News Column

Cape Fear Profile: Cameo Art House owners Nasim and Chris Kuenzel amazed at community support

May 26, 2013

YellowBrix

May 26--Reels of 35 mm film whirred through projectors at the Cameo Art House Theatre in downtown Fayetteville for the last time this month.

It was bittersweet for owners Nasim and Chris Kuenzel -- and thrilling.

Their 13-year-old independent theater had been pushed to the brink of ruin by expensive changes in movie distribution technology. Then, at nearly the last minute, it was saved by an outpouring of generosity from customers, fans and friends, who donated more than $100,000 to help the Kuenzels buy new digital movie projectors that the Cameo needed to keep operating.

With its happy ending, the story was not unlike one right out of ... the movies.

Shared interests

There have been plenty of twists and turns in the life script of Nasim and Chris Kuenzel, who share a love of eclectic stories, beautiful images, clean lines, sturdy structures, friendly atmospheres and bustling downtowns.

They're partial to each other, too, which is good since they not only live together, they work together running two businesses -- the Cameo and their architecture practice, K2a Kuenzel Architecture + Design.

"It really is a great partnership," Nasim said. "I have to say that I'm so lucky I met Chris because our tastes are so similar when it comes to music, film, art, architecture, traveling. I so respect what he recommends. That's why I think we really have a great work relationship."

Chris, who's 54, and Nasim, 53, grew up with a love of going to the movies since they were children. For Nasim, that was in pre-revolutionary Iran, where she was born and raised and which had a strong artistic tradition, including movies by Iranian filmmakers.

"We always, as a family, used to go to all these film festivals," she said. "How could you not like movies?"

In St. Petersburg, Fla., where Chris grew up, a trip to the movie theater was the highlight of a day spent downtown. He loved the whole experience.

After high school, Nasim moved with an uncle to the United States to study architecture. It was a good time to get out -- just ahead of the violent overthrow of the Iranian government by Islamic fundamentalists and the subsequent clampdown on society.

"I think my parents kind of sensed that things were going to get crazy and that this would be a good time to break," she said.

After two years at a junior college, she enrolled at the University of Florida, where she planned to pursue her architecture studies. There, she met Chris, who was following a similar track.

They studied techniques, theories and effects of urban design in preparation for their future careers. In their off time, they often went to offbeat and independent movies that were always being featured in their college town.

"So many nights, we had the choice of studying for the next day's test or going to catch the film that was there for only one night," Nasim recalled with a laugh. "You can guess what we did."

In the early '90s, they pondered moving. Chris, for one, was sick of the muggy Florida climate. When an architect friend who had moved to North Carolina urged them to move here, they listened. They were particularly intrigued by Eric Lindstrom's enthusiastic descriptions of his new city's downtown.

So they drove to Fayetteville and found a downtown where "everything was boarded up." It was 1994 and Fayetteville's once-thriving downtown had evaporated.

"I kept saying, 'Where is downtown?' and he kept saying 'Wait until you see this really cool hotel. It's right in the middle of downtown,'" Nasim said. "And I was like ... 'Where is downtown?' "

She laughed at the memory.

"We knew there was just no way we could stay here. There was no downtown."

But the couple, who specialize in renovating buildings, couldn't ignore the possibilities they saw in Fayetteville's neglected downtown. Nor could they resist the interest in downtown revival that was bubbling in others in the community.

So they moved, figuring they'd stay a few years, then move on. Fayetteville would be a stepping stone.

Chris joined Lindstrom's firm and became project architect on a couple of major downtown projects -- construction of a five-story customer-service center for the Public Works Commission on the site of the former Lafayette Hotel on Hay Street, and conversion of an old hardware store into a brew pub and retail space.

Lindstrom was deeply involved in downtown projects, both professionally and personally. He'd bought a two-story building on Hay Street, which had fallen into such disrepair that it lacked a roof. He restored the building, turning the first floor into retail space and the second floor into his own apartment.

The friends talked about downtown's possibilities and about combining urban renewal with historic preservation. They also talked about the what-ifs of opening a movie theater in downtown Fayetteville. The three, all film buffs, knew that a theater was "one of those things that can really drive activity in a downtown urban area," Lindstrom said.

But it was all just talk -- until 1995.

Nasim said she and Eric had driven to a job site in Onslow County and were talking again about what it would take to create an art cinema in downtown Fayetteville. Suddenly, Nasim said, it started snowing.

"It was the most bizarre thing," she said. "I remember Eric said, 'It's snowing and it normally doesn't snow here.' And it wasn't snowing anywhere else. It wasn't snowing in Raleigh or Fayetteville."

But it was snowing there, in coastal North Carolina, and suddenly the notion of an art cinema in downtown Fayetteville changed in their minds from an idea to a mission.

"We were, 'Why not?' " Nasim said. " 'How hard could it be? Let's do it!' And I tell you, we could not drive fast enough to get back to corner Chris and say, 'We're doing it, we're doing it, and I know you're in.' "

Years of planning

Their vision took years. They visited other independent theaters and researched their operations and costs and put together a business plan that was so detailed it even factored in the cost of flashlights. They acquired a property -- a decrepit building on Hay Street that had once housed Fayetteville's earliest movie theater. They had to get financing and pour in their own money besides. And they had to renovate it.

It all came to fruition on Oct. 14, 2000, when the Cameo Art House Theatre opened with the Fayetteville premiere of "Shadow of the Vampire," an acclaimed remake of "Nosferatu." Admiring patrons took in the tall glass doors, the glamorous lobby with a spiral staircase to the projection booth, the velvet seats, the ceiling display of surviving pieces of the original tin roof, the gourmet goodies -- and the movies.

"Are we really in Fayetteville?" asked one.

They were. And so were the Kuenzels, along with Lindstrom, then a full partner in the cinema.

Notions of one day moving on were replaced by an all-out commitment to making their dream work. It took time and money, and then more time and more money. As the years passed, they added a second, smaller auditorium on the second floor of the Cameo and started bringing in major movies along with independent films to try to suit their customers.

Sometimes, they lost money. When they made money, it wasn't a lot. But lots of money was never the point. The cinema was the point, with the movies it showed and the people it welcomed and the place it had become.

"We are really in it because we enjoy watching those films as much as everybody else does," Nasim said. "That's it."

But that's not just it. The couple are at the cinema generally every weekend, greeting people, making sure the new films are working out and watching over operations. The rest of the week, they're planning and doing paperwork -- and handling their architecture business. They formed K2a Kuenzel Architecture + Design in 2003.

Fortunately, the two businesses have complementary time demands -- architecture's usually during the day, the cinema at night and on weekends.

And there's family time. The couple, who live above their architecture office in a historic home they restored, have two daughters -- Kalesia, 27, who owns a design business in Raleigh, and Kamrin, 13, a seventh-grader.

After the economy nose-dived, so did their architecture business. They filled their time with trying to get the Cameo on a healthier financial track while waiting for architecture to recover. But last year it looked like it might be for naught.

The Kuenzels learned that the movie business was moving much more quickly than they'd anticipated to digital distribution. The change would save distributors millions in shipping costs since a movie could be contained on a disk instead of several large and heavy film reels. And digital movies were harder to pirate.

But it meant big costs for theaters, which had to acquire new projectors to accommodate the new technology. Chains had the financial wherewithal to pull off the acquisitions. It has been much harder for independent theaters such as the Cameo, which couldn't get help from the bank with its break-even business and an existing loan.

The Kuenzels needed $200,000 -- and had no idea how they'd come up with it. They tried to drum up extra income from people who might rent the facility for special events.

"We tried to let people know, 'Listen, guys, privately, use us. Use us in any way you can,' " Nasim said.

But by last fall, things looked grim.

By then, word had trickled out to some of their regular patrons.

"I really did feel panicky," said Sara VanderClute, the retired public information director for Cumberland County. She said she goes to the Cameo weekly with her husband and considers it an important and beautiful anchor of downtown Fayetteville.

"I really can't imagine it not being there," she said.

Urged on by Sylvia Ray, another Cameo fan, VanderClute marshaled her skills and contacts, and, with Ray and six others, formed a Save the Cameo committee that began a campaign to raise $100,000 by the end of the year -- a mere 2 1/2months away.

"It was a character-building experience," said VanderClute, who knew the Kuenzels only casually before the fundraising campaign began.

"I got lectured. I understood this. There were people who were very resistant to the idea of giving money to a for-profit business. In capitalism, a business is supposed to thrive on its merits."

But "they had an extraordinary need thrust on them," VanderClute said.

And if the Cameo closed, she said, it would be Fayetteville's loss.

Chris hoped for the best, but frankly expected that it wouldn't work.

To his and Nasim's astonishment, it did. The campaign raised more than its goal and the money was presented to the Cameo -- as a gift. It was a moment that George Bailey would have appreciated.

"We really didn't know there were so many amazing people in Fayetteville," Nasim said.

Lindstrom, who left the business of the Cameo a few years ago but still owns the cinema building with the Kuenzels and still loves the theater, said the outpouring of community support was overwhelming.

"Having read about other theaters trying to raise money (for digital projectors), the prognosis from reading trade journals and such was pretty bleak," he said. "It really was just amazing to see. Certainly for Chris and Nasim, and, I guess, myself, it was an affirmation that the Cameo became what we wanted it to be, which is a destination where people feel comfortable."

On May 6, the last day the old film projectors were used, the theater invited its donors to a free screening of the 1988 Italian film "Cinema Paradiso." Fittingly, the movie is about the importance of a town cinema and the movies it shows in the lives of the people there.

Standing at the front of the auditorium before the lights dimmed, Nasim addressed the audience with a smile and a catch in her voice.

"We couldn't think of a better way to spend the day than with you watching one of the first movies that we showed here," she said. "Thank you all for supporting us. Thank you so much."

That night, workers began removing the old projectors and installing their replacements. The digital projectors debuted May 9 with the local premiere of "The Great Gatsby."

The Kuenzels say they're relieved the Cameo survived this threat.

"It was very nerve-wracking," Chris said. "I wouldn't want to go through it again. We want to renovate buildings downtown and show good movies. That's where our expertise lies."

But the small theater's fight for survival isn't over. These days, cinemas compete with alternative ways of watching movies, as well as other forms of entertainment. The Kuenzels say their challenge is to find ways to continue showing interesting movies from off the beaten track while bringing in more customers so the theater can maintain a healthy bottom line.

"Hopefully, this will kind of reinvigorate things," Chris said.

Chris and Nasim Kuenzel

Ages: Chris 54, Nasim, 53

Family: Two daughters, Kalesia, 27, and Kamrin, 13

Businesses: Cameo Art House Theatre and K2a Kuenzel Architecture + Design

Staff writer Catherine Pritchard can be reached at pritchardc@fayobserver.comor 486-3517.

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(c)2013 The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.)

Visit The Fayetteville Observer (Fayetteville, N.C.) at www.fayobserver.com

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