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Fate of Chapel Hill’s Chelsea Theater decided. Here’s what’s next for the indie cinema

It looks like Chapel Hill won’t be losing indie movie theater the Chelsea after all.

A local group of film fans, artists and business people called Save the Chelsea announced Thursday that it has reached an agreement to take over the theater at the end of March.

Current owners Bruce and Mary Jo Stone said last year that they were putting the small theater in north Chapel Hill up for sale and considering retirement. The Stones’ decision created a major question about the future of the theater.

Save the Chelsea began organizing and fundraising shortly after the Stones’ announcement to ensure the theater wouldn’t close.

Pending the conclusion of the transaction, the group plans to turn the theater into a nonprofit called the Chelsea Art Theater. Turning arthouse movie theaters into nonprofits – a process that takes several months – has become an increasingly popular financial decision for theaters in other cities. The A/perture movie theater in Winston-Salem, for example, became a nonprofit in 2017.

Along with continuing to show first-run and foreign films, the Chelsea will also begin to add movie discussions and showings of local and classic films.

“We expect a seamless transition,” Save the Chelsea President Tom Henkel said in a statement. “Filmgoers can anticipate that we will begin to introduce a few new things immediately – such as a membership program with discounts on tickets, but we plan to move deliberately and gather input from our audiences.”

As part of its fundraising to take over the theater, Save the Chelsea aimed to raise $150,000 in its first year. The group said it has already raised more than half of that total from around 170 supporters.

The Chelsea, which opened in 1990, had struggled in recent years, leading to the Stones’ decision to put the theater up for sale.

The three-screen theater in the Timberlyne shopping center on Weaver Dairy Road in northern Chapel Hill saw its ticket sales decrease since Silverspot Cinema opened in University Place (formerly University Mall) three years ago. It also faces competition from the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street and the Lumina in the Southern Village development.

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 Save the Chelsea earlier this year. 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 group. The theater was slightly profitable, however, in 2017.

“We feel confident that the theater will be in very good hands and look forward to the new, improved, bright and shiny Chelsea as it moves forward into the months and years ahead,” Bruce and Mary Jo Stone said in a joint statement.

Save the Chelsea will hold a community meeting at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on March 4 from 2 to 4 p.m. to answer questions from the public. The group did not have to buy the property from Stone, because the theater rents its space, but it did have to acquire the equipment. The shopping center agreed to reduce rent, at least for a temporary period, to keep the movie theater going, Henkel told The Herald-Sun earlier this year.

Henkel said he hopes the theater will help promote cultural diversity in Chapel Hill.

“We want to reflect the diversity of the various communities that comprise our market area,” he said. “Through our films and related programs – speakers, filmmakers, performers, and scholars, for example – we will strive to promote understanding between cultures and serve as a catalyst for positive social change. We aspire to be a leader among the 4,000 art theaters in America.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes

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