Orange County

Chapel Hill movie lovers saved one struggling local theater. Can it happen again?

The Lumina Theater is closing its doors in September, according to published reports.
The Lumina Theater is closing its doors in September, according to published reports.

A group of Southern Village residents has a plan for keeping the lights on at The Lumina Theater on Market Street.

Aaron Westrick said he and his partners will close on a deal with longtime theater owner and Southern Village developer D.R. Bryan in the next few weeks. Bryan announced this summer that the theater would close, but in August, extended operations through the end of the year to give the residents time to come up with a business plan.

Westrick, who has over a decade of financial and management experience with LORD Corp., said the new owners have three pages of ideas for the independent theater’s future.

“We’re super excited about it. There’s been a ton of community support behind it,” Westrick said. “I think sometimes people forget how much they love these things, and when the announcement came out back in July that the theater was going to close, there was an email ‘tornado.’ That’s actually how I got pulled into it, talking with some friends about it.”

The changes they’re planning will be implemented over time, he said. The first step is replacing the theater’s traditional stadium seats with recliner-style seating next year and giving the lobby a major facelift. They also will upgrade the theater’s software so customers can buy tickets in advance and reserve seating.

An executive director hired Monday will drive the owners’ vision and focus on engaging with the larger community, including UNC, local schools and area restaurants, Westrick said.

Attracting moviegoers

The Lumina has been one of two anchor tenants in the Market Street business district since it opened in 2000. The theater initially had four screens, a large arcade and cafe space. Bryan and his former partners added a fifth screen in 2005.

In 2011, they added a lobby bar, and the projectors recently were upgraded to show digital films. A plan to replace the smallest screen with a local taphouse didn’t work out.

Bryan has cited subscriber services like Netflix and other entertainment options as contributing to a decline in moviegoers. That has made it difficult for him to keep The Lumina’s doors open, Bryan said.

Attendance will be his first hurdle, Lumina executive director Tony Smith said. The Southern Village resident said he’s been a top Lumina patron for 18 years and acknowledged moviegoers want something different from when he was growing up.

Going to the theater on a Friday night “still feels special to me,” Smith said.

“We want to break it down to what can you do individually to support The Lumina, which honestly is come to the movies,” Smith said. “If you want to have a locally owned and locally operated movie theater, you have to show up.”

There is local precedent for fans rescuing a theater on the verge of closing.

In northern Chapel Hill, supporters of the Chelsea Theater in the Timberlyne shopping center are in their second year of operation after buying the three-screen theater from its former owner. The now nonprofit ended 2018 with a slight surplus.

Membership, alternative events

Southern Village families and neighbors are key to that success, Westrick said, but there’s also an opportunity to better serve Carrboro and northern Chatham County.

Chatham Park developers are planning that county’s first, eight-screen movie theater at the 92-acre Mosaic entertainment and lifestyle center now under construction at U.S. 15-501 and U.S. 64, just north of Pittsboro.

There is a “ton of opportunity” at The Lumina, Westrick said, including expanded membership options, summer movie-making camps for kids, and the addition of a morning educational series for older adults in partnership with UNC faculty and students.

They also want to make better use of the Market Street sidewalk in front of the theater and the Southern Village green across the street, he said. The Lumina’s outdoor movies have been a popular addition to the Southern Village green, Bryan has said.

“We’re quite confident that with the combination of energy and support from the community, and of course, our willingness to put some money into it, along with hopefully the community rallying behind memberships, that we can make those investments that will make it a better experience,” Westrick said.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.