While the closing of the Regal theater on the Downtown Mall may leave local moviegoers with only one cinema in town, that’s all going to change as a new high-end theater concept makes its way to Charlottesville, with plans to open by September.
Violet Crown Cinemas, a small theater chain with one location in Austin, Texas, and a forthcoming location in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reached an agreement a year ago with building owner Dorothy Batten to establish a third location at the now-vacant six-theater set-up downtown.
The new theater will offer a very different experience for film fans accustomed to the traditional movie-going experience, said Violet Crown Cinemas CEO Bill Banowksy, replete with a full bar and restaurant, 10 stadium-style auditoriums and state-of-the-art projectors and sound systems.
Banowsky takes possession of the downtown location Monday, and while light demolition will begin in December, much of the heavy lifting will start up in early 2015. The already-approved design plans call for a renovation that adds four new auditoriums, while converting the existing auditoriums into stadium seating. Many of the auditoriums will have 3-D capabilities, and the current seating will be replaced with wider cinema chairs that Banowsky describes “luxurious and substantially larger,” with a retractable tray for meals and drinks purchased in the atrium. Those sitting in the front rows of the new auditoriums will have the “best seats in the house,” Banowsky said, with reclining chairs, footrests and enough distance between the seats and the screen for optimal viewing angles.
“It will be a completely different building when we’re finished,” he said.
While still offering traditional movie concessions at the theater’s newly added mezzanine level, a full-service restaurant on the bottom floor will feature mid- to upper-scale fare on a menu that Banowsky describes as “pizza-centric.”
“It won’t be the same menu we have in Santa Fe or Austin,” he said. “The makeup of the menu will be tailored to this community.”
Some items will be carried over from his other locations, such as avocado spring rolls and fried Brussels sprouts, while classic movie foods will get a hipper culinary makeover, such as fresh-cut French fries served with parmesan and truffle oil.
“We have some really high-quality food, but it wouldn’t be the type of food you would consider fine dining,” Banowsky said. “It’s the kind of food you can easily eat while sitting in a movie theater if you wish — or you can enjoy a table at our restaurant.”
The theater also will mark a change in the programming strategy that has dominated Charlottesville since last year, when the Regal theater downtown began exclusively showing art and independent films to complement the newly opened 14-screen Regal Stonefield three miles north, which was focusing on big-budget blockbusters.
Banowsky said the new theater will offer a mix of both: the same art and independent films downtown moviegoers are used to getting, as well as the Hollywood blockbusters that draw bigger crowds.
“Our view is, whether it’s a wide-release Hollywood film or a limited-release art film, if it’s a good film and our audience will enjoy it, that’s the film we’re going to play,” he said.
Banowsky said he doesn’t anticipate any limitations on what films the Violet Crown will be licensed to show, despite its proximity to the larger, more suburban Regal Stonefield.
“Due to the lack of other competition, the distance between the two theaters and the significant differences in our respective business models, we believe that prevailing industry standards and legal practices will dictate the establishment of a separate film zone for downtown Charlottesville,” Banowsky said in an email.
Along with its unique menu, the Charlottesville location will be the first Violet Crown to feature ciders on tap, and also will house three specialized screening rooms that can be used for parties and private events. The theater will allow for online ticket ordering and “all-reserved” seating, along with free parking validation for the Water Street and Market Street garages.
Banowsky said the company found Charlottesville to be an ideal spot for a Violet Crown because the city is what he calls a “lifestyle market,” marked by progressive thinking and a high quality of life. Banowsky first encountered Charlottesville in the early 1990s while working as a lawyer, years before he entered the film industry as the founder of Magnolia Pictures.
“Ever since then I just admired the place,” he said. Sometime later, he brought his daughter to Charlottesville to explore the University of Virginia while college shopping, and took that time to re-familiarize himself with the city.
“At the end of the day, for me, it’s a place where I want to spend my time,” he said. “The population, the demographic and really the psychographic of the Charlottesville community is ideal for our offering.”
The new theater is expected to open on Sept. 15, in plenty of time for the Virginia Film Festival.