Seating at the Chelsea Theater

Emily Kass, executive director of the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill, stands near the entrance to one of the theaters. The Chelsea has been closed during the state’s shelter-in-place order.

The lights go down, the big screen illuminates. The smell of popcorn wafts through the air; the friction of straws sounding off as they’re pushed into plastic lids. More than 100 moviegoers sit tightly in their seats, sharing armrests with close neighbors for the next two hours.

This is the ideal setting at the Chelsea Theater, a 501(c3) nonprofit art house movie venue in Chapel Hill. But since North Carolina’s shelter-in-place order was enacted to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the theater lights have gone down indefinitely. The owners are certain it will be back, but what the new ideal setting will be is anyone’s guess.

Emily Kass, who is executive director and one of two full-time employees at the Chelsea, is confident the theater will reopen and continue to be supported by its members.

“I have been with the theater since the first efforts to turn it into a nonprofit,” Kass said. “I was part of the volunteer group that raised the money and was involved with the purchase from the Stone family.”

The theater itself has been around for about 28 years. It’s most recent owners decided to retire and not renew the lease. That’s when the local community of independent film lovers stepped in to preserve the theater. 

“The Chelsea has a sense of community that I rarely see among movie theaters,” Kass said. “It’s a rarity. I have always enjoyed going to see films there. What was extraordinary was the outpouring of support when we announced that we were going to raise money for the Chelsea. The community stepped forward and donated the funds so we were able to make the purchase and do some basic improvements. People have continued to support the theater because our nonprofit model is based on having a membership program that’s different from most other movie theaters, which basically are based on loyalty points. Ours is philanthropic. People support the Chelsea. They still get discounts on movies and free popcorn, so there are definitely benefits. But they love the theater. It’s a size and scale that’s very personal. And people believe it has some very special qualities.”

The Chelsea has three movie screens. The largest theater seats 135 people; the smallest seats 80; the third theater will hold 115. The setting is intimate — about 4,500 square feet — and typical of arthouse venues. The lobby is small.

“We show first-run films, but typically they are independent or art house films,” Kass said. “That’s not to say they’re not popular, but definitely the genre that you won’t see at every other theater in the area.”

Small theater or not, social distancing is not possible in the movie theaters, so the Chelsea remains closed. It has, however, tried to remain relevant by selling “tickets” to movies that can be streamed by moviegoers.

“We started connecting with other similar types of theaters across the country, called Art House Conversions,” Kass said. “We typically book the same kinds of films, the same kinds of distributors. The distributors have been extremely responsive. We’re all in this together. They started making some films available so we could start streaming them on our website. So you could go to our website and buy a “ticket,” and that would be for the films available for several days. And it’s a really nice selection, so we’ve been kind of running our virtual theater much like we ran the regular theater. We still have opening days on Fridays, we’ll run films for a week. And then maybe run them another week. We’ve tried to emulate online business, knowing that that wasn’t going to replace — and not wanting to replace our business, but to keep up the sense of communication with our email list. That’s one thing we’ve done. Of course, we’ve been asking for memberships and donations so we can keep going. That’s another thing about know how special the Chelsea is seeing how the community and people have responded. It’s just been extraordinary. 

The cost of virtual tickets to stream movies range from $7 to $12. “It’s a really good deal when you consider you can show it to as many people as you can seat around your computer or your TV. And you can watch it multiple times. Half of the proceeds go to the Chelsea, half goes back to the distributor,” she said.

The theater receives a box-office performance report from the distributors each week, and the efforts have revealed some success. But it is still far from revenue generated under the traditional model.

“There is really no comparison. We don’t have anyway of telling if, when someone downloads a film and they have it for a week, they can watch it with a number of people and several times. So one download of a streaming movie doesn’t equal the number of tickets that would have been sold for a regular theater showing. But it’s giving people more options. It’s keeping a connection,” Kass said. 

Kass admits she isn’t sure how the Chelsea will adjust its business model when it reopens. She also said the closure has presented some positives for the theater. 

“We had been planning to do in two phases of renovations on the theater,” Kass said. “First was the lobby and the restrooms, which have been pretty much unchanged since the early ’90s. That had been a goal since we purchased the theater. One of the drawbacks to doing that kind of work is that you have to close down. Business was good and we didn’t want to close to do the work. So, the shelter-in-place shutdown became an opportunity. We’ve been able to put resources together. We’re still always adding resources to it. But when we reopen, we will have completely redone lobby and restrooms. And the beauty of being able to do it during this time is that everything is being planned with the current situation in mind and how people will interact going forward. Touch-free paper towel dispensers and those kinds of considerations. I feel very fortunate that we didn’t do our renovations earlier. We’d be looking at having to make some changes now. We’re still looking at trying to raise funds to do the seating, which is another project that will be put aside right now. But everyday there’s a new question about what will it look like when we reopen. And I think we’re also fortunate to be able to take a cue by looking at the theaters that are opening in other parts of the country. It’s slow and everyone is very mindful of following public safety rules. Blocking off every other row of seats, and what has to be done when handling money, do you even have concessions? Employees wearing masks and gloves.” 

More and stricter cleaning requirements mean additional time devoted to cleaning between showings.

“One of the big considerations is going to be how we schedule films,” Kass said. “We had a formula of lengths of time between movie start times to allow for sweeping and trash pick up. I think that’s all going to change pretty drastically to allow extra time between films as our sanitation methods become more intense. A lot of our audience is over 65, so they’re going to be cautious too. When we redo the seats, the new seating will be larger and provide more legroom. So there will be a little more ‘social distancing’ in that. And newer material. We’re hopeful we’ll be able to pull that off, too. The seats will also have improved comfort, viewing ability and better cupholders.” 

They will also be easier to sanitize as the newer models are made with all kinds of synthetics that can be wiped down with cleaners and sanitizer.

Kass is hopeful that when the theater is able to reopen it will also be able to bring back the part-time staff it had to layoff when the shelter-in-place was initially ordered. 

“We’re doing our best in trying to make sure we’ll be able to hire them back. Part of what makes us a great theater are the people who are on the frontline. They love movies and are important to the community of our customers,” she said.