Not so very long ago, every downtown in America had a movie theater. In many places they were things of beauty, with marble in the lobby and gold leaf around the screen. It was an age when women wore white gloves to go shopping and men checked their hats at restaurant doors. Back then, going to the movies was an event: Scarlett lost Rhett, Lawrence stared out across vast Arabia, and the hills were alive with the sounds of music.
“Movies are shadow, they’re light,” effuses fictional movie producer Buddy Fidler in the musical City of Angels. “They’re faces 10 feet high.”
Is it any wonder, then, that we used to call cinemas movie palaces?
Today we see movies at the multiplex (or streamed instantly in the living room), and movie magic means special effects and epic sound. You can never bring back the nostalgia lost to an age gone by, but even as the way we watch the movies has changed, the experience of going to one can still be powerful.
“I don’t think anything takes the place of the community feeling of going to the movies,” says Nancy Gribler, vice president of marketing for Sundance Cinemas, which this winter moves into the space formerly occupied by the Angelika Film Center.
With the opening of the new cinema, Sundance is looking to recapture the idea that going to the movies is an experience like no other. The company – an arm of Robert Redford’s Sundance Group, which also owns the Sundance Institute, the Sundance Catalog, the Redford Center, cable’s Sundance Channel, the Sundance Resort and the renowned Sundance Film Festival – took over the Angelika space earlier this year.
The expansion into Houston marks the third in the Sundance Cinemas chain (the first Sundance Cinema, Sundance Kabuki, opened in San Francisco and there is another in Madison, Wis.)
Gribler says Sundance completely renovated the space in Bayou Place, taking it down nearly to the studs. It now sports newer, plusher seats and brand-new equipment. The café space has been re-imagined. Sundance Cinemas Houston will still sport eight screens, just like the Angelika, but expect an entirely difference movie-going experience than you’ve had before.
“Every seat is reserved,” says Gribler, meaning your ticket won’t just say that you have a seat, but that you have a specific seat. Moviegoers can see seating charts and purchase tickets in advance on Sundance Cinemas Houston’s website, and may also buy tickets at the box office.
Gribler stresses that this single change of having your seat waiting for you affects the entire experience of an evening or an afternoon at the movies. Having reserved seats guarantees that you won’t have to fight to look for a place to sit, a not unimportant consideration if you’re thinking of seeing that new blockbuster everyone’s talking about or want to head to the movies on a busy night or weekend. It also ensures that your movie going is a more relaxed outing.
“There is no need to rush and stand in line, and people can sit with their friends,” says Paul Richardson, president and CEO of Sundance Cinemas, which he started with Sundance Group president Robert Redford back in 2007. “An additional important part of the experience is being able to enjoy a beverage of your choice, alcoholic or not, plus non-fried food casual dining or grazing at your seat while you enjoy the movie. All dining and drinking offerings will be self serve so the movie watching experience will not be disrupted by the talking of servers and the comings and goings while the film is on screen. Every other seat will have a small tablette between them so you and your partner will have a place for your drinks and food.”
If that sounds sophisticated and grown-up, that’s the idea. Gribler stresses the idea of this being a leisurely outing, and Richardson says that Sundance Cinemas deliberately set out to improve how we go to the movies – not just what we see. He says the company’s market research showed there was a sizable audience for grown-up Hollywood films, but that audience wasn’t necessarily interested in standing in line with throngs of teenagers on a Friday night.
They were, however, interested in quality cinema and an elevated cinematic experience, which is what Sundance sets out to deliver. That should come as no surprise, given that the Sundance Film Festival is one of the most important in the world, and that Redford’s company has always made showcasing new and important works a priority. Expect the offerings at Sundance Cinemas Houston to be an eclectic combination of genres.
“We call our film programming approach hybrid since it mixes quality Hollywood films, studio boutique films, and films from the micro distributors,” says Richardson. “And having eight screens of varying sizes at the new Sundance Cinemas Houston gives us the opportunity to play a wide variety of films.”
Richardson knows a thing or two about offering diverse movie options to Houston’s diverse population. He attended the University of Houston for two years in the early 1970s, but said he never once ventured into downtown. After a 1976 visit to the Bayou City, he was impressed with the city’s emerging arts scene – so much so that he convinced his partner that they should take over the old River Oaks Theatre as the third cinema in their fledgling chain, Landmark Theatres.
“The River Oaks was an instant hit playing nostalgia, foreign language and American independent films,” says Richardson, who, during his decades with the company, saw Houston’s arts scene flourish and downtown come alive. Even after starting Sundance Cinemas four years ago, he says he never lost interest in Houston.
“I always kept my eye on Houston and jumped at the opportunity to grab the former Angelika space when it became available,” he says. “I can’t wait for the theater to open for business on Nov. 23. I feel that I have come home.”
Both Richardson and Gribler agree that Sundance Cinemas will be a perfect fit for Houston, given the way the city supports all forms of arts and culture.
“My goodness, does Houston embrace the arts,” says Gribler.
That cultural connection makes it possible for Sundance Cinemas Houston to feel confident that its choice of programming will work well here. In addition to the types of films listed above, Richardson says the cinema obviously plans to support films that play at the Sundance Film Festival.
Throughout the winter, moviegoers can look for a variety of activities designed to showcase the full depth of Sundance Cinemas’ commitment to the movies.
While decisions are still being made about which films will be shown for the new theater’s opening, Houstonians can expect to see flicks that demonstrate why Sundance is synonymous with cinema.
“We play the best of what’s available,” says Gribler, who explains that Sundance Cinemas sends representatives to multiple film festivals – not just the Sundance Film Festival – in search of great stories and movies sure to appeal to Sundance Cinemas audiences. She says that the theater will be showing performances of the National Theatre of London’s productions of A Comedy of Errors and The Collaborators, offering an opportunity for audience members to see world-class theater in Sundance’s comfortable setting.
She also says that movie lovers should mark Jan. 26, 2012 on their calendars.
For the third year in a row, Sundance Cinemas will fly a filmmaker and his or her film to nine U.S. cities, including Houston. There will be a showing of the film, after which audience members can ask questions of the filmmaker. This happens right in the middle of the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s an opportunity for moviegoers to see a film that’s been entered into it and hear what it took to get the story to the screen directly from the filmmaker.
It’s experiences like this, coupled with the relaxing setting and bistro fare, that Richardson and Gribler say make Sundance Cinemas different. It’s more than seeing another art film, or the latest from a hip new director. The company’s commitment to the movies and the people who love them means that audience members feel they are part of something unique.
“I feel confidence that people want that experience,” says Gribler. “It brings back the idea that going to the movies is special.”