Editor's Note: Portions of this article originally appeared in a blog post on Fresh Loaf.
In November 2011, after countless Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight screenings, showcases of gory horror films, and glimpses at independent films, Plaza Theatre owners Jonathan and Gayle Rej announced they were looking to sell Atlanta's oldest cinema.
After six years, the husband-and-wife team decided it was time to bid farewell to the storied Poncey-Highland repertory house, citing the high cost of converting from film to digital projectors. One year later, they've found a buyer.
Last week, the Rejs said that they'll hand over the keys on Dec. 27 to Michael Furlinger, a 30-year veteran of the cinema business who recently turned around Charleston, S.C.'s Terrace Theatre. In an interview with CL, Furlinger says he plans a major restoration of the theater and to aggressively compete with nearby cinemas to screen first-run movies, giving film lovers a chance to enjoy new releases in what he calls one of the finest auditoriums he's ever seen.
"There are so few theaters left with character," Furlinger says of the 1939 showhouse. "That marquee is priceless."
The Long Island native's a cinephile who started working in movie theaters when he was 15 years old in New York and eventually worked his way up to managing the Odeon Cineplex's Manhattan and Brooklyn theaters. In 2007, Furlinger purchased the Terrace Theatre and, according to the Charleston City Paper, revamped the concession stand menu and fixed up the building while maintaining the theater's independent edge. He sold the Terrace in 2010 to focus on another Charleston theater he opened, which he also sold last year.
Furlinger plans to keep the current special events and "staples" — Rocky Horror, the Silver Scream Spookshow, Splatter Cinema, Taboo-La-La, The Room, and WonderRoot's Local Film Night — and the Atlanta Film Festival will still call the building home. But Furlinger also plans to tap the relationships he's made over 30 years in the cinema business to compete aggressively with other national theaters and get his hands on first-run "sophisticated" Hollywood films, such as Lincoln and The Master. He says large cinema companies have squeezed out the Plaza and other independent theaters by flouting an industry rule not to show new films within so many miles of each other.
"The Plaza is already playing those kinds of pictures. But they play them too late. They play them 10 weeks after they've been out of the theaters. The goal is to add some of that in when they first open," says Furlinger.
He also plans "substantial renovations," including gourmet concessions and brand-new screens, seats, and carpeting. But, he adds, the theater will be "kept in the time period it should be." The upstairs screen will continue to show independent movies, which Furlinger calls one of the theater's strengths.
Though the Plaza will continue screening 35mm films, which are slowly being phased out, starting around January 10 the theater will begin its much-needed conversion to digital projectors. "That's what you need these days to survive," Furlinger says.
The new owner's had his eyes on the theater for many years, he says, and almost bought the cinema when was it on the market six years ago, but the Rejs beat him to it.
Around 2006, Jonathan, a video producer, noticed the city changing for the worse as small, locally owned businesses were shuttering their doors and newer, larger shopping centers catering to national brands started popping up. One day he noticed that George LeFont, Atlanta's art house pioneer, had placed the theater, then one of America's many fading showhouses, on the market. The Rejs mortgaged their home to purchase the cinema in hopes of preserving it.
"The building just seemed too important to let it go away or become a chain store," Rej told CL at the time. "The uniqueness of a city is what gives it the character, not how close you are to a Bed Bath & Beyond."
Still, competing with megaplexes, one of the state's two remaining drive-in theaters located less than five miles away, Netflix, and pirated films wasn't easy. In 2009, the Rejs created the nonprofit Plaza Theatre Foundation to, in Jonathan's words, keep the "doors open, the film rolling, and the popcorn popping."
The Rejs are talking with ATLFF and Furlinger about what role that nonprofit, the Plaza Theatre Foundation, will play moving forward. "For now memberships and passes will continue be honored under new ownership," the Rejs said in the Nov. 20 letter to supporters announcing the sale.
In closing, the Rejs write: "It has been our honor to be a part of the Plaza's history and we hope you feel the same way. We've accomplished what we originally set out to do which was to save the Plaza from becoming a drug store or something else and we couldn't have done it without you all. We wish Michael the best of luck and we hope you all will continue to be supporters of the Plaza. We can't wait to see Atlanta's oldest cinema not just survive, but thrive!"