The announcement that the Atlanta Film Festival 365 was taking over operations for the Plaza in March, was generally welcomed by the community. (Disclaimers: As Co-City Producer of the Atlanta 48 Hour Film Project (48HFP), I've forged a longstanding relationship with the Plaza Theatre. As the former Executive director of Atlanta Film Festival 365 (ATLFF365), I've had little direct involvement with the non-profit film organization since we parted ways in 2010. ) This June, we continued our commitment to premier the 48HFP screenings at the Plaza. It was my first opportunity to experience this burgeoning relationship first-hand, and to check-in on how things are developing now that ATLFF365 has had time to settle in.
What follows is from an email exchange with the ATLFF365 leadership team, Charles Judson and Chris Escobar.
1. Now that the Plaza and the Atlanta Film Festival 365 are working together, how is the relationship going? What have been the immediate benefits to this collaboration? What are the challenges to working together?
Atlanta Film Festival 365 is coming in to handle the operations and programming. As of the moment it’s still a mix of ATLFF and The Plaza staff like Jonny dealing with that. But, as of the last few weeks and months more and more of that is falling into ATLFF’s hands. So rentals, when you’re booking them now, that’s almost 95% one of us from ATLFF handling that. The biggest benefit, and this speaks to your second question, has been the response from other organizations. Many events and groups hadn’t even considered The Plaza as an option and after we announced this partnership folks started coming to us with ideas and asking about how they can rent The Plaza. ATLFF's visibility lent to the Plaza. We’ve already seen success in that in August, we have more rentals (and revenue from those rentals) than any other month in the last two years.
The immediate benefit has been to merge our membership programs. ATLFF365 and The Plaza members now share benefits. Plaza members now get a free ATLFF365 membership and vice versa. That’s allowed us to then work more to add more values for both groups and bring in exclusive member screenings on a more regular basis. Not having our own theater has been a challenge over the years and now we have that and we can much more quickly and cost effectively put these events together. Plaza not having the access or the vision to program effective films has been it’s challenge. In July, we were able to use ATLFF365’s connections to put together an early screening of Beasts of the Southern Wild and make it free to all our members. The event was a huge success and showed the need and potential.
There’s admittedly still some growing pains. We all collectively have years of experience running festivals, events, venues, but this is still somewhat of a unique experience. So putting in the lines of communications, deciding who on programming handles working with large events and who handles week runs, etc, are still being developed as we go along.
2. How has the public responded to the news? How are audiences responding?
Public and audience response has been very positive. People are really glad and excited to hear that we’re joining with the Plaza to make this place a success. It’s little early to say if numbers are increasing overall. However, as we’ve been bringing in more events like ASIFA-Atlanta and offering Plaza and ATLFF365 members more screenings, we’ve seen individual screenings bring in larger audiences. On many weeks and days it’s brought a new level of energy.
3. For those attending films at the Plaza, what changes and improvements are the evident result of this partnership?
There are some more immediate changes that are evident and some that are still in progress. We made the decision, prior to the festival that we would purchase new HD projectors, through a relationship with Optoma Technology. The projectors made our non-35mm films look better than any year before and now those projectors live year-round at the Plaza. We’ve been able to upgrade the cinema processor we’ve had downstairs so we could move the old one upstairs. That one change has allowed us to start booking upstairs rentals on a more regular basis. Both of these improvements allow us to make the changes necessary to facilitate a greater variety of films and events that before were not possible.
The improvement in video quality with the festival’s HD projectors has been one of the changes many have noticed and have been extremely happy about. Others are like with the merging of our membership programs and you’ll see more of that show up online with more details.
4. What are the five keys to the long-term success of the Plaza Theatre? What are the keys to the long terms success of the Festival? How to these objectives align?
PARTNERSHIP: When the Rej’s bought the theatre years back, that was step one. ATLFF365 coming on board is really just step two. We’re hoping to pool together partners that will really fill out the support this theatre needs to not just survive, but truly thrive. One really exciting partner that is stepping in is the Fox Theatre Institute. They’re an effort from the Fabulous Fox Theatre dedicated to preserving and restoring historic theatres in Georgia. The best part about this is that they’re doing this to use these theatres as a catalyst for positive changes in those communities using the theatre as a spark. FTI is working with us to develop a fully vetted plan to restoring the theatre and advising on aspects of management that few others are authorities on like they are.
We’re hoping for, looking for and inviting organizations, companies and individuals to work with us in ways that benefit them and benefit the Plaza. These can be financial or in-kind sponsorships, cross promotion, etc. Making the Plaza Theatre a success will only happen with enough hands on deck and now is the time to join us.
MANAGEMENT: Closing the financial gap. Unlike many arthouse venues, The Plaza’s main events, like ROCKY HORROR and SPLATTER CINEMA have been strong enough to support the theatre. However, one bad month can undermine the contribution those events make, so having some more successful programs can make a big difference in closing the gap. When you look at it as a per month average, it’s not that much. So with some smart approaches, we should be able to find the rentals and events that can close that. The reality is the these successful programs are a very small fraction of the calendar. Which means that there is lots of opportunity to make a big difference.
We will do this by stabilizing and diversifying revenue. As with any business, it’s when you have volatile revenue coming in, one event is sold out the next one only has a handful of people, it makes it difficult to make plans or take risks. Finding ways to make sure every screening hits a minimum threshold means we’re not having to worry about homeruns or hitting triples. A nice steady flow of single hits will mean we can take a loss or two, but the range of other events will even everything out.
This also means that we need to find additional sources of revenue that the Plaza had not really been able to seek out. In addition to revenue from things that ATLFF365 has experience in seeking like sponsorships and grants, ATLFF365 is working towards finding ways of improving concession sales, rentals, memberships and giving. Every successful art house has revenue from alcohol sales—that’s a big question that we’re going to have to figure out how to solve.
PROGRAMMING: Focus is on programming. There are only 3 major independent and arthouse theatres in Atlanta and we all share the same challenges, as well as rewards, of showing films that have none of the major marketing of studio tentpole films and/or can at times be niche. The big difference is that the two other theatres are part of large theatre chains which not only helps their risk, but it means they have access to films that shuts out the Plaza for weeks or months. That means that being smarter about what we program and why we program what we do is a major key but necessary.
The Plaza is a great space for live events and we’re looking to do more of those. But, we’re also looking to bring in more events and creating a greater diversity of what is possible to take place at Plaza; be they conferences, be they screenings, or festivals, or meetings. Not too many people go to a movie on a Monday or a Tuesday, but they are more willing to see a comedy show, or a live performance. We recently had a fantastic show where Reggie Watts came and performed his unique blend of music and comedy—it was sold out!
Continuing to do things like that where we work with promoters, groups or even book events ourselves that broaden what the Plaza can offer is key. Having that diversity of events will mean that the Plaza will be sustainable to continue to mean what it does for so many, and mean that for so many more. That will mean investment and work to make that investment effective, but ultimately we think it will pay off.
MARKETING & OUTREACH: The Plaza doesn’t have a huge marketing budget. But, with just a few more fliers, increased social media presence and connecting with groups on individual films and events, there’s a lot of that that can be made up through sweat equity. The more any organization has to rely on regulars to sustain them, the more risky the ground is. When you can get a diverse mix of regulars, semi-regulars and infrequent guests, the more you can go achieve the goal of stabilizing and spreading the revenue.
COMMUNITY: Changing Perception to Participation. The strength of The Plaza is it has great emotional value to so many. The weakness of The Plaza is that it has great emotional value to so many. The real power of The Plaza isn’t it as a building, but as a gathering place that people build and rebuild with their ideas and their involvement. While in the short term Save X campaigns work, in the long term its finding ways to make The Plaza a weekly and monthly destination venue for people who not only may dig The Room and Rocky Horror Picture Show, but also for people like older audiences who dig seeing some of the classic and cult films just as much as younger audiences. It’s getting groups to come in and have them create the programming that will attract folks because they want to participate in something cool and fun and not just because it feels like an obligation. Our goal is for the Plaza to truly become a community hub and with that we need to make sure that everything is geared towards giving people a reason to want to be here, making sure they have the best time possible and continuously evaluating if we’re doing everything we can to make that happen.
Because we have to be honest with ourselves. If you’re only coming because you’re afraid The Plaza is going to disappear, you’re probably not thinking of The Plaza as one of your go to spots. And if you’re thinking of it that way, you’re probably only coming a handful of times a year at best.
The more reasons people have where they feel they can come to The Plaza to be a part of something, the better. It is our job to give them those reasons.
In the end, ATLFF365’s mission is geared towards creating and promoting experiences for Atlanta that moves them, inspires them, entertains them and engages them—all through cinema. Plaza’s mission is geared towards being the place where that happens.
5. How are these fundraisers being applied—is it for operating funds, debt buy-down, DCP conversion?
The fundraisers have been mostly targeted to equipment and filling gap funding that will allow us to build up the programs and initiatives that can bring in revenue. An example is rentals. With the ability to offer both theaters The Plaza can generate the operating funds it needs organically as a rental venue and that empowers the theatre to be self-sustaining.
6. How big a piece of the puzzle is technology, and how big a piece is management, programming and marketing?
Right now, those pieces go completely hand-in-hand. Technology alone, (such as converting to DCP) is not going to bring in audiences without effective programming and marketing to make it best utilized. While DCP means access to films that wouldn’t otherwise be available on DVD, HD, Film, etc., not everything will be on DCP for some time. At the same time, having effective programming and marketing won’t matter if titles are disappearing on any format other than DCP. So it’s a delicate balance that requires flexibility of technology necessary for robust programming and the management in place to know how to balance those needs.
7. How is the Plaza going to be utilized by the festival in March/April?
We’re still determining the specifics, but, we’re definitely planning on an increased presence at The Plaza for 2013 and utilizing it as a more integrated part of the festival. The Plaza over the years has always been one of the more recognizable anchors of the festival. Yet, that’s usually been for a handful of screenings. Next year it will be more of a hub for activity and be a place to hangout and not just a destination for screenings.
8. Tell us about any new programming initiatives this collaboration is making possible? And anything else people should know as they contribute to the Plaza and the Film Festival at this week's fundraising events.
The new programming is where a lot of our recent focus has gone into and in August we’re starting to phase in the new programming. Among the new changes we’re bringing are the Plaza Premieres. We’re looking to bringing first-run films that perhaps have played the Atlanta Film Festival, the festival circuit or self-distributing to Atlanta and to use a combination of what we’ve learned at the festival with what we can take from events and venues like Rooftop Films, New Beverly, Cinefamily and Alamo Drafthouse to make screenings at The Plaza more unique. It will also give us an opportunity to bring more films to Atlanta that normally wouldn’t come.
In that, we’re also looking at what we can program that ties in more thematically with what’s happening locally and just date wise. As an example, on November, we’re looking to program one of the ATLFF films from this year’s fest for a run that’s tied into Veteran’s Day. One of the films we’ll be programming for August we’re looking to tie it a bit into the Olympics.
In September we’ll start programming a monthly film series with a new installment each weekend. Kubrick leading the charge first, Universal Monsters following in October and in November tying into the release of The Man With the Iron Fist and Django Unchained, we’re working on putting together a 7 Badassess of Cinema series. With those we’ll have double features attached to some films and we’ll be looking to bring in speakers such as filmmakers and subject experts who can introduce films and give them context.
Another change is that we’ve dedicated a slot on Thursday at 9:30pm as a "Community" slot. We’ll be partnering with groups like WonderRoot or Contraband Cinema and businesses like Videodrome to help program that slot on a weekly basis. The first one for August will be the Atlanta Film Festival Georgia Shorts with the second one being WonderRoot’s "Generally Local, Mostly Independent Film Series."
We’re also working with more events such as A3C Hip Hop Festival to not just be a venue, but to play a role in programming and presenting those events. For A3C, along with WonderRoot who also has a major role in this, we’re helping launch their film festival. We’ve been discussing everything from the scheduling, to the content to the ticket prices. Right now ATLFF/The Plaza are chasing down films while WonderRoot focuses on the areas they’re portion of the programming.
A few weeks ago we worked with ASIFA-Atlanta on "Roll Your Own" and that was a great success, exceeding the anticipated numbers, all while taking a risk on charging for an event that in years past had been totally free.
By working with more events, it’s a way to make sure The Plaza gets strong programming that will bring in audiences and creates a greater sense of community.
The biggest changes, and goals, is moving from predominantly programming 10 days out to programming 45 days or more out, and creating more sections that repeat on a regular basis. We want the community to get used to the idea that every 9:30pm on Thursday or Sunday Afternoon at 3pm they can expect a certain type of film or event without ever having to look it up. We also want to be able to start printing out a monthly calendar that we can start posting and sharing that’s very much in the vein of what you see Eddie’s Attic and other venues do.
Ultimately, everything we’re working on targets the inseparable aspects of making the Plaza a success. That means strong and diverse sources of revenue, effective management, programming, marketing and bringing together partners to help us make that happen.
GET CONNECTED, to raise funds for the Plaza Theatre is Thursday July 26 from 6 - 11 pm at the Foundry at Puritan Mill. Cash only: $10 admission, $5 valet parking
Supporters can also donate here: http://plazaatlanta.com/DONATE.html
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