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Carmike Theater Buyout of Sundance Cinemas: Art House Convergence Discussion

Carmike Theater Buyout of Sundance Cinemas: Art House Convergence Discussion

Thoughts in response the news that the Sundance Cinemas sold to Carmike for $36 million were shared on the Art House Convergence Group Mail. The buyout
concerns members of the Art House Convergence because the Sundance Cinemas represents the second of three Art House “chains” (Landmark being the largest,
Sundance second and Laemmle third)

Read the article this conversation is based upon in The Hollywood Reporter.

John Toner of Renew Theaters:
Branding is such an important part of our world. And it turns out that the Sundance name was part of this sale:

“The deal does not provide for Carmike to expand the Sundance brand, but Carmike will have the ability, under a license arrangement, to operate the
five theaters under the Sundance brand name.”

Interesting. A major, mainstream chain will now fly the Sundance flag.

The Sundance Cinemas website says that they “bring the finest selection of art, independent, foreign and documentary film programming to cities across the country.”


Does the Carmike chain operate any purely art house style theaters? I don’t know the answer to that question.

And I wonder if that license limits how Carmike can operate their Sundance Cinemas?

And will this sale affect the Sundance Institute brand in any way?

Or can people differentiate?

What do you think?


Given Carmike’s history, it will be a race to see what happens first: they go bankrupt (again) or destroy the brand.

Gary Meyer:

Sundance was financed by Oaktree and it is not a surprise that they would wait for the moment when they thought they could make a profit. Though I was part
of the original team developing a concept when General Cinema (remember them?) was the major partner, the theaters play a very different on screen menu
than was proposed.

Redford wanted it to be pure art, one screen dedicated to documentaries 365 days a year, another showing experimental films. Never in a mall. The most
“green” place you ever saw. An outdoor amphitheater on the roof for film and live shows, art gallery, filmmakers flown in.

Damn but we had fun coming up with ideas. We (Redford included) were kids…”Let’s put on a show like nobody has ever seen.” But the reality is when you
spend the kinds of multi-millions they did to build their very nice places, you have to play studio blockbusters to pay the bills. Only the Sunset Sundance
in Los Angeles (booked by Jan) is a true art house. The others play mostly commercial with a sprinkling of art.

And plaudits must go to Paul Richardson who carried out the mission of designing and building classy cinemas that often set a new standard. He oversees the
look and feel but it is hard to imagine he will stay too log after the transition period.

As has been pointed out there have been many for-profit Sundance ventures. Redford dominates that brand and can do what he wants —- though I doubt he is
happy about Sundance cigarettes considering his vehement anti-tobacco
position and who knows about Sundance Hottubs and Sundance Microprocessors amazingly owning the url

Many non-profits bring in for-profits to operate businesses (the National Park system are a prime example) but museums, symphonies, operas generally do
operate those shops and some of their restaurants (others are for profit concessionaires). And there are conventions just for running those shops. It is an

My wife Cathy points out:

All the nonprofits who have shops etc pay what is called UBIT, or Unrelated Business Income Tax.

Gary Meyer


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John Toner:

SunDance cigarettes!

Oh, yeah, in my Sundance hot tub, smoking a SunDance menthol. Livin’ La Vida Loca!

I guess the word Sundance, itself, is not completely trademarked.

Opens up all sorts of ideas for unauthorized spinoffs, doesn’t it?

Yes, the nonprofit Sundance Institute is separate from the for-profit Sundance Cinemas, which will be owned by Carmike.

Heck, the for-profit Sundance Channel/ TV was previously sold off and is now owned by AMC.

And then there’s the for-profit Sundance Catalog, the for-profit Sundance Resort, and I’m sure there are others…

Branding is about perception. But the nonprofit Institute brand does not seem to be affected by these for-profit cousins.

Does anyone else find that interesting?

Juliet Goodfriend, ‎President at Bryn Mawr Film Institute:

Everything we know about branding is that it is a perception not necessarily affected by facts or by the relationship of the brand to the values trying to
be communicated. Certainly becoming a commercial brand even into the exhibition area will affect adversely the Sundance brand. We can be sure that the
customer will be confused at the very least.

Chapin Cutler, Boston Light & Sound:

The non-profit Sundance Institute and the commercial Sundance Cinemas have no connection except both being “owned” by Mr. Redford. This, the sale will have
no effect on the Institute or any of its projects.

David Bordwell, Film Historian & Blogger:

It seems to me that the Sundance Cinemas and the Sundance Festival are very different in their taste orientations.

In Madison (where the firm opened the first dedicated Sundance venue) the theatre shows pretty much what the multiplexes are showing: “Black Mass”, “The
Intern”, “Grandma”, “Sicario”, “Everest”, “Testament Of Youth”, and “The Martian”. “Princess Bride” is thrown in for extra.

The other Sundance Cinema I know, the one in Seattle, is only a little less standardized (has “Going Clear”, which we have yet to get), but still is


I saw “Gone Girl” there.

Some of these titles might screen at the Sundance Festival, because of its increasing industry orientation. But I see a real split between the festival’s
tastes and the chain’s taste.

Incidentally, I’m told by our local Sundancers that they have no ability to program specifically for our community; the programming is done at another
corporate level.

Interesting to compare the Sundance playlists with the Landmark ones. By and large—there are outliers here and there—they seem to me to have similar
programming around the country.

They even have “Hotel Transylvania 2”.

One of the things I’ve learned from lurking on this list is that there can be a huge difference in terms of programming (or curating, your call) for
non-profit and for-profit art houses.

Which only makes Tim League (Drafthouse) all the more heroic. How the devil can Alamo do what it does in Lubbock, Texas? And, Tim, if you’re reading this,
why not look at Madison, Wisconsin?

PS: I assume that one attractive aspect of Sundance to Carmike is the liquor licenses. True?

John Toner:

The Smithsonian, National Geographic, and the Metropolitan Museum are great examples of nonprofits pushing into for-profit territory.

But I think that most people would recognize that a gift shop is significantly different from the core mission of an institution.

A magazine is closer, but still different.

A TV channel is closer still. Those channels easily could be packaged as nonprofit, like a PBS or BBC operation.

But aren’t the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Cinemas really close in mission?

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem with for-profit art houses. In fact, I’m a little bit in awe. It’s sort of like tight rope walking without a
nonprofit net.

Can anyone think of any other examples?

Gary Meyer:

The non-profit brand being used for for-profit purposes isn’t unique to Sundance. Our friends here in DC at the Smithsonian, a government-chartered public
non-profit, partnered with Showtime and CBS to run a for-profit cable channel, as do our friends here in DC at National Geographic, who partner with
fucking Rupert Murdoch, who just also took over the iconic magazine :(.

Amy Heller, Milestone Films:

Not to mention that every museum has a shop that bears its name. The Metropolitan Museum also has stores at airports and Rockefeller Center.

John Toner:

I think that most people would recognize that a gift shop is significantly different from the core mission of an institution.”

But for whatever it is worth, I found this online: “The mission of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Store is to connect people to the world of art and to the museum
experience. Just as visits to the Met are enjoyable, educational, and inspirational, our products evoke fond memories, invite moments of reflection, and
foster day-to-day enjoyment and appreciation of art, artists, and cultures from around the globe and across the centuries. We work closely with art
historians and master craftspeople to assure that each reproduction, adaptation, and publication meets the highest standards of design, quality, and value.
All purchases—whether through our catalogue, online, or in person—help support the Museum and its programs.”

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