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Originally published July 18, 2013 at 5:37 PM | Page modified July 19, 2013 at 9:30 PM

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Robert Redford’s Sundance Cinemas opens Friday in Seattle

Robert Redford talks about the Seattle opening of Sundance Cinemas, a chain of theaters devoted to art-house movies and high-end Hollywood fare.

Seattle Times movie critic

If you go

Sundance Cinemas

4500 9th Ave. N.E., Seattle; 206-633-0059, sundancecinemas.com.

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his business acumen seems deficient He built his film festival up from nothing, it... MORE
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When the Sundance Cinemas chain began six years ago, Robert Redford envisioned it in Seattle.

“I love Seattle. I have friends there, I’ve climbed and skied in the Cascades around there,” said the actor/director/Sundance Group president on the phone last week. “I thought, ‘Seattle’s a really happening place, it’s young, it’s vital ... I would really love to go there.’ ”

It didn’t happen right away — the first Sundance Cinema opened in Madison, Wisconsin in 2007, and three more followed in San Francisco, West Hollywood and Houston — but it’s finally here. The former Metro Cinemas, in the University District, was acquired by the Sundance Group last year, and this Friday will have its grand reopening after a major remodel, complete with improved seating, a bistro and bar, Northwest art in the lobby, reserved seats, no pesky commercials before the movie, and a planned mixture of mainstream and art-house fare.

And yes, you’ll pay a little more for the experience: Most Sundance showings charge an “amenity fee,” in addition to the regular ticket price, of $1 to $3.

It’s the latest expansion of Redford’s Sundance brand, which began back in 1980 with the nonprofit Sundance Institute, intended to help independent filmmakers find their way. Redford, who became a star in ’70s Hollywood, said he began noticing then that mainstream filmmaking was changing: “following the youth market, taking advantage of new technology where special effects could play a greater role, moving toward franchise films.”

The institute, which began with workshops and labs for filmmakers, soon expanded into the Sundance Film Festival, focused on independent moviemaking; later came the Sundance Channel.

“I began to think, ‘Why couldn’t we take this concept and take it into a theater?’ ” remembered Redford. “Why not go into a space and work with the local community, so local artists would have a space to have their work shown, a bar, a restaurant, a place where people could gather around the films, mix up (independent films) with mainstream films. That concept was in opposition to what I could see happening — these multiplexes with 20 screens and thin walls, taking the experience down.”

Paul Richardson, co-founder and former chief executive officer of the Landmark chain, was appointed head of Sundance Cinemas (one of seven entities in the Sundance Group). Remembering Seattle from his Landmark days, he agreed that it would be a perfect location.

“For decades, Seattle has been a city that on a per-capita basis outperforms in terms of moviegoing,” he said. “There’s an intellectual audience there, there’s an audience that likes to read books. And it rains, which is the perfect combination for good cinema.”

What Sundance Cinemas offers isn’t currently duplicated in Seattle: Central Cinema on Capitol Hill offers food and a full bar, but not first-run movies; The Big Picture in Belltown (and Redmond) has a full bar and new movies but limited food offerings, though their recently opened Movie Lounge at nearby restaurant Henry and Oscar’s offers second-run movies and a dinner/bar menu.

Outside of the city, the iPic cinemas in Redmond offer an upscale experience; Cinebarre, in Mountlake Terrace, serves casual food and bar drinks, with in-theater service.

One challenge the new Sundance Seattle faces: Despite its student-heavy University District neighborhood, it will be open only to a 21-and-older clientele. This, Richardson said, is not the chain’s choice or preference, but is due to state liquor restrictions that apply to movie theaters.

“We can either serve alcohol (in the theaters) and be over 21 all the time, or we cannot serve alcohol,” he said, noting that some Sundance Cinemas in other states have the option of making only selected screens/showings 21-and-older. (Central Cinema, which is all-ages, is an exception because it offers restaurantlike table service only; no snack bar.)

Richardson said initial programming will be a mix of “the best of the Hollywood movies and the best of the art-house movies,” and that in the fall, the theater will begin booking “more esoteric films” he hopes will be audience hits. Starting Friday, the theater will be playing an assortment of films ranging from “Red 2” and “The Conjuring” to the Pedro Almodóvar comedy “I’m So Excited” and the Middle East drama “The Attack.”

Redford, who says he hopes to make it to Seattle soon, is still busy making movies: He stars in the one-man adventure film “All Is Lost,” out in theaters this fall — a shipwreck drama with no other cast members or dialogue. Redford will also make his superhero-film debut in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (out next year), and will produce and star in a long-planned adaptation of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.” The latter is a project he once envisioned for himself and his longtime friend Paul Newman, who died in 2008; Nick Nolte is now playing the role intended for Newman.

But the Sundance Cinemas are clearly close to his heart. “The artist needed to be respected, and the audience needed to be respected,” he said of his original philosophy for the cinemas. “You want to create an atmosphere where people really enjoy going to the theater.”

Moira Macdonald: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2725

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