With his construction start date just weeks away, Violet Crown Cinemas CEO Bill Banowsky is sharing more details of his plans for a total overhaul of downtown Charlottesville’s only movie theater, from the physical layout to his strategy for competing in a closely controlled movie market.
Banowsky is partnering with downtown Regal building owner Dorothy Batten to open his newest Violet Crown, a 10-screen dine-in theater, by early next fall. It will be the young chain’s third location in the country; the first, in Austin, opened in 2010, and another is set to open in Santa Fe in March 2015. He’s looking to hire about 30 people at the Charlottesville location, and said Regal employees who don’t find jobs elsewhere when the theater closes next month will be welcome to apply.
“The design part of the project has been rather intense,” Banowsky said—when the theater plans were initially announced early this year, plans were to open the doors by late fall—but he and local partners Stoneking/von Storch Architects now have approval from the city’s Board of Architectural Review to start interior demolition on December 1.
“We’re completely gutting and rebuilding,” said Banowsky, adding a second-story mezzanine, a ground-floor café, and bar and lounge areas on both levels. Six auditoriums will become 10, with stadium seating for 600 in all, and “luxurious” chairs with collapsible tray tables that will allow people to bring in food and drinks from the café—primarily locally sourced and organic eats, craft cocktails, wine and local and regional beers, he said. (There will be wait service at lobby tables, but not inside the theaters.) Front row seats will recline and have footrests.
Another change: reserved seating, something that Banowsky said has been an important part of the business model in Austin. Whether you buy ahead online or at the door, you’ll be choosing where you sit before you walk into the auditorium, he said.
As for what will be onscreen, Banowsky said to expect variety. There will be arthouse and indie films, but also bigger commercial flicks and family-friendly fare.
“We intend to bring blockbuster films back to downtown,” he said—think Gravity and Gone Girl, sophisticated big-budget movies that appeal to a broad audience.
Much has been made of Regal Cinema’s monopoly of the Charlottesville movie scene since last fall when the massive chain elbowed out its last two competitors—the Carmike Cinema and the one-screen independent Vinegar Hill Theatre—about a year after its 14-auditorium theater opened in the Stonefield shopping center on Route 29.
But Banowsky isn’t concerned about his much bigger rival throwing its weight around within the local market and limiting his own options when it comes to licensing films.
“We’re three miles away, and we’re the only other theater in the market,” he said, and his business model is significantly different from the Stonefield Regal’s. “We believe that prevailing industry standards and legal principles will dictate the establishment of a separate film zone for downtown Charlottesville,” he said.
And Banowksy knows something about those legal principles. He’s an attorney, and he also spent three years at the helm of the massive Landmark Cinemas before stepping into the “boutique” movie theater market with a suburban dine-in chain, Carolina Cinemas, in 2008.
He’s counting on the planned mix of highbrow and crowd-pleasing films to allow him to flourish where others have floundered.
“In larger markets, you can support a theater with just indie films, but there aren’t many other markets where you can do that,” he said. “You need to mix in films that appeal to a broader audience.”