Revamped movie theatre Lumina is a tale of survival in Southern Village


By Fraser Sherman

CHAPEL HILL – The Tap Room at the Lumina Theater might boast “the largest screen in Chapel Hill to watch a sports event on,” theater owner Jeremy Welman says. While he can’t swear that’s the case, he adds, “I haven’t found one bigger yet.”

The new Tap Room is the latest development in the tale of the 24-year-old Chapel Hill movie house, which has survived despite repeated hard knocks the past few years. Welman’s company became the Lumina’s new owner a year ago. To create the Tap Room, Welman told The Local Reporter, “We took some space that was underutilized within the four walls. Previously, it had been an arcade, but then it was a small makeshift auditorium.”

The Lumina opened in 2000 in the Southern Village area of Chapel Hill. In July 2019 the owner, Bryan Property, announced the movie theater would close in September. Instead, Save Ferris LLC worked out a deal to take the Lumina over and update it: new seating, updated lobby, online ticketing and a general overhaul.

Then came the pandemic. WUNC says the Lumina closed in March 2020 and didn’t reopen until August 2022. On the plus side, the owners were now free to remodel without worrying about inconveniencing the customers, as they no longer had any.

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

The problem, Welman said, was that the owners were full-time professionals who’d taken over the Lumina “more to save their neighborhood theater than anything else.” Running a movie theater on top of day jobs proved difficult. Welman, by contrast, is a 40-year industry veteran whose company also owns the Sandhills 10 in Southern Pines. In 2022 he and the property owners got to talking. He saw a great theater with great potential, particularly with the Tap Room added in and took it over in April 2023.

“The theater never actually closed,” he said. “They were contemplating it when we stepped in.”

Welman said the big challenge since he took over is that the big Hollywood strike of 2023 has put a crimp in film production. In 2024, the number of films coming out was down around 20 percent from 2023. “Surprise, surprise, revenues are down about 20 percent. For our industry, that’s a lot.”

Still, Welman said, the long-term prognosis is good, with a strong slate of films for the rest of the year and 2025.  “We’re trying to book the top-grossing films in the country, trying to focus on driving as much film-content diversity as you can in a four-screen film.” The Lumina also prioritizes family films which he said fits with the Southwest Village community.

Family-friendly examples include the upcoming Harold and the Purple Crayon and the live-action My Penguin Friend, which Welman compared to Disney’s PG family-friendly fare from the 1970s and 1980s. The Lumina has also booked the R-rated Deadpool and Wolverine, which Welman said might prove the year’s biggest film.

Back on the family-friendly side of the movie world, Welman’s excited that Inside Out 2 comes out next week, not long after the cinema’s 24th anniversary. “Of the 24 years, the number one grossing film was Inside Out.” He’s hopeful the same magic will strike again.

Welman said that in the past he’s worked with medium-sized regional chains. Switching to a four-screen neighborhood theater is a change but he likes it. “We’re trying to be a great community gathering place. We’re the opposite of some of the other guys — we’re the small local guy, cozy, friendly, everyone-knows-your-name guy.”

Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.
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