Sundance Cinemas 608 arrives in Madison trailing a whiff of glamour. The new theater at Hilldale Mall is the brainchild of Robert Redford, and the local media have been panting over the Hollywood connection for months. Would Redford come to Madison for the project's opening on May 11? Would he? Would he?
I was as excited about Sundance as everybody else, but I hadn't gone gaga over its famous founder. Heavy breathing isn't my style.
At least it wasn't until last Friday. Then, out of the blue, Redford's people called offering an interview. "With...me?" I stammered.
I sat by the phone at the appointed hour, wondering if the Sundance Kid would really call. Would he? Would he?
He did. But I scarcely had time for the sophisticated opening line I'd been practicing: "I loved you in The Sting!" Redford launched right into a passionate discussion of Sundance Cinemas, the latest expression of his grand Sundance vision. It joins his Utah-based Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival as a means of developing an alternative to mainstream Hollywood.
Speaking eloquently, in that gorgeous voice, Redford, 70, laid out his plan for showing stimulating independent films in a setting that fosters community. He wanted Sundance Cinemas to have a bar, a restaurant and lounges so people could hang out and talk about the movie they just saw. He also wanted the Madison facility - the first in the Sundance chain - to reflect the city itself, rather than being a generic box that could have been plopped down anywhere in the country.
So why did Redford choose us? And will he, in fact, come here for the grand opening? Read on to learn the answers. I've artfully edited out my heavy breathing.
Any chance we'll see you in Madison for Sundance's May 11 opening?
It's breaking my heart that I can't be there. I've been waiting for this for two years, since Madison was my idea as the first place we should go to.
What happened was, I just finished a film, and we had an outdoor sequence to shoot that was supposed to be Afghanistan. The weather completely screwed around with us, and we lost two weeks. Because of the release date, which is the first of November, I was jammed right into the editing and couldn't leave.
But I will get a break in about two to three weeks, and I will come to Madison. I want to see the theater, put my hands on it. I want to be able to have the experience I've been looking forward to for two years.
Why did you choose Madison for the first Sundance Cinemas?
I'd been there years ago on a fund-raiser for Sen. Feingold, and I had known about Madison for years. It's the home of The Progressive magazine, and there were just a whole lot of connections with my interests. So I said to the two guys that are working for me on this, "If we could get into Madison, I would be a happy camper. That would be a great place to start, and maybe San Francisco after that."
You have to work your way through all the steps that it takes with permits and county regulations and so forth, and that's taken two years. Finally, here we are. To me, it's a dream fulfilled that we're able to open in Madison.
What's the idea behind Sundance Cinemas?
The idea is to have a broader vision for the experience than the mainstream. We want to work with the local people and use the local elements environmentally, like the local timber, the local stone and recycled elements. We want to create a sense of place, and each place will be different. Madison is Madison, and Madison has certain characteristics that are part of its heritage. We want to honor that.
So it's Sundance bringing its brand value - our film festival and our labs - into the community, but remembering that it is a community effort, rather than what some of the big retail giants do. You know, they come in and take a chunk of real estate, very often pushing aside the mom-and-pop places that are part of the community. They plant their brand there, take the money and run. They don't have any real involvement with the community.
We didn't want to treat people the way the mainstream tends to treat them in exhibition these days. They have 40 screens, and they jam you in and push you out as fast as possible into the parking lot to get another screening in. And you're blasted out of your seats with the trailers and all the marketing.
Will Sundance Cinemas reflect the indie philosophy of your Sundance Film Festival?
The idea would be to take as much of what we do in Park City [Utah] as possible and bring it into the country at large. Sundance's commitment is to discovering and supporting new and interesting voices in film, and following it through to create as many opportunities for that as possible.
The Sundance Institute is the lab program that I started in 1980 to develop new filmmakers. Once that was succeeding, they had nowhere to go, because the mainstream was blocking them out. The mainstream is committed to its 60-, 70-year-old relationship between the theater owners and the studios, and the collusion that existed left no spaces for independent film. We wanted to take the concept of supporting the new artists into exhibition.
Our goal is to have a public space in burst-out communities like Madison that provides audiences a chance to see fresh new original film and enjoy the cultural experience around it.
So will Sundance Cinemas show the films from the Sundance Film Festival?
At the festival, we're fairly restricted by our space requirements. We'll get 4,000 submissions, and we can only run 140 films. So at the Cinemas, we're going to be able to bring films that we didn't have the opportunity to play at Sundance. It's a broader choice that we can work with as we go out into the marketplace.
Will you be involved in choosing the films that play at Sundance Cinemas?
I'm involved, but I've only got so many fingers and hours in the day. I let the guys that are running this for me make the choices, but I'm pretty much involved in the concept. Is this the kind of thing that would be good for this community? Is there still the entertainment value so it's not too much like a castor-oil experience? Do we have enough diversity out there to satisfy multiple levels of audience?
Do you think there is a big audience out there for independent movies?
After the Sundance Film Festival looked like it was going to succeed - I didn't know that it would when we started, because it was so different and new - it began to explode with all kinds of new opportunities. We could go international; we could start to feature documentaries and international films on human rights. And what I noticed, somewhere around '91, '92, were the audiences. What started out as an opportunity for artists suddenly became a two-way street of opportunity. When I noticed the diversity of the audiences coming into the festival, I realized, "Oh, they're coming here because they're starved in the mainstream marketplace of choices."
So I thought, this must exist throughout the country. There are audiences that are being starved for alternatives and a broader spectrum to choose from. That led to the idea of taking as much of the concept of the festival as possible into the rest of the country.
How did you go from starring in mainstream movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to starting an independent-film movement?
I got antsy in the late '60s about being just an actor for hire, and I started to have ideas about films that I would like to author. I wanted to have more of a say in terms of subject matter. That led me into producing my own films, which I would act in. But for the kinds of films I wanted to make, whether it was The Candidate or Ordinary People or Quiz Show, the only way that could be done is if I produced them myself.
But in those days there was only a mainstream. There was no independent film. In order to make the films I wanted to make, I had to negotiate. Yes, I'll do the larger film if you will allow me to make the smaller film. They said yes, if you could do it for under $2 million. I enjoyed making those smaller films so much - the lean-and-mean, more guerrilla-style filmmaking, not as burdened with bureaucratic levels.
I realized that the industry was changing. I thought there had to be many others like myself who want this kind of experience. They're being denied because it doesn't exist. So that led to the concept of Sundance.
Is it risky to get involved in the film-exhibition business right now? Aren't people likely to be staying home in the near future to download movies off the Internet?
Yes, it's very risky. I heard that argument early on. Why are you doing this when everything's going the other direction? I said, you know, what I'm banking on is the idea of this being more of a cultural experience than just a straight-up entertainment experience.
I grew up in a very lower working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles. We didn't have a car, so for our entertainment we would walk one night a week to the local stand-alone theater. For 35 cents you would see two features, a Pathe newsreel of the Second World War going on, maybe a cartoon or two, and then a short. Years later, when I would go to see my own films in preview, I noticed the experience had almost become hostile. It was so vastly different from what I remembered as a kid. There'd be people shoved in and shoved out as fast as possible. And I thought, what if you went back to that original idea and said, "We're going to make this much more of a community experience, where the sense of place carries a great deal of weight."
When you go to see a film, you have a place to talk about it afterward. You can go into the bar, or into the restaurant, and students can come and have a place to work. I will always believe in the need for a human gathering place. As entertainment moves more into the home, and more into electronic units in front of your face, you're just sitting alone in a room. Being able to experience a film in a collective is a vastly different experience from just watching it alone on a screen.
I have no idea if it's going to work. I can only hope it does.