A Small Business Owner’s Dilemma

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S1: When I called up Chris Escobar, he was at work in downtown Atlanta. He owns an old movie theater called The Plaza. It’s got one of those big marquees and a neon sign. But right now, there’s no one buying popcorn, no projector flickering. Where were you sitting?

S2: So I keep oscillating between I’m sitting at a little high boy table in front of the bar area.

S3: Just pass the concession stand. But I’m I’m walking around a little bit, as I tend to do while I’m having conversations about this whole situation. And I pace and I’ll walk up and down the aisles of the empty auditorium.

S1: This whole situation is the Corona virus. Of course, the pauses been closed for more than a month.

S3: It feels like the room misses people to be here.

S1: Yeah, it feels like you miss people, too.

S2: I do. I really do.

S1: I heard the theater’s known for the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

S4: We are, so we’re not just known. I mean, it’s become an Atlanta tradition. It’s on the bucket list of all the things you need to do if you’re in Atlanta and it’s come to Rocky or and I like to say, for people whose religion is movies, the plaza is their temple and services. And Sunday mornings, it’s Fridays at midnight or The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

S1: This theater sells more tickets to The Rocky Horror Picture Show than any other theater in the country. At least 100 people are in the audience every week, four times that in October. They all dance along with a live cast who are doing their own synchronized floor show.

S2: Nothing messes with Rocky Horror Picture Show ever.

S1: But apparently the Corona virus tried to tell me tell me what the last show is like.

S2: Well, the last show in person was rather grim. We had maybe 30 people here, and it was where that’s where it got real.

S4: We started seeing people were nervous. You know, people were not only trying to keep their distance or trying, you know, like everyone’s like looking at whereby else. And I mean, you felt it honestly. And they this the cast and crew especially, you know, they knew something was looming. And they and they told me they said, look, we’re willing to do this as long as you are and as long as we feel like our folks are safe. But we knew there was no time for change it for sure.

S1: A few days later, the positve heater sent most of its staff home. If this seeder is a kind of church, Chris is its pastor walking up and down the pews every few days trying to figure out what to tell his congregation, especially now that the governor is saying it’s time for businesses like his to reopen. Today on the show, what opening the state back up again really means in Georgia, it’s forcing Crist to make some big decisions. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us. Chris, why a movie theater? Why do you own a movie theater?

S2: Because it needed to be protected.

S4: There were people who wanted to buy it and turn it into something else. And much like people before me, I could not stand by and see that happen. So I did all I could do, which was, you know, take a big amount of risk, but a few people together with me and about it. The last several owners of the plaza, honestly, have been people who did not have delusions of grandeur in that they’re going to make it rich in an industry that has less ticket sales. Historically, since 1939. But but it’s not a movie theater. It’s this movie theater.

S1: Did you grow up around the theater?

S2: I was originally born in Miami, but I moved to Georgia. I like to say it’s as fast as I could. I’ve been here more than half my life over 20 years, and I’m very much a product of Georgia. I went to public high school, Chapel Hill School, Douglas County. I was able to go to Georgia State University, which has one of the only film programs in the state and one of the oldest film programs did my masters there as well. All while I’ve been I’ve been working full time professionally for since I was 17. But I because of my grad school time at Georgia State, I got involved. Atlanta, its own society. And then because my moment would go away in its own society. I got involved at the Plaza Theater, which I had honestly never even stepped in the doors of before then. That was 2011. And the rest, as they say, is history.

S1: The Plaza Theater in Atlanta. It’s been around since 1939. Chris has operated it for the better part of a decade. He even held his late father’s funeral services here. When you hear Chris talk, you can feel his deep connection to this place and its history. So when he saw Governor Brian Kemp’s order allowing businesses to open back up, he was conflicted on the one hand. Chris is thinking about the safety of customers and employees. But on the other, he’s bleeding money.

S2: I do believe he’s trying to do what is, in his mind, the best thing for Georgia. I do honestly believe that even though I think he’s going about the wrong way, which is what was so for one, he hears he’s hearing from some, you know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people in the state who are unemployed right now. Keep in mind, like for in the recession, Georgia had some of the highest unemployment rates in the whole country and some of the highest foreclosure rates in the whole country. So it’s been painful. It’s been. And we’ve we’ve we’ve had pain, recent pain. And so he’s hearing from people who are going. I was told by the federal government that if I lose my job just because I’m an independent contractor or I’m a freelancer, that I’d be taken care of. And now that’s not the case. And they’re furious, rightly so. And the small business owners like me who’ve been told, you’ve got to shut down, you’ve got to do the right thing. We got to focus on this pandemic. But don’t worry. We’ll figure it out. We’ll make it work. We’re going to keep you alive. And they feel lied to. Because what, maybe 1 in 10 have actually gotten federal support. So they’re furious, too, and rightly so. And I get that right. Like firsthand. I get that.

S1: As of the time we recorded this, the plaza is closed. But as Chris starts thinking about when he’ll be showing movies again, he’s thinking about a staff from the beginning. He made this choice to be as transparent as he could with his workers, even when he didn’t have a lot of answers.

S2: Our staff and the people who come here and the building itself, I mean, they’re kind of indivisible, which is also why, for instance, has this all started going down?

S3: I was not willing to do what all the other movie theaters said, which is cut their staff, put them on unpaid leave and wish them good luck. I wasn’t willing to do that. And I said, you know, I don’t I don’t know how this is going to go down. And I know what you know, what we can do, but all we can do is all we can do. We’re gonna figure it out. We’re going to do it together.

S2: And so I told them, before you go on unemployment. I wanted to start drawing from your paid time off. And at first, some of them their hours, even though they didn’t come into work for three weeks, their paychecks didn’t change.

S1: Yeah. I mean, hearing you talk, it’s really clear that you value your staff and you want to do right by them. When did you have to start thinking? I’m gonna have to start cutting people’s hours here?

S2: Well, we did. And so this is the thing. It’s like this is what I talk about. It underlines the importance of managing expectations and being on the same page. So I started we we’re all in the slack and I started doing this very comprehensive slack updates to everybody and telling them, look, here’s what I know. Here’s what I don’t know. Here’s what I’m working on. And so, for instance, I remember very early on, I said, OK. Based on the money we have today, we have enough money where if we don’t bring in another dime, I can pay you for three more weeks. If we start doing ABC and D to save money, to start to generate money in other ways, that can be extended. Additionally, I’m working on all these efforts that might bring in funding that’ll also extend. And so as thick as the situation changes and and as we’re into two weeks or, you know, approaching that period where I told them, here’s what here’s what I know, what you can expect, at least for this amount of time. Then I give them another update. OK. So here’s our change. Here’s what’s gone. Here’s the money we’ve brought in. Here’s the money. It’s costed us. Here’s what is still not going to change or we still don’t know. So, again, here’s what the situation is. At least we think until this date we’d get a major donation. For instance, we had an incredible patron who donated to us. Seventy five hundred dollars. It was like that covers a week and a half of payroll. Myself and my number one priority was payroll. In terms of expenses. And I was very lucky that the previous owner, who because I’m still financing the purchase of this theater from the previous owner. And so he was very kind to offer to defer to payments. Right. I’m still gonna have to pay that money, so I’m still going to make it. But at least that gave me the flexibility, the cash flows to be able to prioritize paying folks.

S1: And so, you know, to have. Did you have to have a moment where you kind of made a list of here is everything I could pay. What am I going to pay this week?

S2: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Me constantly. Well, I’m always updating the lists. Damion work. I’m diving into the QuickBooks and knowing what to do when or what do I normally pay, when and what can I do to start bringing in revenue? One of the things we did was started selling plaza passes and vouchers like go ahead and buy a ticket to a future screening TBD of your choosing.

S3: And people started buying those and we probably sold like two thousand dollars for their tickets at thirteen dollars apiece. You can do the math. That’s awesome, right? People are going at the risk of this theater, never existing. I’d rather go ahead and buy a ticket to make it, but that much more possible that it will.

S1: You talked about that list of like what do you pay? What do you not pay? What if you just not paid?

S3: Well. So for one, I looked at my local vendors, like the guy who supplies us the bulbs for a projector or the electrician who occasionally has to deal with the mess of an 80 year old buildings electric. Look, I’m looking at them the same as my voice. These are these are local people, local business owners. I’m not going I’m not going to make them wait for their money.

S2: That being said, when there’s a mega corporation who you know, who I buy always pay early anyway, like they can wait for their money. They’re gonna get their money one way or another. Has to come out of my personal checking account, whatever. They’re going to get their money, but I’m going to prioritize paying my people who may not eat if they don’t get this paycheck. So film distributors at the back of the line. It’s like, yeah. Now they’ve been get their money now slowly. I’m probably one of the only people sending the money, frankly, because unlike the chains who told their property owners, hey, just so you know, we’re not gonna be paying rent.

S3: I don’t have that ability to do that. I don’t have the ability to tell people, oh, we’re not paying you until TBD. No, I have. I have no no leverage here. Because you’ve got a mortgage. I have. I have a lease lease. I have a very expensive, constantly skyrocketing lease that is already, you know, double what it was two years ago when Chris looks at his lease and his payroll.

S1: He kind of understands where the governor is asking small businesses to open back up again. It’s just easier over the last month. Chris has been trying what seems like a hundred different ways to bring in revenue. He started selling movie popcorn to go. And then he moved the Rocky Horror Picture Show online, called it the Rocky Horror Quarantine Show. He applied for some aid grants from foundations. The federal government, pretty much anyone he could find. How many how many grants or relief packages do you estimate you’ve applied for? Easily 10.

S3: And yeah, I kind of lost count. Yes, at least 10.

S1: I mean, I was curious if you had applied for the stimulus funding. Small business?

S2: Yeah, small business, having heard nothing. The irony is we don’t have a big staff. We know big payroll. And the payroll protection program is only based on the size of your payroll. And then even though you’re allowed to use a portion of. Things like rent and utilities, the amount you get is not based on that at all. So if you have skyrocketing rent like I do, I can use it for that. But it’s not going to, you know, so literally by design, it’s it’s a Band-Aid. It’s not going to be like, OK, well, I was able to make up at least a sizable amount of the amount of money I would have made to cover all my lighting. No, not even close. It’s such a mess.

S1: Such a mess. Some people theorize that your governor made this decision because he was worried about how many people were applying for unemployment in your state. And just looking at this fund being depleted, what a business owner needed.

S2: He’s also looking at the people who had been told they would be eligible. But never mind. Just kidding. No, you’re not. Got the middle finger. So he’s thinking about those people who are furious and rightly so. Think about the business owners who are furious and rightly so. And so he’s going to do something. And this is one thing I can do is I can get out of the way. He’s like when I know if I don’t have all the resources to do what needs to be necessary, then I can at least get out of the way and let people at least have some legal room to figure something out. And I’m not going to because he’s not encouraging people to bust open the doors and to go and spend money. And don’t be stupid. He’s just going we’re gonna we’re gonna stop not letting you figure out something.

S1: So you’re not open now. And it sounds like you don’t plan to open this week even. Well, sort of. Well, so when do you plan open?

S2: The weird thing is we’ve been closed for 40 days. Yeah, I haven’t worked this hard ever. I’m working seven days a week. And, you know, my my my family and kids are very great and very patient. But with any luck at all, things go well. We’re going to start a plaza pop up Drive-In right here in the back of the theater. And we have a 20 foot wide screen. We’ve figured out all the angles of the projection, all the logistics. We’re gonna have forty nine cars, Max. People are going to only buy their tickets online.

S1: We’re gonna see Django buy a screen or just a screen from the theater.

S3: Oh, God, no. No. That would be sacred. Luckily, I have a 20 foot inflatable professional screen. I have a sixty five hundred HD projector. I was able to borrow from a good friend, an F1 translator, so that we can transmit the audio. Boom. Those are three things I need right now. The rest is figuring out logistics, right? How do I make it where no one ever has to come in contact with anyone that they’re not sheltering in place with? And so have you know, what are the sightlines? What are the angles? How do we deal with ambient light? What about foods, for instance? We’re encouraging people to bring food, ideally from a neighboring restaurant. We’re gonna be providing links of those that are nearby that are doing carry out, which they need the business. We’re also going to alternatively offer our concessions, but you have to order it online and you’ll enter your card number and we’ll bring it out to your car. Car hop style. We’re encouraging people to use the bathrooms before they come in. They come to the theater. But you absolutely have to go to the bathroom. We’re gonna limit the number of people who go into the building to use the restroom. One to the men’s, one in the women’s so that no one’s in another room. In a room with somebody else at the same time. So we thought through every component of the daylight savings is in place. So our screenings can’t start until like 8:45. So we’re gonna try and do two screenings tonight. But the beauty is consider we’re in a residential neighborhood. If you’re standing outside the parking lot, it just looks like a bunch of cars parked. You would never hear anything going on.

S1: You never notice anything going on because people get the audio through their car stereo. The radio. Exactly. Exactly. This is like the Muppet Movie where they’re like, let’s put on a show. And then by the end, there’s an actual show.

S2: Yeah, but I mean, here’s the thing. Look, I got trained as an independent filmmaker. Everything I’ve done my life so far of any note is because I approached it like making a movie. How do I pull off this smoke and mirrors thing with virtually no money? And being as insignificant as I am, I do with favors, with goodwill, tenacity that makes it possible.

S1: I told Chris that when I picture him, it’s like that old saying about ducks, how they look calm on the surface, but underneath the water they are paddling furiously. I wanted to know what it’s been like in his head over the last month. The mental strain of all this. He, of course, answered by referencing a movie.

S2: I keep thinking about the scene in Indiana Jones. Where have you seen the movie? I have, but it was a long time ago. Of course, this is that. So just quickly remind you, he’s looking for the Holy Grail.

S5: His dad, Sean Connery, is on this quest with him. He’s overcome all these obstacles on the end. You know, in the stereotypical Indiana Jones fashion. And he approaches this opening like a huge, like endless pit. And the place he needs to get to is, you know, 40 feet away so easily. There should be a bridge there, but there isn’t. There is only certain defillo and you must hurry. And he remembers that you have to have faith. And his dad is whispering in the believe that he believes. And so what he does is he steps out and takes this leap of faith. And lo and behold, turns out when the camera cuts around, it’s an optical illusion. And there actually is a step there that you would only know and catch. Should you take this leap of faith? And that’s kind of me, right?

S2: I am stepping out and going, I hope people are going to, you know, contribute. I’m hoping that any one of these applications or or a number of them are going to come through. For me to panic and give up or to get overwhelmed isn’t going to do anybody any good. There’s too much on the line between the people whose livelihoods are depending on this place. There’s too much on the line in terms of culturally what this place means to the community. It’s too much on the line in terms of all the people who have either owned this place or have contributed their blood, sweat and tears to keeping this place open. And so I’m going to keep paddling two years here analogy and keep doing everything I possibly can.

S1: You know, you you clearly relish history. You are leasing this historic theater in Atlanta, but you are like just such a hustler.

S2: That’s Atlanta, though. See, that’s the thing. So you got to thinking about this thing, about the guy who was living out of his car and now is the biggest media mogul on the planet. Tyler Perry. Right. You think about that crazy business owner who sold his family’s billboard business, invested all of it into this crazy new technology called cable. And then he turns around, starts buying old movies to show on TV, and then starts a 24 hour news network. That’s Ted Turner, right? You think about the the guy who was born in the house, three doors down from where the church is that it was preaching. And he would go on to be the preacher and then go on to lead the movement that gets America one step closer to the American promise. Dr. King, that’s a plan. That’s Georgia.

S3: I’m not from here, but I’m a product of Jordan.

S1: Well. Good. Good luck to you.

S2: Thank you.

S1: I held on to life. I know. I feel like it’s hard to not be emotional right now, but I’m really grateful for your time.

S2: Thankfully, I have more more to be grateful for than to be afraid of.

S1: Good luck out there. Thank you again. Take care.

S6: Bye. Christopher Escobar is the owner of the Plaza Theater in Atlanta. He’s also the executive director of the Atlanta Film Society. As we do at the end of most shows, I’m going to implore you to give us a call, tell us what you’re seeing out there in quarantine. What’s keeping you calm? What do you still have questions about? Let us know where at 2 0 2 8 8 8 2 5 8 8. Your voicemail could become part of the show. What next? Is produced by Jason De Leon, Mara Silvers, Daniel Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We get a lot of editorial support from Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.