Ever since Sundance Cinemas 608 opened in May, posts to the TheDailyPage.com Forum have brimmed with indignation about the sliding service charge attached to the plush new theater complex's ticket prices. The Capital Times has also gotten into the Sundance-bashing business, with columnist Doug Moe sneering about the "phony service charge."
So why does Sundance attach as much as $3 to the regular ticket price for prime evening show times?
Sundance CEO Paul Richardson says the extra dough is to cover amenities that aren't offered by other movie theaters in the area, including the premium viewing experience, the reserved seating, the custom-produced pre-show features that are free of ads, the free gallery space for local artists, the free Wi-Fi and the green architecture.
"It's really the level of finish [of the complex] and the fact that we don't sell ads onscreen," Richardson says. He adds that Sundance's financial model requires that the theater net an additional $2 per customer above the base price of a ticket.
Richardson admits that Sundance shot itself in the foot early on when publicity materials first indicated that the extra fee went to securing a reserved seat. But that's just one of the theater's premium amenities, he says, and the theater was remiss in not indicating as much.
As for employing a sliding scale for the service fee depending on the time and day of the week customers attend a film, Richardson says it's a matter fairness: "We felt it was fair to charge a premium for the prime shows, and then scale it back for the less prime shows. That gives people a choice." (Sundance charges no additional fee for the first show of the day Mondays through Thursdays.)
But might the sliding scale actually add to the confusion about the true cost of ticket? UW film professor J.J. Murphy thinks so. Murphy is all for having more options to view independent and foreign films in Madison, and he's glad that Sundance has come to town. On the other hand, he says that some premium theaters, like New York's International Film Center, manage to offer restaurants, bars and a prime screening experience without resorting to additional fees. Indeed, Murphy thinks Sundance might have avoided a lot of grumbling by simply charging a higher ticket price.
"People in the Midwest are straight shooters or straight thinkers," he says, "and they need to understand the logic behind [Sundance's pricing]."
Murphy says that Sundance may have gone the service route because of how the company splits receipts with film distributors. Typically, ticket receipts are split with distributors, he says, but a service charge might not have to be.
Richardson won't say what Sundance's split is or even if there is a split. Replying to Isthmus ' query, he noted in an email message that "unfortunately, our license agreements with distribution prohibit disclosing any business terms."
Richardson thinks that local filmgoers will get used to the service charge once they understand where the extra fees are going. But if that's not the case, he says the fledgling chain would consider the most obvious alternative: chucking the charge and upping the cost of a ticket.