How people who really like movies are saving this Chapel Hill theater

It has been a little over a year since the Chelsea Theater almost closed, but the popcorn is still popping at this unique movie joint.

The three-screen theater is now run by a nonprofit organization and supported mainly through membership programs, tickets and concession sales.

And despite the recently announced closing of The Lumina Theater in Chapel Hill and competition from other cinemas and streaming services, the Chelsea ended last year with a slight surplus.

“Going in we thought we were just going to save a little theater,” said Charles Humble, chairman of the theater’s board. “But with our sleeves up, we learned that there was a lot to do to save it.”

The Chelsea Theater opened in 1990 in the Timberlyne Shopping Center on Weaver Dairy Road in Chapel Hill. Almost 30 years later, owners Bruce and Mary Jo Stone decided in 2017 they wanted to retire and said they would put the theater up for sale or close it.

The Chelsea was struggling, The News & Observer reported.

In 2015 and 2016, it had lost $69,292 and $9,450, respectively, before making a slight profit in 2017.

A group of 11 local film watchers formed a grassroots fundraising campaign, Save the Chelsea.

“Those of us with a progressive outlook are generally looking to do things for the public good,” said Tom Henkel, a board member. “We really felt that Chelsea was a community treasure and we should keep it going.”

And so they did.

The group aimed to raise $150,000 during its first year and raised more than half that, from roughly 170 supporters, in two months, The News & Observer previously reported.

Hundreds of people eventually donated over $100,000, which kept the Chelsea running. The board recently replaced a digital projector and popcorn machine and hopes to improve soundproofing and replace the seats in all three theaters.

Four months ago, the nonprofit celebrated its one-year anniversary with over 1,000 memberships, representing about 1,500 individuals.

About half the 2018 memberships have been renewed for 2019, Humble said. Memberships start at $50 per year for individuals and go up to $2,500 for deluxe packages.

As a nonprofit, the theater must file a federal 990 financial form within its first year, but Emily Kass, the executive director, said it has been granted an extension until November 2019.

The theater ended the 2018 fiscal year with $29,436 operating surplus and owes a final $20,000 payment to the Stones, she said. The funds are in a money market fund and will be paid off in June 2020.

Oscar winners

The Chelsea only shows independent films, which Henkel says makes it different from competitors like the Silverspot Cinema at University Place.

Almost all the 2019 Academy Award nominees, including Best Picture winner “Green Book,” were shown at the Chelsea, Humble said. The theater also recently collaborated with Carolina Public Humanities to create conversations for patrons about issues, trends and themes presented in the films.

“People still come out, talk about the movies and thank us,” Humble said. “That feedback is just a spring in our steps.”

To be more inclusive, devices are available for hearing and visually impaired patrons, and the theater offers open-caption shows every third Thursday of the month.

The theater gets a boost from regulars who live in the Carol Woods Retirement Community crowd just down the road, Henkel said.

“I would like to get younger people to come more often but they go in the way of Netflix and for the super duper stuff at Silverspot,” he said. “So there’s a certain level of competition, but we are showing things that they don’t on a regular basis. So we are continuing to [fill] a gap there.”

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Jacquelyn Melinek covers metro news for the News & Observer, where she works to update readers about the latest in government, crime, schools and other local news stories. She is a Stembler Scholar, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Media and Journalism and grew up in Westchester, New York.