At any other shopping-mall tour, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton probably would have been the main attraction. But last week, as Lawton, reporters and other guests received a tour of the mostly completed Sundance Cinemas 608, she was hardly noticed. The large, purpose-built entertainment and dining complex at the southern end of Hilldale Mall is just too well appointed to share the public stage with a speechifying politician.
Sundance opens on May 11 with screenings of Waitress, TV Set, Black Book, Air Guitar Nation, After the Wedding and Away From Her. Before then, the venue hosts grand-opening benefit events for the Chazen Museum of Art (May 6, 5 p.m.), the River Alliance of Wisconsin (May 7, 6 pm) and OutReach (May 8, 5:30 p.m.).
Among Sundance's unexpected esthetic touches: the artist-crafted cement countertop in the second-floor bar/bistro, the inviting groupings of clubby brown stuffed leather chairs on the ground floor, and the tasteful shade of teal that outlines the riverine flow of the sprawling lobby's ceiling.
If the look of the place doesn't grab you, the eating and drinking options should. On the lobby level, the concession stand doubles as a full-service coffee bar serving Peet's brand coffee that will be open from early morning to late at night. Wi-Fi is available to all comers in the lounges that flank the lobby, so you can expect to see more than a few folks hunkering down with their iBooks after the doors swing open.
On the second floor, the bar and bistro offer patrons (including those who have no plans to catch a film) a chance to spend a full evening within Sundance's walls. Our tour group didn't get to check out the theater's rooftop bar, but it promises to be a destination in itself.
Locals in search of a quality film-going experience are probably going to like this place - a lot. During last week's tour, press types and members of Lawton's party let out cries of pleasure as they sank into the rocking "love seats" that will cradle every customer in Sundance's six theaters. The feedback was just as strong when Sundance marketing VP Nancy Gribler said that the touch-screen system for purchasing advance reserved seats for every film and showtime was "the first of its kind in Wisconsin."
Gribler couldn't provide a firm date for when the online component of Sundance's booking system would be taking orders. You'll need to keep checking back at sundancecinemas.com until that feature is up and running.
On the technical side, Sundance's six theaters are also impressive. They are all equipped with surround sound and a state-of-the-art projection system that can handle both digital video and 35 mm films. And none of that technology will be profaned by television-style advertisements. Instead, production staff associated with the Sundance Channel are creating all the material that screens before the features.
In the middle of last week's tour, Lawton stepped up to give an impromptu speech about how Sundance will dovetail nicely with the area's growing "creative economy" and raise the state's profile as a friendly destination for the national film industry. I'm not sure it will do the latter, particularly since the state legislature refuses to push up the start date for tax credits included in the Film Wisconsin Bill. But it does promise to be an exceptional new local amenity, and it just may make the newly expanded Hilldale the place to be this summer. Well, at least on the west side.