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New art house theater to open downtown

Violet Crown Cinema to have four boutique theaters, bar, 'gourmet concessions'

Chris Garcia

A new art house movie theater with four screens, digital projection, full bar and cocktail lounge is scheduled to open in December in downtown Austin.

Serving bar food and craft cocktails, offering free validated parking and showing the latest art, foreign and independent films, the Violet Crown Cinema is being billed as a boutique "cafe cinema" that will "bring the art house movie experience to a level it's never achieved," said Bill Banowsky, Violet Crown's owner and operator.

The Violet Crown will be on the second floor of the AMLI on 2nd apartment building in Austin's Second Street district, a growing nexus of upscale shopping, dining and downtown living. The planned 8,000- to 10,000-square-foot space will have a full-service bar, concession stands, a lounge that can seat about 100 people and a balcony overlooking Second Street that can accommodate about 50 people.

The Violet Crown's four auditoriums will have 50 seats each for a total of 200. Seating will be stadium-style, and screens will run from 11 feet by 201/2 feet to 13 feet by 24 feet.

Online ticketing will allow customers to choose and reserve specific seats. Banowsky did not say how much tickets would cost but said prices will be competitive.

Banowsky and partner Robert Bagwell, a Dallas-based retail, development and design specialist, are working with private Austin investors on the theater. They declined to divulge the amount of the investment.

Banowsky, a veteran theater operator, founded Magnolia Pictures in 2001 and, from 2003 to 2007, was chief executive of Landmark Theatres, the largest art house chain in the country, which operates the Dobie Theatre . He's the founder and CEO of Carolina Cinemas, a four-theater, 52-screen art house chain in North Carolina. The Violet Crown is not affiliated with Landmark or Carolina Cinemas.

Banowsky also founded the popular Magnolia Theatre in Dallas, which is known as a sophisticated alternative to the traditional cineplex, with art house fare and a full bar.

The Violet Crown "takes the best of what we did at the Magnolia and updates it to the current realities of the exhibition business," Banowsky said. "You need different things to get people to the theater."

Combining food, drinks and movies is not a novel idea in Austin. For more than a decade, the Alamo Drafthouse has offered beer, wine and a full menu with its film screenings. But the Alamo has never specialized in exclusively art movies, mixing edgier fare with an array of mainstream blockbusters.

Once a bastion for art films, the Dobie Theatre next to the University of Texas has in recent years added commercial fare, leaving the Arbor in North Austin as the city's last theater to focus mostly on art films.

"There's a demographic in Austin that's not being served," Banowsky said. "It's not only that these kinds of films don't play downtown. Some people don't enjoy going to a traditional movie theater — they'd rather watch a movie on Netflix. But if you create the right facility in the right location, you offer an alternative."

The Violet Crown will serve "enlightened bar food, simple but innovative," several draft beers, "gourmet concessions," as well as the usual popcorn, candy and sodas, Banowsky said. Local mixologist David Alan will curate the bar. Unlike at the Alamo, customers will order in the lounge area and take their food and drinks into the theater without the aid of auditorium servers.

The new venue is set to be the second luxury theater to open in Austin this year, coming on the heels of Gold Class Cinema, an upscale eight-screen cineplex that will play mainstream movies and serve food, wine and beer. It opens May 7 in the Domain in North Austin.

Banowsky said he wants to fashion "an entire experience, a great bar experience and a great movie experience. ... You can get a drink before, go watch a movie and come out to a vibrant cocktail lounge scene where you hang out."

"It's good for Austin and good for movie-lovers," said Tim League, co-owner of the Alamo Drafthouse. "The more cinema in Austin, the better."

Changes on the Austin cinema landscape

Violet Crown Cinema (434 W. Second St.): A four-screen, 200-seat boutique theater showing exclusively art, foreign and independent films in the heart of Austin's Second Street district. It will feature a full-service bar, cocktail lounge, bar food and other concessions. Due to open in December.

Gold Class Cinema (3225 Amy Donovan Plaza in the Domain): An upscale eight-screen cineplex, with cozy auditoriums featuring from 24 to 40 seats each. Seats are fully reclining armchairs. A semi-gourmet food menu, 80 wines and dozens of beers will be available. Servers can be called electronically from seats. Complimentary pillows and blankets are available on request. Tickets are $29 or $22 for members (membership is free). Gold Class screens mainstream commercial films. Advance tickets are on sale for ‘Date Night' and ‘Iron Man 2.' Opens May 7.

Dobie Theatre seeking new operators: Landmark Theaters, current operator of the Dobie, is not renewing its lease and will leave the Dobie Mall in the fall. New York-based Carlton Strategic Ventures of the Carlton Group, which owns the Dobie Center, says it is talking to potential operators to take over the four-screen venue.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649