Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Landmark leaving Dobie; owner seeking new theater tenant

Shonda Novak
snovak@statesman.com

The Dobie Theatre, the University of Texas-area cineplex famed for its funky décor and as the birthplace of "Slacker," could be returning to its art-house origins. Current operator Landmark Theaters is leaving Dobie Mall later this year, and the mall's landlord is talking to potential operators to take over the four-screen venue.

Long regarded a hub for independent, foreign, art and speciality films, the Dobie "has a rich history and a special place in Austin, and we want to get back to its roots and work with that," said Noah Davis, an asset manager with New York-based Carlton Strategic Ventures of the Carlton Group, an international real estate investment bank that owns Dobie Center.

The theater has operated since the early 1970s in the mall that is part of Dobie Center, the high-rise dormitory on Guadalupe Street across from UT's campus.

"Austin has a very unique brand and feel to it, and while we're not local ownership, we're very committed to the local concept. Austin is looking for a local flavor of things, not cookie-cutter, and we want to go with the grain," Davis said.

Landmark won't be renewing its 10,000-square-foot lease at Dobie, Davis said. He said it's his understanding that Landmark's decision is part of a strategy to focus on theaters in other areas, including Boston and California.

In an e-mail, Ted Mundorff, CEO of Landmark Theaters, said: "We do not comment on the status of lease negotiations. However, we can confirm that our current lease expires in the fall of this year."

Dallas-based Landmark is co-owned by Todd Wagner and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

In recent years, to compete with newer, state-of-the-art theaters, Landmark opened Dobie screens to first-run mainstream movies, such as "Valentine's Day," in place of low-budget Texas fare like "Hands on a Hard Body," which ran for more than a year, breaking the theater's records, in 1999.

Davis said that Carlton is in talks with "a half dozen to a dozen" prospective operators "to see who is the best fit to bring (the theater) back to where it was and ought to be." He declined to identify them.

Although the search has been an "ongoing" process, it "definitely heated up" in the new year, Davis said.

Carlton wants the theater to accommodate "more film festival-style films," as well as art and foreign films, "things that appeal to Austin and the UT market," Davis said. "We want to get back to its heyday."

That heyday is legend in Austin culture. In the mid-1980s, the theater was the original home for Austin Film Society screenings organized by filmmakers Richard Linklater and Lee Daniel. In 1990, the Dobie premiered Linklater's Austin-made cult classic "Slacker." Former Dobie owner Scott Dinger founded the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival at the venue in 1987. And the Dobie was where Quentin Tarantino launched his popular QT film festivals in 1997.

Davis said he is optimistic that Carlton will be able to bring in a new operator that will allow the Dobie to remain a theater.

He said an "internal frontrunner" has emerged, but added that "we have to see how things play out," adding that Carlton needs to weigh the suitors' financial packages as well as determine which would be in keeping with "the best interests of the property and the community."

As for the financial consideration, he said "it's not purely a matter of bottom-line dollars and cents" to Carlton, Davis said.

Rather, the company is seeking a partner "that is committed to the space and the concept and investing in the property" and to "the mission as we see it."

Carlton wants to make the decision as quickly as possible, Davis said, while also giving it "the due diligence it deserves."

snovak@statesman.com, 445-3856; cgarcia@statesman.com, 445-3649