The Chelsea Theater enters the digital age

CorrespondentSeptember 6, 2013 

— The independent arthouse cinema is an endangered species these days.

With the proliferation of ginormous multiplex theaters on one side, and expanding home video options on the other, the old neighborhood arthouse is getting squeezed.

In Chapel Hill, only one theater remains that still regularly screens first-run specialty films – independent and foreign titles that normally fly below the radar. Since 1990, the Chelsea Theater on the north end of town – off Weaver Dairy Road in the Timberlyne shopping center – has catered to a particular segment of Chapel Hill’s cinephile community.

The Chelsea entered a new phase this summer when owner Bruce Stone took the plunge and converted two of the venue’s three screens to digital projection systems. The new systems replace the old 35-mm projectors, standard in the movie exhibition business for decades. It’s the way of the future: Virtually all of the bigger movie houses have converted to digital, and the entire distribution model for 35mm is fading away with surprising quickness.

Sitting at the counter of the Chelsea’s concession stand on a recent weekday afternoon, Stone said the digital switchover almost didn’t happen – and that the Chelsea almost didn’t survive.

“It’s a lot of money,” Stone said. In addition to purchasing the new projectors, Stone had to hire a technician to come in and dismantle the old 35mm units, then wire the new projectors into the existing sound system.

“At one point I was going to do a bake sale or a fundraiser or something,” Stone said. “A lot of other art theaters have done that – they just appeal to their patrons. For $1,000 you get a coffee cup and T-shirt, or whatever. I thought about it. You have to dig up money where you can.”

Gesturing up the stairs to the newly outfitted projection booths, Stone winces slightly. “Half of this is from my retirement, half of it’s from the business.”

Goodbye, celluloid

Touring his visitor around the cramped projection booths, Stone said that the new projectors definitely make the technical side of the movie exhibition business much easier. “Oh yeah, it’s great. You just turn them on and hit some buttons.”

Mounted on makeshift plywood platforms, the new projectors are about the size of a large suitcase. As opposed to the old 35mm rigs, partially dismantled to the side, which are the size of a small Buick. New films come in on external hard drives instead of multiple reels of delicate celluloid.

The difference in quality between the old 35mm equipment and the new digital systems can be startling.

At a recent 35mm screening of the coming-of-age dramedy “The Way Way Back,” the on-screen image was a real mess – scratched up and slightly out of focus. There was apparently an issue with the projection bulb as well, because the colors were clearly off and for the first 30 minutes the screen gave off a headache-inducing flicker.

By contrast, a showing of “Lee Daniel’s The Butler” the next weekend featured a crystal clear image. Stone’s customers are noticing the change.

“The difference is huge,” said Chapel Hill resident Alan Dehmer, who said the “Butler” screening was the first he’d seen at the Chelsea with the new digital projection system. “It’s so crisp and clear. As soon as it started, I could notice it.”

‘A curious turn’

Stone said he’s generally gotten good feedback from his customers.

“People come in and say it looks great, it sounds great,” he said. He hopes that the upgrade will help expand his customer base, which in recent years has taken a curious turn.

Stone is a veteran in the movie exhibition business. After opening the Chelsea in 1990, he eventually bought the Varsity and Carolina theaters in downtown Chapel Hill, which he operated for several years. He later let go of both. The Carolina folded and the Varsity, under new ownership, specializes in discount screenings of second-run mainstream films.

Stone said that things have changed dramatically in his 23 years in the business.

“The proliferation of the megaplexes – Southpoint and things like that – has been part of the change. But you know, we had the Varsity for eight or nine years, and it only started to turn south when the college kids became enamored of other platforms – computers, downloads, smartphones, Netflix – those things.”

Stone said his core audience these days skews older, with a lot of neighborhood locals and retirees.

“Now I’m just hypothesizing, but it seems that some people, perhaps younger people, they don’t feel the need to go to a theater to see a film,” Stone said. “Whereas I think an older audience sees some value in the communal experience of going to see a film with other people. There’s something about seeing a film with a good audience – especially a comedy, I think – it somehow multiplies the experience.”

Stone said he does feel a kind of duty as operator of the town’s last arthouse movie theater.

“I still feel an obligation to the community, though I really have no such obligation. There were rumors back when I sold the Varsity that I was going to sell the Chelsea, too. For a brief while I’d offered them both for sale, but it wasn’t really a serious offer. At least, no one took it seriously. But people heard the rumor, and they’d come in and say, “Don’t leave. Don’t go.’

“I said, ‘Rest easy, I’m not going to go. Probably.’”

McDonald: glennmcdonald1@gmail.com

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