The unknown futures of Chapel Hill's Varsity and Chelsea theaters | Film Beat | Indy Week
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The unknown futures of Chapel Hill's Varsity and Chelsea theaters 

The moviegoer's lament

click to enlarge UNC-Chapel Hill freshman Walker Percy, later the author of "The Moviegoer" and many other books, extends his leg while waiting in line for a movie at the Varsity Theatre, then known as the Carolina Theatre, on Franklin Street, circa 1933-34. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NORTH CAROLINA COLLECTION, UNC-CHAPEL HILL
  • Photo courtesy of North Carolina Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill
  • UNC-Chapel Hill freshman Walker Percy, later the author of "The Moviegoer" and many other books, extends his leg while waiting in line for a movie at the Varsity Theatre, then known as the Carolina Theatre, on Franklin Street, circa 1933-34.

Who will bail out the movies? That's the question I have.

My own life in the movies began in my late teens. I drifted through Denver and found employment for a time working for all three of the Landmark theaters that existed then: the Ogden, the Esquire and the Mayan. It was from a brilliant cinephile at the Ogden that I learned that just because a movie was 50 years old and filmed in black-and-white didn't mean it was hokey, primitive and of less interest than Raiders of the Lost Ark. I watched a beautifully restored rerelease of Lawrence of Arabia. I watched French films I didn't understand and a quirky array of indie films. On Friday nights I wouldn't go back to the flophouse I was living in until 2 a.m., after cleaning up trash left by the weekly live performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I managed to lose weight on my diet of popcorn and soda, and I learned to love the universe of movie culture that existed in black-and-white, as well as color.

While I can look back at this formative experience through the lens of nostalgia, I also know that the business of running art-houses was difficult even then. Not long after I moved away, I got word that the Ogden closed down. But I know it's gotten harder. Evidence is everywhere.

Let's start with the news that began seeping out of Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago that the Varsity Theater was being placed on the market, with closure a possibility. The prospect of shuttering a theater that has been an institution—under different names—on Franklin Street for more than 80 years was greeted with the dismay one would feel at the loss of a historic building. Somewhat lost was the fact that the Chelsea Theater, located on the north side of town in a distinctly not-historic strip mall and also owned by Bruce and Mary Jo Stone, was also for sale. While the titles at the Varsity have tended toward youth-oriented fare like Juno and Napoleon Dynamite, the uptown theater has often been the place to find more recondite titles like A Time for Drunken Horses, Caché or, presently, Goodbye Solo.

What this means, then, is that if a buyer for the theaters fails to materialize, Chapel Hill and Durham residents will have lost five art house screens, with only the two screens at Durham's Carolina Theatre remaining west of Wake County. So much more than a historic building is at stake.

Bruce Stone prefers not to discuss the matter, citing ongoing business negotiations, but he expresses exasperation at some of the misinformation that's been bandied about (he says that, contrary to reports and rumors, the Varsity's rent has not tripled, and his leases are not about to expire). Instead, he notes signs of distress in the movie industry that have been accelerating in the past year. "I've got Sugar and Angels and Demons in the Varsity now, and I'm opening [the Hollywood comedy] The Hangover this weekend. You do the math."

Indeed, other art house theaters in the area are also showing multiplex popcorn movies. At the Carolina in Durham, one screen is occupied by the new Pixar hit, Up (while the other screen is given over to a more traditional offering, the documentary Anvil!). In Raleigh, the Rialto has Anvil!, while the Colony is splitting a screen with two films that likewise would, in flusher times, be making room for new films. In Cary, the Galaxy Cinema's Hemanth Kashinath says the six-screen facility's Bollywood offerings are hampered by a work stoppage in India; elsewhere, they're showing Terminator Salvation and Star Trek, along with stale indies like Sunshine Cleaning and Is Anybody There? "Not as many people are coming to indie titles," Kashinath says.

What's going on here? With the less-than-abundant product that's available, one might wonder what the attraction of the art house film is in the first place. Here is where a national upheaval in the specialty movie business (and the word "specialty" is more strictly accurate than "indie") comes into play. In the past year, several important specialty film distributors have closed or drastically scaled back operations. Among them: Warner Independent, Picturehouse, New Yorker Films, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage. Simply put, this means there are few distributors available to procure, market and distribute the hundreds of worthy titles that are produced every year around the world.

This development is all the more startling because it was only 18 months ago that Paramount Vantage, in particular, was riding high with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men both contending for the major Oscar categories. But therein lies part of the problem. The Carolina Theatre's Jim Carl notes that Paramount Vantage, the highest-profile casualty, literally spent itself to death promoting those films for awards. One of these so-called indie films may cost $50 million to produce, he says, while the distributor will then spend another $50 million to market it. On top of all that is the money that must be spent for a movie to be seen as an Oscar contender. So, a movie like There Will Be Blood will be the subject of a "for your consideration" campaign that could cost $15 million. (According to boxofficemojo.com, There Will Be Blood grossed $40 million domestically and $36 million abroad.)

But, but, but, the movie fan might object: Doesn't Paramount Vantage deserve some credit for bringing not only No Country and Blood, but Babel, Into the Wild and An Inconvenient Truth into theaters? Well, yes, but the huge reputations of those films is tied to the tens of millions of dollars the distributor spent to get each and every one of those pointless Oscar nominations.

These sorts of losses are not necessarily of great concern to the major studios that backed many of the specialty distributors, however. As the writer Edward Jay Epstein has long argued, including in his 2005 book The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, the conglomerates that own the entertainment business have many other ways of making money and can afford to lose a few million up front on prestige pictures. "They have now all come to realize ... that the value they create lies not in the tickets they sell at the box office but in the licensable products they create for future generations of consumers." (That would be things like the 12-disc, deluxe collector's extended edition of The Lord of the Rings, available at an Amazon.com near you.)

But what this means for the rest of us is that Hollywood studios are lavishing their resources on just a handful of films that have been determined, by Thanksgiving, to be worthy of an Oscar campaign. Think back to last Christmas: Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, The Reader, Doubt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/ Nixon, Revolutionary Road. Some of these films were better than others, but they all could have made money for art houses had they been distributed throughout the year. Instead, these titles were jammed onto every available screen, art house and multiplex alike, at year's end. With the exception of the winner (this year, Slumdog Millionaire), they mostly starved each other of oxygen.

This awards-season glut has been a disaster for the rest of us and for our specialty film houses. Look what's in theaters right now. While such titles as Sugar and Goodbye Solo have their fans, neither is the kind of movie that can keep art house operators in the black while they await their Christmastime goodies. Jim Carl says the Carolina Theatre has passed on a number of this season's offerings, such as Sugar and Is Anybody There?, because of the dismal prospect of reasonable returns. "These are $500-a-week grossers," Carl says. "You factor in $200 for round-trip shipment of the 35 mm print and the 50 percent of the gross that has to be paid to the distributor, you just can't run them." In contrast to this season's situation, Carl notes, some summer hits have sustained art houses in the past: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; March of the Penguins; Fahrenheit 9/11; Ladies in Lavender.

Like an agricultural society that expects a limited amount of rain over the summer to sustain its crops, movie theaters need titles that will make enough money to tide them over until the quality movies become available. This year, the rain isn't going to fall. Carl says three potential summer oases have already vanished into mirage, according to the industry cognoscenti: Woody Allen's Whatever Works, Ang Lee's Taking Woodstock, and Sam Mendes' Away We Go. Other promising titles for the summer, including Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Michael Mann's Public Enemy, will likely make their money for multiplexes in addition to specialty houses.

Compounding this summer's drought, Carl says, is the fact that it didn't rain last summer, either. In a newsletter to Carolina Theatre patrons last fall, Carl wrote, "The summer of 2008 was one of the lowest-grossing seasons in recorded movie history for art house theaters."

So, this is the climate that faces the operators of art houses in the Triangle: too little product for too much of the year, and a Hollywood industry that has too little regard for the health of these exhibitors. Then, too, there are the tastes and desires of the audience. As far as the Varsity is concerned, Stone says, "Downtown specialty films seem less and less of an alternative for college students." When asked if he thought this was a reflection of their changing tastes, he responded, "I can't say."

It's probably not just college students, and not just industry greed and indifference—it's all of us. There's so much music to download, so much YouTube to watch, so many "rebooted" movie franchises to flock to, so many television series to Netflix, so many Facebooks to gaze at ourselves in, that the century-old practice of sitting with strangers in a darkened, dingy old theater and looking at flickering images may go the way of Plato and his cave.

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