We may be in a recession, but you'd never know it at Sundance Cinemas.
"We are extraordinarily pleased with how Madison has done from the day it opened, and we've had a particularly fine late fall and winter season," says Nancy Klasky Gribler, Sundance Cinemas' executive vice president of marketing.
"We're having one of our busiest months ever with our programming right now," says Madison general manager Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray.
The theater, brainchild of Robert Redford, opened in the Hilldale Shopping Center in May 2007. Sundance opened in San Francisco a few months later. Plans for two more cinemas have been announced, in Chicago's West Loop and in Denver. "We have not announced any other projects, [but] we anticipate having some announcements in the later part of 2009," says Klasky Gribler from Los Angeles.
In retrospect, Sundance's success may appear foreordained: Give people good movies in nice surroundings, and they will come. But that overlooks the fact that two earlier Sundance Cinemas projects failed, in Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.
Sundance's partner in those ventures, General Cinemas, declared bankruptcy in 2000. Variety blamed "creeping malaise" in the exhibition industry. "There's little reason to believe the arthouse segment is any healthier" than the rest of the market, stated the entertainment newspaper. "Sundance Cinemas is dead."
So why does Madison work?
"I think that it was just the right opportunity at the right time," says Endrizzi-Ray. "Sundance is perfect for a town like Madison, where we're more educated."
One boost may have come Dec. 14, when nearby Westgate Art Cinemas closed. However, Endrizzi-Ray is uncertain. "That's still pretty new," she says. "I'm not sure what the effect is yet."
Another factor may be Sundance's programming flexibility. The theater hasn't been above exhibiting mainstream hits to underwrite its independent features.
"It's evolving a little bit," says Endrizzi-Ray. "We've brought some things like [James] Bond and Sex and the City. Things like that that work so well because we have a bar and you can bring your drinks right into the theater. So we've brought some films like that in so we can bring in the smaller films.
"But then we have some of the independent films like Slumdog Millionaire and Milk that are selling out. That is amazing."
In late November changes were also made to Sundance's food and drink service. "That's evolving as well," Endrizzi-Ray says. "We have added a lobby bar and north lounge eating area. We added that just because our patrons wanted to get mixed drinks and food faster so they could be able to take it into the theater with them. And that allows me to - if I want to - be able to rent out the second floor for events."
Says Klasky Gribler, "We are a small, growing company, and we learn with each location we build. We are extremely encouraged with our 'circuit' thus far."