You can stream a movie many places online, but only streaming them via your local cinema helps ensure that you’ll have a local cinema to come back to.

Movie theaters were some of the first businesses to be shut down when the pandemic started. Now, nearly four months after they locked their doors, independently owned cinemas across the Triangle are looking for ways to keep their customers engaged and thinking about the big screen.

The Lumina Theater in Chapel Hill’s Southern Village has taken its screenings outdoors.

“I know that we’re probably one of, if not the only, movie theaters that is still showing films,” says Doug Rowe, the theater’s general manager. In terms of regular in-person theater experiences with concessions, this is true, though drive-in theaters like the one in Henderson are thriving.

Taking advantage of the Southern Village Market Street Green, the staff at the Lumina has worked with county health officials to launch Movies by Starlight. The lineup so far has featured classic movies Back to the Future and Grease. According to Rowe, since showings started at the end of June, most have been sold out.

A long list of safety precautions has been implemented. Viewers watch films on an outdoor screen from one of 40 “pods,” which each sit five people and are spaced six feet apart. Masks are offered free of charge, and social distancing is required. The theater has gone cashless, limiting customers to card transactions, and restrooms are cleaned up to six times per screening. They’ve also developed new wellness checks for employees.

“We’re screening our employees with temperature checkers before every shift. We’re going through a questionnaire to make sure they don’t have any symptoms,” Rowe says. “Everybody is wearing a mask and gloved up.” 

The Lumina has been active on its Facebook page, engaging fans in discussions about film. A recent question asked, “What’s the best non-Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger movie?”

Over at the Chelsea Theater, a co-op-owned, membership-based theater in Chapel Hill, multiple new programs have been created to keep moviegoers involved with the theater. 

In addition to streaming new movies online, such as the John Lewis documentary Good Trouble, the theater is also spotlighting the works of local filmmakers, shifting the lineup every couple of weeks. The program, known as Chelsea Selects, makes local filmmakers’ projects streamable via The Chelsea’s website, bringing them to a wider audience than local independent films usually receive. Executive Director Emily Kass says this is a natural fit for a community-owned cinema.

Another new program at the Chelsea seeks to create discussions between filmmakers and viewers. The latest guests were the directors of Silence Sam, a recent documentary on Silent Sam. Producer Courtney Symone Staton chatted with fans about the movie in a streamed appearance after a screening.

Like the Carolina Theatre in Durham, which recently completed renovations to its historic crown moldings that it claims would have cost the city $100,000, the Chelsea has taken the pandemic as a chance to work on previously planned renovations. Donors can sponsor parts of the effort, from individual seats to a new box office. Facing an uncertain fall release schedule and potentially reduced theater sizes to comply with social distancing when theaters do reopen, the donations are a big help.

The Carolina also started a virtual streaming program for new movies to complement its existing program for streaming retro films. 

“It’s based on availability, what’s coming out, and what’s available. We’re not bringing classics back to the virtual screen, they’re first-run art-house releases,” says Jim Carl, director of film programming at the Carolina. “As far as Retro, it’s based again on the studios and what they’re making available online.”

Since early March, the Carolina’s Retro Films Facebook page has gone from around 20,000 followers to over 100,000.

“People really do miss the Retro Films series we do—the classic repertories, back on the big screen,” Carl says. “I get a lot of feedback from people about how much they miss coming to Retro, how much they miss coming to the Carolina Theatre.”

Studios are working with theaters to get many movies, new and old, available to viewers. Much like how you need a ticket to enter a theater, the Carolina charges a fee to view the new first-run movies, which is then split with the studios.

Many studio releases, however, are being held until theaters reopen. That date is still uncertain.

“The new Wes Anderson film has had its date changed four times in the last month,” Carl says. “My fear is that when we reopen, there will be a glut of so many titles that we will be logjammed, and we’ll have to move titles in and out within two weeks.”

The earliest a new major studio film could be released is Labor Day weekend, when Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is scheduled for a limited release by Warner Bros. in select cities. If it turns a profit, many studios may follow suit and release their films as well. 

When movie theaters do reopen again, it is almost certain they will do so with limited capacities and significantly longer periods between showtimes. The goal will be to both spread people across the theater and for staff to thoroughly clean the theaters before a new group arrives. Until then, local cinemas are doing everything they can to keep their distinct brands intact online while their theaters sit empty.  

“It will be different,” Kass says. “But we know that it will be safe.”

Comment on this story at

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.