Classic Chapel Hill theater hopes to raise money to convert to digital

Moviegoers line up outside the Varsity Theatre on Chapel Hill’s Frankin Steet for a special showing of “The Wizard of Oz” in 2010.
Moviegoers line up outside the Varsity Theatre on Chapel Hill’s Frankin Steet for a special showing of “The Wizard of Oz” in 2010. News & Observer file photo

The Varsity Theatre, a downtown survivor that has lured generations of college students and townies across its sticky floors for mainstream movies, obscure art-house flicks and recent second-run film offerings, faces a do-or-die transformation again.

The independent theater on Franklin Street has joined other small-town cinemas in the scramble to "go digital" so it won't have "to go dark."

By the end of this year, Hollywood's major studios will stop delivering film prints to movie theaters, replacing them with cheaper digital hard drives.

Paul Shareshian, who bought the Varsity in 2009, hopes to move moviegoers to help him raise nearly $50,000 to preserve a hometown theater that is a holdover from a bygone era.

In a town where GATES Construction broke ground at University Mall this fall on a 67,000-square-foot luxury theater that will house 13 screens, 1,500 lush leather seats, a restaurant and a lounge with a full bar, Shareshian has a much humbler goal.

He has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 to outfit just one of the projection areas with digital equipment - the 138-seat Small Theater.

"After 100 years of movies being screened from film, Hollywood is converting to digital, and announced that movies will no longer be projected using 35 mm film," Shareshian said in his appeal to moviegoers. "In fact, the Varsity won't get any new films from our distributors and to make it even worse, most of the older films have been converted to digital or destroyed so we can't get those movies either."

By early Friday evening, he had pledges of $13,291 from 194 backers. If the $50,000 goal is exceeded, Shareshian said, he'll work toward outfitting the Big Theater, which has 230 seats.

Since taking ownership of the Varsity, Shareshian and his wife, Susan, have rented out theater space for events.

"We do this for the community," Shareshian said. "We want to keep the community involved with the theater and the theater involved with the community."

In 2009, the Shareshians took over ownership of the Varsity at a time that many thought it had shown its last picture show.

They've shown second-run and classic films and played host to children's birthday parties, private lectures and themed screenings whenever possible.

They did not try to compete with the multiplexes in Durham or the art-house theaters in the area.

Bruce Stone, owner of the Chelsea theater in northern Chapel Hill, decided to sell in 2009, when the competition from the larger theater made it difficult to make ends meet. He also turned over the keys to a new owner at a time when NetFlix streaming kept many at home.

Shareshian said people still like a theater experience that is reminiscent of 1927, when the Varsity first opened.

But to remain an iconic establishment in a fast-changing downtown, Shareshian knows he has to adapt to new Hollywood to be able to keep showing old Hollywood.

"If we can't show anything on the screen," Shareshian said, "at the end of the day no one's going to walk in here."