A plan to turn the Chelsea Theater into a nonprofit and keep the arthouse movie theater in business has shifted into high gear.
A meeting to publicly share the plan drew a standing-room-only crowd Sunday to Flyleaf Books. Nearly 150 people filled the room and stood in the back and along the side walls.
“We believe the Chelsea can be more than a movie theater in a strip mall,” said Mark Barroso, one of 11 people in an “exploratory committee” already working on obtaining nonprofit status for the proposed Chelsea Art Theater.
The three-screen theater in the Timberlyne shopping center on Weaver Dairy Road in northern Chapel Hill has struggled since Silverspot Cinema opened in University Place (formerly University Mall) three years ago, committee members said.
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Competition from theaters showing similar kinds of independent, foreign and documentary films as the Chelsea hurt ticket sales between 2014 and 2016, according to financial documents released by the committee. Revenue at the theater during that time fell more than 37 percent.
In 2015 and 2016 the theater lost $69,292 and $9,450, respectively, according to the committee.
Owner Bruce Stone reversed the trend last year, however, ending the year barely in the black, according to the committee.
“The ticket sales did indeed collapse in the last few years, but now it is stabilized,” said member Charles Humble.
The Chelsea, which opened in 1990, rents its space in the shopping center. The nonprofit needs to buy the digital projection system and other equipment from Stone. The shopping center has agreed to reduce the rent, at least for a while, to keep the movie theater going, committee member Tom Henkel said.
“The landlords understand the value of the Chelsea being there, and they are fans of the Chelsea,” Humble said.
The nonprofit would operate on donations, annual memberships, ticket sales and concessions.
Organizers hope to raise $150,000 in donations and passed out pledge cards at Sunday’s meeting.
Henkel said he also ready has a $5,000 pledge from a future resident of Governors Club who said the Chelsea was one of the reasons he decided to move to the area. Emily Kass, former director of the Ackland Art Museum and another committee member, said she would visit any donor considering a four-figure donation to help explain the plan.
Based on a survey of over 1,500 people, organizers think they can also sell 500 memberships at different levels.
That money could pay for a manager and some other expenses, but more would be needed to buy the theater, pay film royalties and begin making improvements, including “more comfortable seats,” Humble said.
Only 30 people who returned the survey mentioned better seats, but “nobody believes that,” Humble said.
The business plan estimates with $150,000 in donations, $38,500 in memberships, and ticket and concessions revenue the nonprofit could generate $549,000 a year. That would be enough, it estimates, to pay an estimated $484,500 in operating costs and put $64,500 in reserve toward future expenses.
Stone, who did not attend Sunday’s meeting, plans to keep the theater open until March and would like to close on a deal by mid February, according to the committee. It can take six to nine months to obtain nonprofit status, but members are proceeding as if it is going to happen.
A fundraising site has been set up at https://www.gofundme.com/save-the-chelsea-theater. Donations may also be made out to “Save the Chelsea” and mailed to Chelsea Art Theater, 11312 U.S. 15-501 North, Suite 107/110, Chapel Hill NC 27517.
The online site does not take money until the goal has been reached, and committee member Julie McClintock, a former Town Council member, said the committee will “make whole” anyone who donates money if the deal does not go through.
In 2017, the Chelsea Theater sold roughly 34,520 tickets at an average price of $9.26 per ticket. An estimated 38 percent of tickets were senior tickets and 62 percent were adult tickets.