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Arthouse theater brings popular, local and classic films to Chapel Hill

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Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

The Chelsea Theater stands as the home of arthouse cinema in Chapel Hill. The old-fashioned picture-house is a bastion of classic Hollywood and foreign films — but the theater is by no means stuck in the past.

The Chelsea has been operating for 33 years, but recently the industry-wide shift from film to digital, a change in ownership and a global pandemic have forced the theater to adapt.

For the Chelsea’s first 23 years, the theater was unable to show films digitally. However, in 2013, most of the film industry switched to a digital standard, and the Chelsea was forced to follow suit.

“Investing in digital projectors allowed us to show everything,” the Chelsea Theater’s Executive Director Emily Kass, said. “Now we can show all the new films. Most of the older films have been converted — many of them have, some of them haven't — but this gives us the full range that pretty much any contemporary movie theater would have.”

The Chelsea’s new ability to show digital film allowed newer, more independent filmmakers — for many of whom shooting on film was far too expensive — to screen there. This accessibility helped the theater expand both its lineup of films and its audience.

In 2018, the original owners of the Chelsea, Bruce and Mary Jo Stone, decided to retire, planning either to sell or shut down the theater. Rather than let the Chelsea go under, a group of volunteers, including Emily Kass, came together to buy the theater.

“Within three months, between January and March, end of March 2018, we raised money, bought the business and turned the Chelsea into a nonprofit, and that all happened, and then we reopened seamlessly on April 30, 2018, so in a very short period of time,” Kass said. “That was a really great demonstration of how much the community wanted this theater and the kinds of films we show to remain.”

Becoming a nonprofit afforded the Chelsea increased financial freedom. Recently, they’ve introduced a membership program, which allows particularly devoted customers to contribute to the theater for an array of benefits, including discounted tickets and concessions.

In 2020, the Chelsea was hit with a third unprecedented change: the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic began, the theater was forced to close its doors for 13 months. When they reopened, attendance was low. While ticket sales have increased since their reopening, they still have not reached pre-pandemic levels.

The Chelsea is working to increase its attendance, specifically reaching out to UNC students and other younger members of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community. The theater has worked with student-run film appreciation organizations and is planning to collaborate with student filmmakers.

“There’s a grad student organization called Kino Corner,” associate professor Rick Warner, director of the film studies program at UNC, said. “It's a film viewing group, and there are often double features — and then there's a discussion of the film afterwards.”

Of late, the theater has been showing a wider variety of films — including an increased amount of horror features and re-runs, as well as midnight screenings.

“That's really cool because the whole midnight movie phenomenon, which really kind of started in the late '60s and the '70s, was totally catering to a new sophisticated college-age audience,” Warner said. “And it's nice to see that tradition come back.”

Since the pandemic and the rise of streaming services, the Chelsea is trying to build a local film community, Matt Brown, the Chelsea’s programmer and operations manager, said. 

“I think our goal is to be a community space and community theater as much as possible, to work with local filmmakers, and also local activist organizations and arts organizations as much as possible,” he said. “I would say that kind of community and familial feeling is what we're hoping to get for folks.”

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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