It should come as a relief to fans of the now-defunct Laemmle Sunset 5 that its replacement, the newly opened Sundance Sunset Cinema, isn't an altogether different moviegoing experience. The Robert Redford-owned chain plays similar films — this weekend's slate consisted of Chicken with Plums, The Good Doctor, Searching for Sugar Man, and Robot & Frank — is located in the exact same spot, and even has the old sign up.
The only real difference is the new look. Completely renovated, the new theater is sleek and upscale where the old one's character came largely from its charming austerity. Comparisons to the ArcLight and Landmark are thus inevitable, but the Sundance's much smaller size makes it feel more tucked away and intimate. In short, it's absorbed as much of its DNA from the Laemmle as it has from the Landmark — hardly a bad thing.
When I wrote last week (see our Sundance Sunset Cinemas interview with Robert Redford) that the swankier, more upscale environs would “likely will come with matching ticket prices,” I wasn't joking — tickets to a 4:45 showing of Chicken with Plums ran $14 apiece, a price that's far from exorbitant these days but enough to make coming here feel like a conscious decision rather than just a way to kill a few hours. Really, though, this in keeping with Redford's mission statement for the whole endeavor: The chain aims to make going to the movies an “event” in the way old single-screen theaters used to.
Another point of divergence between the Sundance and its above-mentioned competitors is in its more gastropub approach. In addition to standard fare, guests have several gourmet options to choose from: lobster rolls, baked mini corn dogs, five pizzas, and more than 20 artisan beers and California wines. (There are even trays between every pair of seats on which to rest your food.) None of this is exactly cheap, but when you consider that the average multiplex soda costs $5 these days, it's easy to argue that the dollar-for-dollar value here is better. The same is true for the Sundance as a whole.
Luxury theaters like this one bank on the idea that, if people are willing to pay $12 to go to AMC or Regal, they'll probably also spend a few bucks more and treat themselves to something nicer. Movies are already overpriced; they might as well be enjoyable, too. For my money (literally), the price difference is usually worth it.
With an abundance of employees dressed in black, a second-floor lounge full of leather chairs and muted, earth-tone decor, the Sundance is clearly turning the class factor up to 11 — or maybe 7, as anything higher would be too overstated. Given the abundance of seating options (there are a patio outside the entrance and plush chairs scattered throughout the lobby), it appears to be cultivating an atmosphere that's conducive to pre- and post-movie hangouts. Since people already like discussing the movie they just saw over a meal, the rationale seems to be, why not create a space that allows them to do so without actually leaving the theater? It's not a bad thought, though how many people will feel like shelling out $11 for an 8-inch chicken pesto pizza after spending at least that much on the movie itself is difficult to judge.