The Tara Theatre.
The Tara Theatre.

When the Tara Theatre reopened in late May, the initial response was electric. 

“The first weekend was tremendous,” said Christopher Escobar, executive director of the Atlanta Film Society. Escobar took over operations at the Tara after Regal Cinemas closed the theater in 2022 after more than 50 years in service.

“We had a lot of the diehards who were incredibly excited – probably had the most people in the building that the Tara had seen in a few years,” Escobar said. 

But after that initial weekend, business started to slow down a bit. These past couple of months have come with their own set of challenges for Escobar and the rest of the team working to keep the Tara open. Escobar said business has picked up periodically – particularly over the weekend of July 21 when both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” debuted – but other than that, business has been in a sort of middle, gray area. 

“Up until [“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”], it was interesting, because it was neither going so great that I was like, ok we’re totally set, but it also wasn’t going so poorly that I was panicking,” Escobar said. 

Escobar said it helps that Halpern Enterprises, which owns the Cheshire Square shopping center where the cinema is located, agreed to not charge full rent for the first year of the theater’s reopening. Escobar reopened the Tara with the help of Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Executive Director Kenny Blank, who has a relationship with the Halpern family and helped facilitate those conversations

According to Escobar, the Tara is doing double the numbers now that it was at the same time last year. However, it’s only doing 80% of the numbers it was doing at the same time in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously played a role in the amount of people going to movie theaters over the past three years, but the Plaza Theatre  – the other independent movie theater Escobar owns – is doing better business now than it was pre-pandemic, Escobar said. 

“We’re doing good,” Escobar said of business at the Tara. “But we need to be doing better by this time next year. And I think we’re heading that way.” 

While Escobar expected many of the challenges that come with opening a movie theater in 2023, there were still a few surprises. He said over the past two months, the Tara has experienced four power outages that have lasted more than an hour. 

“When we have these projectors with 6,000 watt bulbs and nine air conditioners cooling the building, it would be impossible for us to have a battery back-up for that much power,” Escobar said. 

Christopher Escobar

But despite some challenges, Escobar said he has felt validated in the business plan set forth for the Tara. Before the cinema’s reopening, it was announced that there would be screenings of older films as well as new releases. With the exception of the joint “Barbenheimer” weekend, the majority of the cinema’s ticket sales – nearly 60% – have been for older films rather than new ones. 

The Plaza also plays a healthy mix of old and new movies, but the differences between the two theaters have been eye-opening, Escobar said. At the Plaza, most people who come in have bought a ticket online. At the Tara, there are a lot more people walking up and deciding on the spot what they’d like to see that day.

“Because of that, it’s really hard to have a sense of how many people we’re going to have ultimately, because so much of it is walk-up sales as opposed to tickets in advance,” Escobar said. “That makes it kind of difficult to make sure we have the right amount of staff on hand and that sort of thing.” 

This difference could be chalked up to the demographics of each theaters’ audience. Escobar didn’t want to over-generalize, but said that there does tend to be an older crowd at the Tara. That age difference translates to movie times as well – at the Tara, movies should rarely start after 9 p.m. while at the Plaza, movies shouldn’t play before 3 p.m. except for maybe on a weekend. 

Escobar said that because so many tickets sold at the Tara are senior or matinee tickets, the Tara often has to sell a lot more tickets than the Plaza would for a similar film to make the same amount of money. Concessions also tend to be more popular at the Plaza, which sells liquor, beer and wine in addition to popcorn and candy (the Tara does not have a bar, but Escobar said one is in the works). However, Escobar also said that the people who do buy tickets online for movies at the Tara are far more likely to add a donation to that ticket price than their Plaza counterparts. The reopening of the Tara was accompanied by a fundraising campaign that raised over $50,000 in seven weeks. 

In the near future, the Tara will have a Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan retrospective, as well as an Alfred Hitchcock series. Escobar also said the Tara is looking to forge more community partnerships such as the Plaza’s ongoing relationships with organizations like Videodrome and Wussy Magazine. 

“I think the Tara will also have its own unique programming partners from the community,” Escobar said. “That’s also going to be an important part of its success.” 

He said no partners are firmed up right now, but he’s hoping to link up with organizations like the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and The Atlanta Opera. He also said there are plans to cycle through different decor in the Tara lobby, which includes the antique film equipment on display. On occasion, there will also be special exhibits. 

Escobar said throughout the reopening, he’s heard a lot of Plaza regulars say they’re going to make it a point to also visit the Tara, and vice versa. He said he hopes the Tara’s resurgence will remind moviegoers not to take independent theaters for granted. 

“People realize, oh yeah – these places don’t just exist regardless of me,” he said. “They can only continue to exist because I go to them and support them.”

Check out the current movie lineup and buy tickets here.

Christopher Escobar at the Tara. (Photo by Maria Saporta/Saporta Report)

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.