Christopher Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival, likes to compare the annual event that kicks off April 21 to a variety of gatherings: a music festival, a qualifying event for the Olympics, and a farmers’ market.
Like a music festival, the Atlanta Film Festival has its headliners, called Marquee titles, that include a mix of Hollywood star power and the best of independent film. The 46-year-old festival, one of the largest and longest-running in the country, is also one of the few where short films can qualify for the Academy Awards, the Olympics of the film industry.
Mass-produced food from mega farming conglomerates isn’t sold at farmers’ markets, just like blockbuster movies from major movie studios aren’t screened at the Atlanta Film Festival.
“These are organic films brought to you straight from the source,” said Escobar, who owns the historic Plaza Theatre, one of several screening venues.
“They may not be perfectly packaged, and they may not be a brand you’ve heard of, but if you try them, you will find something real and genuine and pure and fascinating.”
This year’s festival includes more than 150 virtual and in-person screenings, a hybrid model put in place over the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Indoor screenings will be at the Plaza Theatre and Dad’s garage and outdoor screenings are planned at the Carter Center and Atlanta Botanical Garden. All virtual screenings and events will be presented via Eventive.
In an interview this week, Escobar talked about why the hybrid model works; how the pandemic has impacted our viewing habits; and about the $4 million renovation and restoration of the Plaza Theatre now underway.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Why did the Atlanta Film Society (the non-profit group that puts on the fest) decide to continue with a hybrid model like it has the past two year?
Escobar: “The visibility is hard to ignore. That’s why we exist — to create visibility for films that would otherwise not be seen. The fact that we had people watching our content from all 50 states and 19 countries is a little too big to ignore. Virtual doesn’t really replace the in-person experience which is, frankly, limited to the number of people who can fit in a room and the number of people who can get there. The last couple of years, we saw north of 20,000 viewership online during the film festival. We’ve been in-person the last couple of years but it’s obviously been limited in a number of ways, both in the number of in person screenings and number of venues. We didn’t have any in-person social events. We didn’t have any in-person educational events. It was only screenings on a limited basis. It’s great to have those back again this year. We really were hoping to be back to normal by now. But it just wasn’t feasible. We’re still easing back into it, but at least it feels much more like 2019 than 2021.”
How have our viewing habits changed over the past couple years?
“More and more people are watching digitally, virtually, and with streaming, we tend to be a little bit more willing to take a risk. Now the options tend to be overwhelming too. Netflix or Hulu or Amazon. They have algorithms that try and be like, ‘Well, based on what you’ve seen, I think you’ll like this.’ We have humans who are going to literally look through 10,000-plus submissions of films and screenplays and we’re going to pick not only the best, but the most special, the best fit for our community. We are trying to make sure we have opportunities where the vast diversity that is in Atlanta, not just in ethnicity, but orientation and gender and all other areas, is represented. We want to provide an opportunity for everyone to see themselves and their stories and their experiences reflected on screen. But just as importantly, we want to provide opportunities to live in the shoes of other people who have experiences that are very different from our own.
And you are also embarking on a $4 million renovation of the Plaza Theatre. How is that going?
“We have the longest lease in the Plaza Theatre’s history, coupled with the largest investment in the Plaza Theaters history. We got a 25-year lease that we’re currently one year into, and we’re going to be doing a $4 million restoration, renovation and revitalization in three parts. We’re almost finished with part one, which is a conversion of our balcony into two smaller, intimate 40-seat screens so we will have three separate auditorium indoors. With any luck, this will be done by Thursday [April 21]. But we are dealing with a number of issues, between supply chain stuff and labor shortage. It’s kind of a toss up if we could actually use the new space this weekend. At least the festival will be a chance to get a sneak peek of it if we are not using it. The second phase will be a rehab on the concession stand, bar, bathrooms, as well as to the exterior, recreating elements that have been missing for easily half a century. The bulb lighting underneath the marquee, the exterior box office, the Art Deco streamlined-style front doors, the Art Deco, streamlined-style elements and treatments around the poster cases. The third part will be the biggest and that’s where we’re going to be adding dressing rooms backstage so we can have more name talent and special events. We’re going to be adding the first-ever elevator, creating handicap accessibility to the second floor. And then the elevator will also go to the rooftop where we will have a rooftop patio bar and screen. With any luck everything will be done by the end of next year.”