Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theater starts fundraising campaign to stay in business | Arts

Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theater starts fundraising campaign to stay in business

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The Varsity Theatre will likely close next year if it fails to raise $50,000 to convert to digital projectors. - FILE PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON, 2005
  • file photo by D.L. Anderson, 2005
  • The Varsity Theatre will likely close next year if it fails to raise $50,000 to convert to digital projectors.
As 2014 winds down, a Chapel Hill institution turns to Kickstarter in the hopes of making it through 2015.

Today, the Varsity Theatre, which has operated on Franklin Street under different names for more than 85 years, unveiled a Kickstarter campaign starkly named Go Digital or Go Dark. Its goal is to raise enough money to convert the theater’s projectors and other equipment from 35mm film to digital, simply so they can keep showing movies as the new technology replaces the old, and even older films are being converted to digital and, sometimes, destroyed.

One day into its 60 day run, the campaign has raised more than $6,000 of its $50,000 goal. Meeting it would fund the conversion of the smaller of the Varsity’s two cinemas; exceeding the goal would be necessary to convert the larger one as well. If the campaign fails, the theater will likely close again. 

This is not the first time the Varsity has run into financial difficulties. It last closed in July 2009, reportedly whittled down from competing with larger theaters such as Southpoint. The Varsity reopened under new owner Paul Shareshian in November of that year, but as a second-run and rental theater.

As we wrote in May, many movie studios now offer a Digital Cinema Package that allows for a limited number of high-resolution screenings, which has become the multiplex standard. Though DCPs have earned acclaim for their pristine imagery from some cinema owners and filmmakers, converting to digital isn’t cheap—Ambassador Entertainment President Bill Peebles told us it cost him about $910,000 to convert the 14 screens at his Raleigh various cinemas, including the Rialto and the Colony. And as the Varsity's Kickstarter notes, multiplexes receive large subsidies from the film industry for digital conversion, while small locally owned theaters do not.

“The key word in this story is community," Shareshian says in a press release. "The Varsity wants to keep ticket prices as low as possible so it remains available to everyone in the community and to continue as a venue for community events.” Visit the Kickstarter page if you want to help. Rewards for donating to the campaign include movie tickets and posters, a sponsor placard in the lobby, a message on the marquee and, aptly enough, a foot of obsolete 35mm film.


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