The sign above the door of the new Sundance Cinemas located in West Hollywood. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, Robert Redford fell in love with the movies at small community theaters that screened cartoons, shorts and newsreels, documentaries and feature films.
"What you had then was film in all its forms," Redford said this week. "It was lot more like a community experience where you would recognize your neighbors.''
Now the actor, director, producer and founder of the annual Sundance Film Festival is hoping to revive that community spirit by opening an indie cinema house in West Hollywood.
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Next Friday, Sundance Cinemas will debut its first theater in Los Angeles, a newly refurbished five-screen complex at the Sunset 5 theater formerly operated by Laemmle Theatres.
The 630-seat Sundance Sunset Cinema is the fifth in the Westlake Village-based theater chain, which launched in 2006 and operates high-end theaters, mainly devoted to independent movies, in Madison, Wis.; San Francisco, Houston and Seattle. (Another is scheduled open in Westchester, N.Y. in 2014.)
"I was born and raised here and I thought if could do a theater here it would, in a sense, be a little bit like coming home," said Redford, who lives in Sundance, Utah. "I thought maybe we could revive something that was meant to be."
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Redford's company invested $2 million renovating the theater, which is located in a shopping mall that includes a Trader Joe's store and a Burke Williams spa.
The renovation included rebuilding the theater, installing new digital projectors, sound system and extra-wide stadium seats with small side tables, and also a bistro and beer and wine bar. The theater also has a lounge and outdoor patio, and offers reserved seating and commercial-free screenings.
Paul Richardson, chief executive of Sundance Cinemas, said the Sunset 5 had been one of his favorite local theaters, but it suffered from the older amenities. In order to get people come back to the theater, he said, "We needed to raise the standards."
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Like the nearby ArcLight, Sunset charges a premium for most showings, with adult ticket prices ranging from $11 to $15 depending on the day and time of screening.
Redford, who starred in such classics as "The Sting" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," has continued to work in front of and behind the camera. He recently returned from Mexico, where he starred in "All Is Lost," about one man's struggles to survive at sea.
The 76-old-actor and director also recently directed and costarred with Shia LaBeouf in "The Company You Keep," about a former Weather Underground activist on the run from a journalist who discovers his identity.
Sundance will face some stiff competition in the premium services theater market, notably from the ArcLight Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, which also offers reserved seating and gourmet food and drink services; the Landmark on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles; iPic Theaters (formerly Gold Class Cinemas) in Pasadena; and Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas, the Mexican theater chain that is set to open in Westlake Village. Art-house theaters also are having to compete with big chains, including Cinemark and AMC, which are booking more art-house or specialty films, such as Oscar-winners "Black Swan" and "The King's Speech."
Redford's theater will try to differentiate itself by focusing exclusively on independent cinema and becoming a hub for independent filmmakers.
"You're not going to see 'Bourne Supremacy' here," said Richardson.
The Sundance Cinemas offer a range of alternative programming, lectures and screening series, tapping into Redford's annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and the Sundance television channel. The movie house will also showcase documentaries reflecting Redford's interest in social and environmental causes. On Wednesday, Sundance Sunset will screen a documentary from Jamie Redford, the actor's son, called "Watershed: Exploring a New Water Ethic for the New West," in a benefit to support the nonprofit group Heal the Bay.
"This theater more than any of the others is going to be a replication of what we do" in Park City, Redford said. "It will be a gathering spot where people can come and talk about movies."
Redford acknowledges some of his theaters have struggled during the recession. But he's optimistic about prospects for Sundance Sunset Cinema.
"Will it work or not? I have no idea,'' he said. "But it's worth trying."