Metro Cinemas to Join Sundance Theater Chain

Last year, the parent company of Landmark Theatres put the movie circuit up for sale, but there were no buyers. Among its Seattle holdings, the lease to the Neptune was transferred to Seattle Theatre Group last February (story), and now it's going to shed its biggest multiplex: The 10-screen Metro Cinemas in the U District. This is both good news and bad news for Seattle moviegoers....

First the good news. By assuming the lease to the 23-year-old Metro, effective May 1, Sundance Cinemas--an offshoot of the famous Utah film festival--will bring a praised and profitable new business model to an ailing theater and a struggling industry. With so many home-viewing options and ever-larger TV screens, Landmark and the exhibition trade as a whole have been confronted with too many empty seats. Since their profits depend in large part on candy and soda sales, theater operators have been doing worse than Hollywood studios, which make money on content--including home video.

With its iconic Guild 45th, Egyptian, and Seven Gables, Landmark has strong local loyalties. And roots: Randy Finley began building a Seattle mini-chain in 1970 (beginning with the Grand Illusion, then with a different name) and finally sold to Landmark in 1986. That national company, which operates about 290 screens in 63 theaters located in New York, San Francisco, and other urban markets, has been bought and sold a few times since. The current owner is Dallas tech baron Mark Cuban, whose HD Net commercials are annoyingly screened before the shows at Landmark's cinemas. He bought the company in 2003 for an undisclosed price. With no buyers last year, it appears the company is now cutting costs and closing some venues.

Update: Landmark publicist Christopher Principio says, "Although we're leaving the Metro at the end of this month, we're certainly not leaving the city." He declined to comment on other leases or the Metro's past profitability, but added, "Landmark will continue to provide the discriminating moviegoers of Seattle the opportunity to see great independent film at our other locations including the Crest, Guild 45th, Seven Gables, Varsity, and the historic Harvard Exit and Egyptian."

Sundance Cinemas is a newer operation, but it has roots in the old Landmark: Sundance CEO/President Paul Richardson used to lead the chain. (Here's our interview from 2001) In effect, he's returning to a familiar market under changed circumstances. Along with the conversion of the Neptune to a music venue, and last year's closure of the Columbia City Cinemas, the long-term business trend has been this: Older cinemas in Seattle proper have been closing (think back to the Broadway Cinemas, the King, the Newmark, the City Centre Cinemas, the UA 70 and 150, the Northgate, and the Lake City), and large national chains like Regal and AMC prefer to build large new multiplexes in the suburbs, with plenty of parking and cheaper real estate. In that business model, the money is in IMAX, raked seating, 3-D, and seasonal blockbusters.

Since Landmark is mostly an arthouse/specialty chain with predominantly smaller, older venues, it's been impacted by many knocks. Beyond home video, the Fellini-loving baby boomers are graying. Even if they'd prefer not to avail themselves of same-day streaming premieres (from services including Magnolia Pictures, also owned by Cuban), sometimes the sheer hassle of parking, stairs, stale popcorn, and threadbare seats can be a deterrent to leaving the home. There's always Netflix, right? And the local folks at Landmark, who always treat their customers well, simply haven't been granted the resources to invest in newer seats, carpets, etc. (Or pest control, as I noted here a few years back.) That's why the nicest cinema in Seattle, the Cinerama, has the best of everything: it's owned by billionaire cinephile Paul Allen, who can underwrite any upgrade. (How fellow tycoon Cuban chooses to spend his money is also up to him.)

By contrast, founded in 2006, Sundance Cinemas is actually investing in cities where indie- and foreign-movie lovers mostly live. To date, it's built or rehabbed four mini-plexes in Madison, San Francisco, Houston, and L.A. The Metro, according to Sundance Marketing VP Nancy Klasky Gribler, will continue to operate as-is through the summer. It'll then undergo a full renovation to include a new lobby and stadium seating (date and duration uncertain) before a grand reopening. It'll also operate more in the niche of the iPic Cinemas in Redmond, with reserved seating, booze, and a real food menu. Also, she tells me, "None of those TV ads" before the show. Thank god for that.

Now the bad news. Minus the Neptune and Metro, Landmark will be reduced to the Varsity, Guild, Gables, Crest, Harvard Exit, and Egyptian. A U District property owner, who asked not to be named, recently told me the Varsity basically can't pay its rent. Landmark may need to drop more leases in the future, especially when its direct competitors, Northwest Film Forum and SIFF, essentially control their own destinies. (NWFF is prospering in its leased Cap Hill venue; SIFF has a long-term lease for its Seattle Center location and four years remaining on its Uptown lease.) And Landmark only owns the Gables, Guild, and Crest, according to a Landmark employee who asked not to be named (the company also confirms). The same fellow, when we were discussing the Uptown's reopening last year by nonprofit SIFF, said that Landmark had once considered buying the Uptown's old lease. I asked who today was doing the arthouse model best, and he didn't pause before replying: "Sundance Cinemas."

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