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Chealsea Theater looks forward after 23 years of business

Bruce Stone came to love films as a young man, first through an undergraduate encounter with Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” and then through a series of Federico Fellini films during a weekend in New York City.

“I thought, ‘This is not your mother’s moviegoing experience’,” Stone said, “so I got interested in foreign films and different films and kept an eye on it as a college student.”

He and Mary Jo Stone are the owners of the Chelsea Theater, Chapel Hill’s prime spot for artistic, foreign and independent films since its opening 23 years ago this month. Up until 2009, the Stones also ran the Varsity Theatre on Franklin Street for 10 years.

“The support of (the Chelsea’s) lineup of quality independent and foreign films is absolutely critical to the continued development of Chapel Hill’s cultural identity,” said Dana Coen, a communication studies professor at UNC who specializes in play, screen and television writing.

After graduate school, a teaching stint and involvement with a film society in Montpelier, Vt., Stone came to Chapel Hill inspired to start the Chelsea.

Despite the romanticism of his and the theater’s tale, it is one grotesque incident at the Chelsea that sticks out.

“We showed ‘The Blair Witch Project’,” Stone said. “We were showing it on two screens, and we were packed and it was crazy,” he said.

“People were throwing up in the bathrooms because the camera work was so jittery and so jumpy that they got travel sick.”

“The Blair Witch Project” was one of the hit films that helped the theater expand from the two screens it opened with in 1990 to the three-screen space it is today.

Stone said the theater has been well-embraced by the community and that it has a growing audience of seniors and retirees. But he said there is another demographic that seems to be missing.

“The college audience used to come out here, they don’t so much anymore,” Stone said. “They mostly, I guess, go to Southpoint or Netflix or download stuff off the Internet.”

The ease and availability of online access to movies seems to be a deciding factor in the decline of the Chelsea’s college audience.

“I usually watch indie movies on Netflix, since it has a great selection and it’s more convenient than going to a theater,” said Emma Wooley, a sophomore whose choice films include “The Kids Are All Right,” “Submarine” and “Tiny Furniture.”

While the college audience at the Chelsea may appear to be dwindling, the theater still plays a role in the lives of those studying fields related to the film industry. In fact, a former Chelsea employee and UNC graduate, Jacob Hatley, had a special showing of his 2013 film “Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm” at the theater.

“He showed up with his family and friends, we had a nice couple of nights and he did a question and answer,” Stone said.

“We’ve had a lot of people that worked here go to film school (University of) North Carolina School of the Arts, that kind of stuff.”

With the holidays coming and renovations underway, Stone is optimistic about the Chelsea’s near future.

“It’s always exciting when the holidays come with the art movies because you get awards season and all the movies start rolling down the chute, so to speak — that’s good,” Stone said.

“We are undergoing converting to digital projection, which is a very large expense. We’ve gotten part of the way there. I’m having a little bit of a fundraiser right now to try to get the funds in because 35 mm film, as you probably know, is sort of ending,” he said.

“That’s our biggest challenge right now, you have to finish what you started.”

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