Jack and Jo Vest: The Chelsea joins the digital future

July 23, 2013 

My wife and I have loved watching movies on the big screen since before we were married.

When either of our careers necessitated a move, a primary benchmark when buying a new home was whether or not the community had an art-house cinema. Happily, that was true for us in Berkeley, Austin, and then the Washington, D.C., area.

An opportunity in Research Triangle Park 20 years ago brought us to this area. Corporate relocation services pushed us toward North Raleigh and Cary, but we settled here in Chapel Hill, in part due to the existence of the Chelsea Theater and The Varsity.

Before long the Carolina Theatre opened as a single-screen art-house cinema, as well. Visiting friends and family marveled at such good fortune without the hassles of living in a big city.

But it was too good to be true forever. The Carolina closed its door in 2005, and The Varsity converted from an art-house in 2009.

Yet the Chelsea has soldiered on. In the last few years, the two of us – a couple of its most ardent fans – have frequented The Chelsea less and less frequently. We were seduced away by the crisp digital projection of the chain theaters and spoiled by the big-screen high-definition TV at home. The flickering film projectors and aging screens of the last art-house cinema in town just did not measure up.

Since reading an article in The Boston Globe earlier this year that warned of the threat digital projection poses for small art-houses, we have worried about the future of The Chelsea and have consciously escalated our patronage.

In the near future, the national film industry will convert exclusively to digital projection. The cost to owners of small-town theaters to install each digital projector is $60,000 to $75,000. Many simply don’t have the capital to make the conversion.

But for those of us in Chapel Hill, this story does have a happy ending. Last Sunday, my wife and I went to a Chelsea matinee showing of “20 Feet From Stardom,” a documentary we missed last spring when it debuted to a full house at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Festival. We would have preferred to hear the music and see the old clips in digital, but films like this don’t make it to the big chains. So we were thrilled when we discovered that two of Chelsea Theater’s three screens now immerse you in the superior digital experience.

Thank you, Bruce Stone, for your investment in Chapel Hill’s future. Although we have no comparable mantra to Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird,” you are certainly doing your part to keep Chapel Hill wired.

We’ll be back – frequently.

Jack and Jo Vest live in Chapel Hill.

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