These days, with streaming downloadable movies, with Netflix, Apple, and YouTube, with the glut of so many visuals so readily available everywhere and the Internet poised to become the fount of most people’s film-viewing experience, the notion of going to a movie theater feels like an idea that has passed its prime. When I drive around San Francisco, where I live, one frequent feature of the landscape is a boarded-up movie house. Not just a few, but many. If they’ve not been boarded up, they have become something else: a gym, a food market, a sidewalk church.
Has the independent movie house seen its last days? Robert Redford, for one, thinks not. In 2005 he was approached by Paul Richardson, President and CEO of Landmark Theaters, and Bert Manzari, who was that company's President of Film and Marketing. These men had built Landmark into the largest independent movie theater organization in the country, and had a long history not only of survival, but of success in the marketing and presentation of independent films.
They proposed to Redford a new kind of theater. It wasn’t enough, they said, to just take the people’s money, sell them some popcorn, and show them a movie. The decline in ticket sales at independent theaters was proof of that. Their idea was that the movie house should be a “destination,” which is to say a place that, yes, shows movies, but also provides other amenities that would attract larger audiences. A good adjoining restaurant, perhaps. Screening rooms in which drinks are served to an adult audience. A café in which the audience can enjoy a meal and a glass of wine while watching the movie. In other words, a much higher-quality and more convivial atmosphere than a standard theater, a place where a film can be enjoyed, talked about, even debated in friendly circumstances by people who really love the movies.
They further noted that that Mr. Redford’s “Sundance” brand was instantly recognizable to the kinds of people this idea would attract. The Sundance Film Festival in Utah is a major annual event in film, both artistically and in terms of business, and it is observed closely by the mainstream movie industry and the film-going public. The Sundance Channel on cable television is an important source of information about new, independent film, and a principal vehicle through which lesser-known filmmakers can get their work seen by a large audience. If the Sundance name could be given to this new theater idea, it would instantly attract a paying audience that likes what Mr. Redford and his Sundance enterprises have so successfully achieved.
Mr. Redford was enthused, and the three men founded a company called Sundance Cinemas, the object of which is to make the movie theater the renewed center of the film experience for the viewing audience.
There are now two such cinema complexes. The first was opened in Madison, Wisconsin at the Hilldale Mall. Nancy Klasky Gribler, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Sundance Cinemas, says that “we wanted a university town with an educated life-style, because we believe that these are the kinds of people who will come to our kind of cinema.”
The second venue is in San Francisco, a city with a substantial like-minded population. “We provide such a different atmosphere than that found in most movie theaters,” Ms. Gribler says. “No commercials running before the films. A very comfortable experience. Excellent food and drink. A much more adult experience. And great movies.”
The San Francisco Sundance Cinemas occupy the space formerly known as the Kabuki Cinema, in the Japan-town complex on O’Farrell Street. The complex contains eight screens, two small bistros and a full-service restaurant. The atmosphere when you enter the theaters is much more inviting than that of the current mainstream movie theater venue. Here there is no pre-packaged, industrialized, Hollywood-studio, mall/theme-park atmosphere with excessive noise, impersonal attention, great numbers of very over-priced snacks, and those market-driven movies – aimed at the 13-year-old demographic – that now seem everywhere and inescapable.
Not that Sundance isn’t conscious of the marketplace. Ms. Gribler is clear about the fact that making money is an important goal, and it shows in the mix of films that are on view here as of this writing: Sex And The City, Mongol, Love Guru, Indiana Jones 4, The Fall, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, and Woman On The Beach. “And we have a distinctly unusual manner in going about that,” she says. “We provide people with something comfortable and welcoming. It’s a first-class experience… not just a Hollywood experience."
And how does the public feel so far? “The idea works,” Ms. Gribler says. “I’m the person in the organization who gets letters from patrons, and many people write just to describe the experience in one of our theaters. It’s almost always a very positive response.”
The San Francisco International Film Festival is the longest-running such event in the Americas, and Graham Leggat is the Executive Director. “Paul Richardson has always been a friend and partner to the local San Francisco film culture,” Mr. Leggat says. “And we very much liked Sundance’s idea of how to present films. The old Kabuki complex was the home of the San Francisco festival for many years, and it seemed a natural for us to continue there after Sundance had taken over. So Sundance and The Film Festival decided to forge a similar relationship with each other. Sundance Cinemas is the ideal location for us, and our being there was very good for Sundance. Our patrons got a very valuable personal experience with the extra services that Sundance offers, and this year we sold 60,000 tickets to festival events there.”
The relationship did not stop with just the festival. The two organizations decided to offer a venue for independent films that otherwise would have very little opportunity to be viewed by a larger audience. To that end, Sundance has dedicated one of the screens in its San Francisco complex to independent films that are booked into the theater by The San Francisco Film Society, which is the governing non-profit that runs the San Francisco International Film Festival.
While mainstream films booked into the theaters are touted by substantial marketing and advertising machines, these smaller films have no such advantage. The Hollywood films will run for as long as tickets sell. The Film Society films, by contrast, are placed on a calendar and given a set period of time to be shown, no matter the length of the line waiting to see them. Each film is shown for a period of one week, seven days a week, five shows a day.
“We do our business person to person, with close and frequent interaction with our audience," Mr. Leggat says. "It’s a different way of going about things than Sundance normally employs, but there are significant similarities in our goals, which make this arrangement such a good one.”
“We like it because it fits so well into the Sundance philosophy of assisting emerging filmmakers,” Ms. Gribler adds.
Robert Redford himself is actively involved in the initiative. “This year we achieved a long standing goal,” he writes, “to offer artists the opportunity to exhibit and patrons the opportunity to watch in their own communities, the finest independent entertainment in first class, state of the art cinemas on a daily basis, not just for the ten days in January [of The Sundance Film Festival]."
Sundance Cinemas plans to open more of these state-of-the-art facilities in many major cities.