Regal Cinema’s movie theater monopoly in Charlottesville has ended, and the new kid on the block is planning to serve up something sure to have local cinephiles salivating: a Downtown theater that offers upscale food and cocktails along with indie film fare.
William S. Banowsky, Jr., owner of Violet Crown Cinema in Austin, is partnering with Downtown Regal building owner Dorothy Batten to open the next in what Banowsky hopes will be a successful chain of arthouse-cum-bar-and-restaurant theaters across the country (another is in the works in Santa Fe).
“It’s a perfect market for us,” said Banowsky, who also owns Carolina Cinemas, which has theaters in Raleigh, Charlotte, and Asheville.
Until recently, Regal had held a 15-year lease on the property at the corner of East Main and 2nd Street SW. The industry giant became the only theater chain in Charlottesville when the Carmike Cinema on Route 29 North closed in November. Banowsky said he and Batten formed a new LLC, which now holds title to the Downtown theater, and each has an equal stake in the new Violet Crown venture.
Banowsky is an attorney by training, and said he first fell in love with Charlottesville 25 years ago when he came to UVA to recruit law students on behalf of a Dallas-based firm. He got reacquainted with the city when he came on a college visit with his daughter a few years ago, and he’s had his eye on the market ever since.
He said the movies the new theater will show will be in line with the mostly indie fare currently screening at the Downtown Regal—which will continue to be the tenant in the space for the immediate future—but he also plans to show some more mainstream films. And he’s quick to explain that Violet Crown isn’t exactly what’s popularly known as a “brew’n’view,” where moviegoers get table service in the theater.
“We don’t have wait staff who come into the auditoriums,” he said, but there will be an ample bar and prepared-on-site food available in the lobby, and the theater seats will have small tables attached, so people can bring in their drinks and appetizers.
“It’s more of a traditional movie theater approach, but we have a real keen attention to the cinema experience inside the auditorium—making it the best possible viewing experience with a good line of sight, comfortable seats, plenty of legroom,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing we want to bring to Charlottesville.”
It seems to be working well in Austin’s hip downtown. The Violet Crown there has mostly glowing reviews on Yelp, and one official overseeing the approval process for the New Mexico theater said he’s liked what he’s seen so far.
“We went down to look at the cinema in Austin before we agreed to enter into our lease,” said Richard Czoski, the executive director of the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation, a public-private partnership responsible for a multi-use development in the city that will count Violet Crown as an anchor tenant. “We wanted to understand how the size of the auditoriums worked, the layout, how it was managed, the synergy of the bar and restaurant. We came away very impressed.”
“I love the concept that they’re bringing,” said Adam Greenbaum, former owner of Vinegar Hill Theatre, which closed last fall.
Greenbaum expressed concern for his own theater’s viability when the Downtown Regal went indie in the fall of 2012, and warned that the mega-chain has the ability to make things tough for competitors.
“I just know that they want 100 percent of the market, and any way they can hold that, they will,” he told The Hook soon after the Downtown Regal switched formats. He expresses concern that the same dynamic could come into play for the new theater, with Regal potentially working to get independent films with box office promise on the screens at Stonefield.
“I looked at what they’re showing in Austin, and a number of those movies are playing or have played at Stonefield. I don’t know if Regal would have given those up,” he said.
Banowsky isn’t worried.
“We compete with Regal in several markets, and I’m not concerned with our ability to get the kind of product we want,” he said.
The new partners are moving quickly in Charlottesville; Banowsky said he hopes to have updates to the building complete and the new theater open ahead of the Virginia Film Festival in November. The first step is getting approval from the city’s Board of Architectural Review for a new facade. He’ll present initial plans to the BAR on February 18, but he’s aware it might take awhile to get the O.K.
“These things can’t be rushed,” he said. “It’s going to take its own time frame.”
Courteney Stuart contributed to this story.