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City Beautiful 21 » Art, Carrboro, Chapel Hill, Culture, Economic Development, Quick Hits » The Chelsea Theater’s Future is In Question. Is The ArtsCenter the Answer?

The Chelsea Theater’s Future is In Question. Is The ArtsCenter the Answer?

This evening I caught the Herald-Sun article announcing that Chapel Hill’s Chelsea Theater may be near the end of its run. Having seen many films there and having given my spouse Chelsea gift certificates for many birthdays, this is a gut punch and a sad reckoning for arthouse and related films in Chapel Hill / Carrboro.

The article states:

“Now in the last year of our current five-year lease, with only a handful of months to go, we must make some serious choices about the future of the Chelsea Theater,” the release said. “Given the advancing years of the current owner it might be difficult committing to another five year lease. And yet there may be some interest in continuing the legacy of the Chelsea.”

The theater is asking interested parties to reach out to the theater via email.

Cutting to the chase, unless there is some deep-pocketed film aficionado interested in taking over the labor of love that has been Bruce Stone’s stewardship of the Chelsea (and previously the Varsity), then there is one obvious organization to ask if they are interested in stepping into the breach: The ArtsCenter.

It wouldn’t be the first time an arthouse theater has gone the non-profit route to stay in business. The Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, MA made the move in 1989. A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem did, too, in the past 7 years.

What’s different from both of these other situations is that these locations were stand-alone operations without other infrastructure that they needed to develop to execute their plans. The ArtsCenter already has a box office, online ticket sales, a wine/beer permit, and people who know about running a theater, not to mention a non-profit board in place. Clearly there’s a space question to be managed, but 300 East Main has a few spaces that aren’t fully leased and maybe there’s a temporary opportunity that could be figured out while larger programming questions about the ArtsCenter’s footprint downtown could be managed.

So what’s in this idea for various parties?

For the ArtsCenter, it presents an opportunity to open up a new fundraising and stakeholder channel around arthouse films like the two theaters above, in addition to embracing a new level of film engagement.

For Carrboro, it’s a potential downtown economic development opportunity that fits with the town’s brand that is authentic, artistic, and independent.

For film fans, it’s a chance to put their money where their mouth is and support the Chelsea as the community institution it is. Our household currently buys tickets to ArtsCenter events a la carte. I’m certain that if the ArtsCenter made this move, we’d become members, and I bet others would, too.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to "The Chelsea Theater’s Future is In Question. Is The ArtsCenter the Answer?"

  1. BrianR says:

    I think this is a great idea. But truly… deep pockets are needed. Ten years of operating expenses deep imho.

    A non-profit should be a fiscal sponsor. Local property owners need to provide free rent for at least five years. ESPECIALLY if it’s done in Carrboro. Hell, even Durham isn’t cheap anymore!

    Plus some really energetic and innovative people running it. The whole business model of selling tickets to a movie is totally rigged. The cost of renting the films and selling tickets just doesn’t provide a big enough profit margin. A space would have to used for lots of purposes. I’m sure the folks who saved the Varsity in Chapel Hill could provide the run down. I’m sure it isn’t pretty.

    About ten years ago I started a campaign to bring a movie theatre to Carrboro. It got some interest. If someone would have funded it I would have bled and sweat to make it happen. I’m not in a position to do it on the cheap anymore. But I love the work though.

    In the ’90s I was a projectionist at a 14 screen chain theater and at a one screen movie palace. Got to do every job in a movie theater. Even then being a small screen place was a really tough business.

    As you mentioned the way places like The Lyric in Blacksburg, VA is a non-profit it. It survives with lots of different services besides showing films. Live music by famous musicians that can regularly draw a crowd is important. I think that stuff and regular film festivals is one reason the Carolina in Durham came back from the brink of bankruptcy. Also the City of Durham bought the Carolina building and a talented/hard working Executive Director worked their ass off.

    Party of me wishes I was younger and more naive. A smart woman once told me, “Sometimes I don’t tell students what the barriers are ahead and they just go right through them like they weren’t there.” But I’m not her. 🙂

  2. Patrick says:

    I appreciate the real talk on the economics. That’s why I think the ArtsCenter is the best shot to save the theater- some of the diversification of the use of the space is already happening there.

    The Coolidge Theater in Brookline has taken your advice to heart and programs their space as close to around-the-clock as is reasonable.

    Infant-and-Parent Oriented Programs:

    Late Night/Insomniac Programs:

    Science Stuff:

    I think the membership model could attract funds not only from individuals, but from restaurants/etc that see the cinema as an amenity that brings more diners downtown.

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