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Sundance eyes exhibition foray

NEW YORK — Through its screenwriting workshops, its film festival and its cable channel, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute has practically become synonymous with American independent film. Now the institute is quietly considering putting its widely recognized name on the marquee of an arthouse circuit, industry sources said.

Sundance has hired Greg Rutkowski, the former executive veepee of corporate development at Century Theatres of San Francisco, to study the feasibility of expanding into specialized film exhibition. Sources said that Sundance has targeted cities such as San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Denver and New Orleans as possible sites for theaters. Sundance Institute execs could not be reached for comment.

Last August, Sundance Group CEO and president Gary Beer gave up his day-to-day responsibilities at the institute to help grow the Sundance brand beyond its catalog of Western consumer products and its cable channel. Exhibition sources said Sundance should have no trouble finding investors to fund its exhibition venture. To launch its cable channel, Sundance teamed with Polygram N.V. and Viacom Inc., whose controlling shareholder is the exhibitor National Amusements Inc.

Should it move into arthouse exhibition, Sundance could face competition from Philadelphia-based Reading Entertainment Inc., which plans to open arthouse multiplexes using the Angelika Film Center in downtown Gotham as a prototype. Reading Entertainment prexy Robert Smerling told Daily Variety that the company will target gentrified areas in several U.S. cities, the first of which is Houston. “We have the (premiere) position in the arthouse market in the nation, if not the world,” Smerling said.

Last year, Reading and City Cinemas purchased the six-screen Angelika from the Saleh family for an estimated $14 million. Following the acquisition, City Cinemas hired Jack Foley from Miramax Films, where he had been president of distribution, and began booking the Angelika itself instead of using longtime programmer Jeffrey Jacobs of Jacobs Entertainment.

Industry execs say the arrival of multiplexes dedicated exclusively to specialized films is overdue. “The arthouse market should expand and be involved in the technology boom that has occurred with Hollywood films,” said Bob Laemmle, chairman of the Los Angeles-based Laemmle Theatres circuit.

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