Most Friday nights, die-hard film fans converge on the North Carolina Museum of Art to take in a movie in the East Building's auditorium. But while they usually enjoy the selection, whether it's a W.C. Fields comedy (that this reporter introduced) or a Godard head-scratcher, they're not exactly comfortable.
"It's no secret—the sight lines are horrible," says Jenni Elion, a North Raleigh resident who's been a regular movie watcher at the museum since she moved here in 1993.
It appears the museum hasn't done much to elevate the moviegoing experience for its audience. The 272-seat auditorium hasn't had any major changes done since it opened 30 years ago as a lecture hall. Since then, it's become a reliable draw for repeat visits to the museum for the Triangle's only repertory outlet for classic cinema. (Disclosure: The indoor offerings are programmed by Laura Boyes, an occasional contributor to INDY Week. She was not consulted for this story.)
"I'd at least like to see them rearrange the seats so they are staggered the way they usually are in a theater, instead of dead-on right behind each other," says Elion. "It would be nice if they could expand and get more seating, because the movies are getting more popular."
Many of the screenings from last fall's film series, "Women of Film Noir," were sold out, prompting the museum to turn away latecomers. The recently wrapped "Universal Studios @ 100" winter series was popular as well.
"More and more are selling out," says Elion. As for why the museum hasn't done anything to renovate the auditorium, she has a theory: "I think that maybe films are not viewed as art so much as entertainment."
Museum employees say that improving the auditorium has always been a top priority. George Holt, director of performing arts and film programs at the museum, said there were initial plans to overhaul the auditorium when the museum started building its West Building a few years back.
"We had originally hoped that a new auditorium or a small theater would be a part of that expansion project," says Holt. "And then, it was in the original plan. And then, with cost overruns that occurred, it was left on the cutting room floor, you could say."
Dan Gottlieb, the museum's director of planning and design, agrees."We had lots of plans to do that and quite a bit more," he says.
Gottlieb said there were talks of building a purpose-driven new theater as part of the expansion. Unfortunately, it was not affordable in the expansion itself, which cost $72.2 million.
What also wasn't affordable was fixing up the old auditorium. "We just didn't get the repair and renovation funds to do the complete renovation of this building, as we had hoped. So we have a series of priorities," says Gottlieb. "The auditorium is certainly one of them."
While Holt says moving out of the auditorium space is not an option, the museum is looking for ways to do substantial renovations within the existing auditorium.
"We live for the day that we might have a little larger and more comfortable theater to present the film program in," says Holt. "Actually, we're working on a grant proposal right now to renovate this space."
Both Holt and Gottlieb agree that in order for renovations to be made, there must be a budget of a half million dollars. Gottlieb says they are in the process of getting money through a grant from an unnamed foundation.
"We're kind of in the early stages in discussions with the foundation," says Gottlieb. "We are hopeful, but we're not going to put all our eggs in that basket. We're going to look beyond that as well."
The museum has pondered some alternative fundraising ideas. For example, Holt says, "If we can attract enough people to be willing to sponsor a single chair, you know, at whatever level it would take to actually provide the new seating," says Holt, who credits Boyes with the idea.
"We know that there are definitely some models for that out there. Some theaters have used that technique with some success."
The money would go not only into getting better, comfortable seating for the theater, but also toward getting new projection equipment. With theaters all over the country—and in the Triangle—switching over to digital projection, even the museum understands that the theater's reel-to-reel projection system soon could become obsolete.
"As I understand, it's gonna be more and more difficult to obtain films in nondigital format in the future," says Gottlieb. "I think there will always be a place for that, but you have to have the ability to show digitally."
Holt also agrees that, even though they've upgraded the projection and sound system a few years ago, the auditorium has to step up its game for the 21st century.
"Needless to say, we need to add a quality digital projection system at some indeterminate point down the line," says Holt. He also notes the option of switching out the theater's 11.5-by-30 foot screen. "It is quite possible that we'll change out the screen if the money becomes available, certainly add curtains and masking."
For the time being, the museum is still coming up with ways of turning the auditorium into a decent screening room.
"We do have a couple of ideas about how we might be able to lift the back seating a little bit and increase the sightlines somewhat," says Gottlieb. "It'll be incremental, but if we do that and stagger the seating with new equipment, I think we can make some pretty good improvements. We're not going to make it into a bigger venue, but we can certainly make it into a much more attractive and more functional venue."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theater of pain."
Correction: NCMA's director of planning and design is Dan (not Brad) Gottlieb.