Sundance Kabuki Theater and its pleasant moviegoing experience — aided by the beer, wine, and cocktails available at certain of its screens — is potentially due for changes as the owner of the Sundance mini-chain, the larger group Carmike Cinemas, is snapped up by an even bigger fish, the movie house giant AMC, whose massive multiplex on Van Ness Avenue isn't too far from Japantown and the Kabuki.
Deadline reported this week that AMC had agreed to the Justice Department's terms in order to approve its purchase of Carmike, the nation's fourth largest movie chain. Carmike, in turn, had purchased Sundance Cinemas in 2015, as Deadline reported at the time. The Sundance Cinemas brand, part of Robert Redford's Sundance Group, has 37 screens at five theaters: Those are in West Hollywood, Houston, Seattle, Madison, and here in San Francisco.
At the time of Carmike's purchase of Sundance, Carmike's CEO said that Sundance “has been enormously successful in creating a compelling consumer experience," and any changes made to theaters like the Kabuki between then and now have been lost on this moviegoer. The Carmike CEO said he liked the “limited geographic overlap" with his company's existing theaters and praised Sundance's film choices, tastes that favor independent and foreign movies along with more standard Hollywood tentpole features.
In fact, rather than diminishing Sundance's brand, Variety reports that Carmike upped the ante in terms of marketing, refurbishing the smaller chain's branding and website. “We really wanted to revitalize the unique brand that is Sundance Cinemas through this project, and saw it as an opportunity to leverage founder Robert Redford’s vision,” Carmike's CMO told Variety.
Sundance will inevitably face more geographic overlap under AMC ownership — see the aforementioned proximity of AMC Van Ness to Japantown — which has the Chronicle wondering what changes may be in store. The deal's last step is a pro forma regulatory approval by the US District Court in the District of Columbia. After that goes through, "Almost nothing will change immediately," AMC has assured its audience, and, over time, it will "combine the best of Carmike Cinemas with the best of AMC Theatres."
Where Sundance fits into that remains to be seen. As with Carmike's website, a banner on Sundance's site welcomes the theaters "to the AMC family." As it pertains to Kabuki, it might more accurately read "Welcome back." In 2005, the AMC divested itself of the Kabuki theater under a settlement in order to merge with the chain Loews. Under the terms of that agreement, they had to sell off the Kabuki.
At the time, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said something that remains true today, particularly when considering AMC's purchase of Carmike: "Consumers, especially those with families, have been forced to dig deeper and deeper into their pockets to go to the movies,” Lockyer said. “By reducing competition, the merger threatened to worsen that problem by hitting consumers with a double whammy: paying higher tickets to watch movies in poorly-maintained theaters."
Hence the move to force AMC to shrug off the Kabuki in the first place: "The divestiture we sought and won will help prevent those problems for movie-goers in San Francisco, the California community most affected by the merger.” Back, I suppose, to square 1.