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After surviving the pandemic, North Carolina’s independent theater operators are optimistic

Chapel Hill's Lumina Theater
Mitchell Northam
A sign in front of Chapel Hill's Lumina Theater shows movies playing on Saturday, April 29, 2023.

Again this past weekend, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” dominated at the box office. On Sunday, the film featuring iconic characters from the famous Nintendo video games became just the 10th animated film ever to gross more than $1 billion worldwide – and the first since 2019.

And it’s not just children’s movies that are doing well. “Air” – the R-rated story about Sonny Vaccaro’s pursuit of Michael Jordan for Nike – has made $48 million in its first four weeks. That amount might not seem like much, but consider that figure would’ve made “Air” a top 10 release in all of 2020, during the height of the pandemic.

Simply put: People are coming back to the movie theaters. And the folks that own and operate those cinemas are optimistic about what’s to come.

“I think things are really turning around and we're seeing things are a lot better, even between last year and this year,” says Emily Kass, the executive director of the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill.

Jeremy Welman agrees. He’s the managing partner of Carolina Cinemas, which owns the Sandhills 10 in Southern Pines and the Lumina in Chapel Hill.

“People want to go out and do things with other people. It's just in our human nature,” Wellman said. “That's what's kind of exciting about it all.”

Four months into 2023, seven films have already topped $100 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo. That puts this year on-pace to be the best for movie theaters since 2019, when 29 films surpassed that figure. In 2022, 18 films topped that mark. In 2021, 11 did. And in 2020, only two did.

The movie theater business has reemerged from the darkness brought on by the global pandemic. Just a bit more than three years since March of 2020, movie theaters aren’t being closed in North Carolina; they’re open for business. And some of them are thriving as folks return to theaters.

 Manteo's Pioneer Theater
Mitchell Northam
Manteo's Pioneer Theater was closed for construction on Sunday, April 16, 2023. One of its new owners, Michael Basnight, hopes to reopen in May.

Or — in the case of the Manteo’s historic Pioneer Theater — they’re reopening, and encouraged about what’s ahead.

The Pioneer had been one of the longest operating family-owned movie theaters in the country. In December 2022, the Creef family closed it, in part due to “increasing expenses” and “increasing yearly financial losses,” according to a Facebook post from the family.

Not long after that announcement, Michael Basnight of Manteo was having coffee with his sister. He told her, “We can’t let the theater get torn down.” Two months later, Basnight and a group of family and friends became owners of the theater, paying $500,000 for the building in February.

“This was great timing, to be able to stop this thing from getting torn down or turned into a development or something. To restore it, to turn that projector back on to get that famous popcorn going,” Basnight said. “There's a lot of plans to make the most of this old historic place.”

Data supports optimism of theater owners

Numbers back up the confidence of Kass, Welman and Basnight. A study published in March by The Cinema Foundation concluded: “The box office, on a film-by-film basis, has rebounded to 2019 levels, limited only by the number of wide releases in the marketplace. The number of wide releases in 2023 is more than 40% higher than 2022 and approaching the number of wide releases in 2019.” A wide release is a film that appears in at least 600 theaters nationwide.

Further, according to the study, while it was expected that many movie theaters would shutter during the height of the pandemic, the number of screens has decreased by only 5.3% across the U.S. between 2019 and 2022. Indeed, there were quite a bit of closures – 2,165 – but about 39,000 theaters remain open in the country.

There's a pretty robust interest in film here. And that's one thing that isn't true of all communities. I mean, that's why Chapel Hill and Durham can support the number of theaters that we support, because people care about quality film.

Emily Kass

One of the big movie theater chains hit the hardest by the pandemic was Regal Cinemas. Regal Phillips Place in Charlotte shuttered in October 2022, and just this past January, Regal announced it was closing 39 more movie theaters. One of the theaters on that cut list was Apex’s Beaver Creek Stadium 12. For now, it’s still up and running.

A few others shut down during the pandemic too, like Greensboro’s Sedgefield Cinemas which closed after 29 years of operating in April 2020.

But as some big theaters fade away, an opportunity has emerged for smaller, independent theaters. And in North Carolina, there’s quite a bit of them. In Chapel Hill, the Chelsea and the Lumina are two.

The Chelsea operates as a non-profit organization and identifies as an art house. This means it’s more likely to show films from independent studios, foreign language films, documentaries and some classic reruns.

As Kass put it, the Chelsea survived the pandemic by “making lemonade.” The theater closed for 13 months between 2020 and 2021, and during that time, Kass and her team saw an opportunity to proceed with renovations. Kass and a group of locals in the community bought the theater from its previous private owners in 2017 and turned it into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

“When we took over the theater, it was pretty rundown. It was well past the time when it needed new seats. Once it became clear that we were going to be closed, that’s when we decided to really go for it,” Kass said. “There’s not a single surface that hasn’t been redone. The community really came through, as well as some volunteer support and some kind contributions.”

The Lumina’s previous owners saw the same opportunity. The theater in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village closed in March 2020 and didn’t reopen until August 2022.

“They were doing a remodel during the shutdown, that’s why they delayed a little bit I think,” Lumina general manager Jim Lee said. “New seats, new screens, new projectors. It’s a whole new Lumina.”

Added Welman: “These are the kind of theaters that are worth saving, because they're essential to a community.”

 Jeremy Welman
Mitchell Northam
Jeremy Welman, the managing partner of Carolina Cinemas, poses for a photo at Chapel Hill's Lumina Theater on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.

In North Carolina – and the Triangle – independent theaters are a staple

According to a map created by Art House Convergence, North Carolina has 11 movie theaters that identify as art houses. That’s the most in any state that is south of Ohio and east of the Mississippi River. The Chelsea is part of this group, and so is Durham’s Carolina Theatre.

“I think that there's a pretty robust interest in film here,” Kass said. “And that's one thing that isn't true of all communities. I mean, that's why Chapel Hill and Durham can support the number of theaters that we support, because people care about quality film.”

T-Shirts are for sale in the lobby of the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill on Saturday, April 29, 2023.
Mitchell Northam
T-Shirts are for sale in the lobby of the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill on Saturday, April 29, 2023.
Chelsea Theater popcorn
Mitchell Northam
Popcorn pops behind the snack counter at Chapel Hill's Chelsea Theater on Saturday, April 29, 2023.
Small digital signs show which movies are playing at the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill on Saturday, April 28, 2023.
Mitchell Northam
Small digital signs show which movies are playing at the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill on Saturday, April 28, 2023.

As a non-profit, the Chelsea doesn’t have to rely on films projected to be big successes at the box office. It’s unlikely that moviegoers will be able to catch “Fast X” – the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise – there, but the Chelsea is the place to see a 40th anniversary screening of “Flashdance,” or the new environmentalist action-thriller, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” And it was one of the local theaters that showed the Ben Affleck-directed “Air.”

“We have a very specific mission and niche. We really go for certain kinds of movies that come through the film festivals or independent filmmakers. Oftentimes, those are of less interest to larger theaters because they don't generate the kind of box office that they need.”

This summer, the Chelsea will also offer what it calls “Chelsea Classics,” a new program where the theater will screen older genre films, underseen Hollywood classics, restorations, and international favorites.

“Things that don't necessarily show up on TV or on streaming, because they're harder to find,” Kass said. “We think people want to, you know, mix it up a little bit.”

Meanwhile, the Lumina bills itself as family-friendly and is owned by Welman’s Carolina Cinemas. As an independent, it can be selective in what it shows — it was one of the few local theaters to re-screen Best Picture winner “Everything Everywhere All At Once” ahead of this year’s Oscars — but it will also lean on big box office hits, like the Mario Bros. movie and whatever Marvel Comics’ adaptation Disney is pumping out, such as the upcoming third installment of "Guardians of the Galaxy."

Welman says while a competitor like Silverspot — a smaller chain with locations in five states, including one in Chapel Hill — is a “sexy, bigger theater,” he sees the Lumina offering a hometown vibe.

“We're smaller, we're more boutique, we're more hands-on. It's a more curated experience,” Welman said. “We only have four screens, so we’re not playing every film that comes out. We're playing the films that we believe are going to do best in our community. And we take chances sometimes.”

Last fall, the Lumina and Silverspot worked together in hosting Film Fest 919.

North Carolina also has 14 theaters that are members of the League of Historic American Theatres. Membership includes historic theaters, cinemas, and opera houses that are operating and at least 50 years old. No other state in the southeastern U.S. has more members.

What does success look like?

Manteo’s Pioneer Theater isn’t a member of LHAT, but certainly could be after it reopens. The Pioneer first opened its doors in 1918, and has survived fires, hurricanes, and COVID-19. Afraid that this Outer Banks community would lose its lone cinema, Basnight and his group swooped in. He remembers going to the Pioneer as a kid to see “Star Wars” and “Jaws.”

“It's really the experience that you remember, not so much the movie, but it's the experience of going to the old theater,” Basnight said. “When we were in elementary school, we would go on little field trips and we'd walk in a line like little ducks down the Pioneer, and we give our little $2, and we'd get our little box of popcorn and our drink… I'd love to try to do something like that again.”

When it reopens — Basnight is aiming for later this month — the Pioneer will be just one of two movie theaters in Dare County and the Outer Banks. The other is the Movies 10 in Kill Devil Hills, operated by RC Theatres, a small chain with 13 cinemas in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

“I think there's so many of us who have so many memories at the movies. Your first dates, your first experience with friends,” Basnight said. “I think to be able to reignite that in folks coming out of the pandemic, to get that excitement, to provide that entertainment that folks want. It's an escape really, for a brief moment.”

Success for each of these theaters — the Chelsea, the Lumina and the Pioneer — all looks a little bit different. But if there’s one thing in common between these three North Carolina theaters, it is that their operators are all optimistic that moviegoers will continue to stream through their doors.

“If you live in the area, and you enjoy having a theater, you got to support it,” Welman said. “Yes, we’re for profit – but if we don’t turn a profit, there’ll be no theater. In speaking to Chapel Hill as a whole, I would just encourage residents to come give us a chance. I think they'll come and realize that it's a great experience.”

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.