“George’s career encapsulates a whole era of movie showmanship in America,” says Matthew Bernstein, chair of Emory University’s Department of Film and Media Studies and longtime host of the Atlanta Cinema Club, a membership film series whose first home in 1998 was at Lefont’s Garden Hills Cinema. “Movie-lovers in Atlanta owe him a great deal because he’d show films that the big theater chains wouldn’t touch, from small independent pictures like Reservoir Dogs to risqué foreign films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

George Lefont
Lefont with Divine

Photograph courtesy of Arthur Usherson

Looking back, Lefont’s decision to open a theater seems an improbably starry-eyed calling for an ambitious entrepreneur with a business administration degree. Replacing an existing theater in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center, the Silver Screen was Atlanta’s first repertory house, dedicated to the kind of films now seen on Turner Classic Movies. For its grand opening in October 1976, Lefont booked Casablanca in a Bogart double feature with The Maltese Falcon—and confronted his first scheduling crisis: after learning Ted Turner was showing the latter on Channel 17, Lefont instead paired the Nazi resistance romance with the General Custer western They Died with Their Boots On.

The Silver Screen quickly became a mecca for local movie fans. Eleanor Ringel Cater, an Atlanta native who in 1978 began her 29-year run as film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, recalls that Lefont seemed to put a great deal of thought into his programming choices; for example, he once screened a whole week of movies centered on trains.

“George wasn’t just the man who loved movies; he also had the business acumen to make it work, and you need both.”

Before long, Lefont realized that there was an untapped market in first-run films that weren’t making it to Atlanta. In 1978, he acquired the former Great Southeast Music Hall in Lindbergh Plaza—where the Sex Pistols had played their first American show just a few months earlier—and opened the 200-seat Screening Room. Then came the Beechwood in Athens and the Ansley Mall Cinema, a tiny theater where Lefont presented Atlanta’s first midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

When the Silver Screen’s lease wasn’t renewed in 1979 because the property owners wanted to redevelop the site, Lefont made his biggest gamble yet, buying the Tara Theater on Cheshire Bridge Road the next year and expanding it from two screens to four. He realized his bet had paid off after he secured an exclusive booking for the British sleeper Chariots of Fire and saw church buses unloading entire congregations to see it. When the film won Best Picture in 1981, Lefont fainted at his own Oscar party. “My guests came by like a receiving line to where I was lying on the floor to congratulate me,” says Lefont, who played the film for 16 weeks.

George Lefont
Lefont with Gene Wilder

Photograph courtesy of Donna Lefont

But he didn’t just show family fare. That same year, Lefont defied a local ban to screen the Penthouse-made Caligula and later had a theater raided and the film print seized when he showed the erotic drama The Story of O, an incident that saw him winning a First Amendment lawsuit.

More growth followed—the 800-seat Toco Hills Theater, the cozy Garden Hills, and the Plaza, which showed porn flicks before Lefont bought it. In January 1985, Lefont arranged a private midnight screening for Prince and his entourage to see Amadeus after playing the Omni—one bad-boy musical genius watching a biopic about another. At the height of his cinema empire in 1986, Lefont controlled 11 screens in seven locations and had premiered every one of that year’s Best Picture nominees, including the winner, Platoon.

By then, competition was threatening. In 1987, Lefont made a strategic merger with one theater chain that was building a seven-screen art house in Midtown but ended up selling his share a year later when the company merged with a larger chain. “Overnight, I’d gone from being a partner to an employee, which was not what I wanted,” says Lefont, who bought back the Plaza, Garden Hills, Toco Hills, Ansley Mall Cinema, and Screening Room (the big chain didn’t like running smaller screens). After buying and operating the Coach and Six restaurant on Peachtree Street, Lefont decided to ditch the dining industry and focus solely on his love: film.

In an average week, he attended maybe six or seven screenings of movies. He’d fly to the festivals in Cannes, Toronto, or Telluride (often accompanied by his fourth ex-wife, Donna) to get a preview of the best films being released that year. In 1991, he showed all five hours of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 to a few hardy ticket-buyers, who were given a half-hour intermission to grab lunch. Cinema Paradiso, The Double Life of Veronique, and Wings of Desire—without Lefont’s devotion to cinema, Atlanta might have missed these classics.

George Lefont
George Lefont retires after four decades in the cinema industry.

Photograph by The Sintoses

“Atlanta was so lucky to have had George,” Ringel Cater says. “George wasn’t just the man who loved movies; he also had the business acumen to make it work, and you need both.”

Rising rents and shifting audience trends eventually led Lefont to sell off or close all his small theaters, concentrating his efforts in recent years on Lefont Sandy Springs, which he took over in 2004, showing a mix of art-house and commercial fare. The multiplex soon became home base to the fast-growing Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, a relationship that Sandy Springs’s new owner, financier Brandt Gully, has said he plans to maintain.

Lefont hasn’t yet figured out how he’ll spend his retirement, but he hopes to make it to a few trade screenings a week when he’s not at his Buckhead home watching TCM and spending time with his three daughters and his grandchildren. Looking back on his years showing films, he says, “It’s not everybody who gets to do what he loves doing, make a good living at it, and have people thank you for it.”

This article appears in our March 2018 issue.