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Jonathan and Gayle Rej kept the Plaza afloat for six years. (Photo by Frank Mullen)

A staple in Atlanta since the late 1930s, the independently owned Plaza Theatre, the city’s oldest movie theater, has a new owner. Michael Furlinger, who is no stranger to the world of running movie theaters, is taking over.

Previous owners Jonathan and Gayle Rej announced last year that they were looking to sell the Plaza. Furlinger didn’t see that initial announcement, but when he inquired earlier this year, he discovered its availability and moved forward.

Furlinger, who has worked for the Cineplex Odeon chain in New York and owned two theaters in Charleston — the Terrace and an IMAX — has long wanted to operate one in the Atlanta area. He tried to do so six years ago, looking at the Plaza as well as the former Garden Hills Theatre, but nothing panned out. “[The owners] of the Garden Hills would not lease to me,” he says. “They said the building was supposed to come down.” (The building is still intact.)

During that time, he heard about the Terrace in Charleston, took it over, retooled it and made it successful before selling it in 2010.

Now Furlinger finally gets his own cinema in Atlanta. His first day on the job is today. His goal is to move the historic theater forward while keeping the touches that have made it unique. The staff will remain the same, but he plans on fully renovating the Plaza with new seats, carpet and floors over an eight-week period. Furlinger also owns several gourmet food shops around the country, and he wants to incorporate new concessions into the Plaza’s mix.

Perhaps the most important advancement, however, is adding digital capabilities. Jonathan Rej said in a press release that that component is essential to keep the theater current.

“35mm film is quickly being phased out, and very soon the only way to show a movie in the theater will be DCP (Digital Cinema Package),” Rej said. “We are excited [Furlinger] is willing to make these investments to help the Plaza Theatre secure a place in the future of Atlanta. [He] will be getting state-of-the-art DCP digital projectors.”

Michael Furlinger

Furlinger will keep 35mm prints of Plaza favorites The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room on hand for regular screenings, but the digital format will give the theater capabilities to show more current films. The installation is scheduled for January 11.

The digital upgrade will allow him to expand the theater’s programming. The Plaza hosts first-run titles, but rarely if ever at the same time other theaters do. “It’s usually eight to 10 weeks later,” he says.  “We want to be ‘on the brink’ — to have them there the same time as they are at other area locations.” Ideally, the Plaza will have a first-run film in the bigger auditorium downstairs and an “eclectic” one in the secondary upstairs house. Furlinger will be working with his own booking and buying company to schedule films.

Built in 1939, the Plaza was the home of live theater and various events until 1983, when it was taken over by George Lefont as an art house theater. After he sold it, it was bought and owned for six years by the Rejs.

Earlier this year, the Plaza hosted the world premiere of Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton, as part of the Atlanta Film Festival (AFF).”The Plaza Theatre is the theater I’ve been going to for close to 700 years,” Hampton told ARTS ATL at the time. “I love that place. I’ve seen thousands of movies there. The Variety Playhouse used to be the Euclid Theatre; I would go there as a kid, and to the Plaza. It cost a dime to get in.”

The Plaza will also continue to work with the AFF on various programming throughout the calendar year. AKA Blondie, from last year’s AFF, debuted at the Plaza and was the biggest film in the festival. It even spawned a limited theatrical release there. Furlinger is excited to continue that tradition.

Another highlight will be the premiere of a newly digitized zombie film, White Zombies with Bela Lugosi, on January 18. The movie was restored in Atlanta. Other Plaza events will remain the same, such as the Silver Scream Spookshow, Splatter Cinema, Taboo La-La and Wonderroot’s Local Film Night.

Furlinger is aware that small independent theaters such as the Plaza are in a precarious position, especially compared with the multiplexes and their capabilities. But he feels that “mom and pop” theaters are generally the place where serious filmgoers go, “without texting or cell phone use” in the auditorium. To compete, though, those houses must have high amibitions. “To be successful long term, the Plaza is going to have to think bigger,” Furlinger says.

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