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Penn officials hope the new movie theater will revitalize 40th Street. It wasn't exactly a sting, but it took Robert Redford some effort to track down University President Judith Rodin last January while she was visiting China. He called her with a very decent proposal: Would Penn want to work with him in developing his new art-house theater chain? Although Rodin was surprised the movie legend had called her, she didn't have to consult her legal eagles to realize the match was a natural. On Friday, the actor-director-producer got up close and personal in Philadelphia for a press conference announcing that his company, Sundance Cinemas, will open a six-to-eight-screen theater like no other in the Hamilton Village shopping center at 40th and Walnut streets in early 2000. Although final plans for the more than 40,000-square-foot complex are far from complete, the facility will likely include a public meeting area, video "library," child-care center, restaurant, outdoor cafe, bar, art gallery, jazz club and rooms for filmmakers to edit their footage. "Most complexes are designed for consumption," said Redford, whose nascent chain is a joint venture with General Cinemas. "We're going to treat film as a cultural experience." As dozens of excited fans waited outside the Rotunda, a University-owned former church at 4012 Walnut Street, Redford joined Rodin and other officials inside to announce the deal. He repeatedly emphasized that Penn's efforts to spruce up the surrounding area were what brought him here to open one of his first theaters. Administrators hope that the addition of the movie theater, as well as a new specialty food market and parking garage, will make 40th Street a vibrant location for all University City residents. The 40th Street development, the new Sansom Common complex and other recent additions like the Eat at Joe's diner are part of Penn's broad plan to revitalize the area and increase foot traffic. The University and Sundance Cinemas will share the cost of the new project, although the exact price has not yet been determined. University and Sundance officials said construction on the new theater is scheduled to begin in January and finish a year later. Penn also plans to build a multi-story parking garage with a fresh food market on the ground floor on the northwest corner of the intersection at 40th and Walnut streets. Penn Executive Vice President John Fry announced at the press conference that Drexeline, a Philadelphia-area supermarket operator, would run the proposed store. No further details were immediately available, and Drexeline officials could not be reached for comment. The cinemas will occupy space mostly in the shopping center where United Artists Eric 3 operated until 1994. In addition, a "major element" of the theater will occupy the corner of the shopping center at 40th and Walnut streets where Burger King currently operates, Penn's top real estate official, Tom Lussenhop, said last month. It is unclear whether other retailers will be displaced. Sundance Cinemas will show independent, foreign and specialty films that have characterized the Redford-sponsored annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The press conference marked the first time Redford, 61, has officially announced the opening of a theater, although his chain is also preparing to begin construction on a theater in Portland, Ore., soon. During and after the event, Redford stressed how the new complex will go beyond a traditional theater chain, with an emphasis on building community relations and encouraging culture in the West Philadelphia area. Redford -- who filmed part of 1995's Up Close and Personal in Philadelphia -- said he wants the new complex to become a "locus of the community and the school." "This will not be an elitist situation," Redford said. "Students, minorities and others would all come to the space." Rodin's efforts at revitalizing the community surrounding the University are what initially attracted Redford, who said he has been aware of Rodin's activities since her days as Yale's provost. "You have a university president with a lot of innovative programs to take on the challenges of a depressed economy and a depressed ghetto area and revitalize it," Redford said. "If there was no Judith Rodin, we wouldn't be trying [the theater]." Rodin also praised Redford for being "a beacon for those of use who also like a different way of doing things." Redford said he learned that there was a site available on Penn's campus shortly after he began exploring the idea for the chain. He was immediately interested because of his respect for the University's president, leading him to call Rodin in China. Last spring, Redford traveled to Philadelphia in order to scout the site. He said its location between the campus and a "depressed area" increased his interest. "For us, [the site] was smack where the two met and I thought that was really great for us because we could draw from both," Redford said. Sundance Cinemas and the University signed a letter of intent in July and finalized terms over the next few months. The University's efforts to bring Sundance Cinemas to Penn had been impeded by a clause in the lease of Cinemagic, the campus' only movie theater since 1995. The clause gave owner Andrew Sheppard the right of first refusal over any new cinemas on campus. Sheppard had long been unwilling to relinquish that right, but Lussenhop said last month that "the situation had been resolved amicably and equitably." Sheppard did not return repeated calls for comment. Redford said he wants to use film as a "magnet" in order to bring members of the University community and Philadelphia residents together. As part of this goal, the complex will set aside space exclusively for community use. Rodin said she hopes the new complex will follow in the footsteps of the Kelly Writers House in serving both students and Philadelphia community members. General Cinemas President and Chief Executive Officer Bill Doeren, who also attended the press conference, said the theater will be "very sensitive to the pricing issue" to ensure that no one is excluded from participating in the complex's activities. Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents West Philadelphia, and Mayor Ed Rendell also participated in Friday's press conference. Redford is one of the film industry's most respected and influential figures. He has starred in The Sting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- the film for which the chain is named -- and won an Oscar for directing 1980's Ordinary People. The movie chain is the latest manifestation of Redford's interest in independent films. In 1979, Redford founded the Sundance Institute as an organization to help develop independent films. But Redford decided he wanted to have a showcase for filmmakers to show their work. He bought the U.S. Film Festival and renamed it the Sundance Film Festival in 1984. Redford wanted to make the content at the Festival available to a broader audience, so he launched the Sundance Channel -- a cable station showing independent films -- in 1996.

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