Filmmaker and film patron Joe Bailey loves going to Violet Crown’s four-screen facility in Austin. “It’s like a local pub where the topic of conversation is film.”
Yes, Violet Crown Santa Fe has a bar. And a restaurant. And a patio with outdoor seating for eating and drinking. And large reclining chairs in the theaters. You can eat before, during, or after your movie. Bill Banowsky, who co-founded Magnolia Pictures more than a decade ago, opened Violet Crown in Austin in 2011. On Friday, May 1, Violet Crown Santa Fe opens with an 11-screen complex in the Railyard that can accommodate about 730 people: Ten auditoriums with digital projectors have about 60 seats each, while one larger one, which as both a digital and a 35mm projector, has 150. One of Banowsky’s dreams is to ultimately have a 70mm projector.
Among its opening-weekend film showings are the big-budget extravaganza Avengers: Age of Ultron (in both 3-D and 2-D); Wim Wenders’ The Salt of the Earth, which examines the life and work of Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado; and the art-house film Clouds of Sils Maria, which stars Juliette Binoche as an aging actress. Violet Crown will also screen Disneynature’s Monkey Kingdom, which follows the life of Maya, an independent-minded monkey, and her new babies as they try to survive in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
The combination of Hollywood action movies, independent art-house films, titles aimed at kids, and anything else audiences might want to see is what Banowsky is counting on — along with gourmet pizza and 30 taps dispensing a rotation of regional beers. Add in the ability to go online and reserve seats well in advance, and it’s most likely Santa Feans will keep coming to see movies in the Railyard. There’s also free parking for up to four hours, courtesy of the Rail-yard Community Corporation, which is hoping the perk will attract more people to both Violet Crown and other retailers in the Railyard.
“We want to offer an out-of-home experience of going to dinner, having a glass of wine, having a glass of beer, and seeing a movie,” Banowsky said during a tour of the 34,000-foot facility, which cost about $10 million to build. The company will employ about 60 people — people who are passionate about film, he said. Having 11 screens will let Violet Crown leave a theater or two vacant for a while so it can gauge which titles are selling and which ones aren’t, Banowsky explained. A popular picture could jump quickly to other screens in the complex, while one that isn’t selling tickets could be dropped within days.
For Santa Feans, news of Violet Crown’s opening ends years of speculation and waiting. The idea of having a movie house has been part of the Railyard’s vision for redevelopment ever since the city bought the land more than 20 years ago. Over the years, a number of entities and people (including Richard Brandt, who once ran the Jean Cocteau Cinema, located steps away from the heart of the Railyard, and Moctesuma Esparza, of Maya Cinemas) entered into talks to build a theater there. In the spring of 2013, the Santa Fe Railyard Community Corporation, a nonprofit that oversees development and maintenance at the Railyard, also collecting rents from tenants, voted to negotiate with Violet Crown.
Banowsky, who is working on building a third Violet Crown complex in Charlottesville, Virginia, said the Santa Fe theater is modeled on the successful Austin project. He said that, in the history of movie houses, there have only been three major changes: a switch from single-screen cinemas to multiplexes, the introduction of stadium seating, and the recent conversion from film to digital.
But with so many other forms of entertainment competing for patrons’ attention, theaters have to continually adapt and grow, he said, “to make it better than other competing experiences out there in movie theaters.” His intention is not to put any Santa Fe movie houses out of business. He thinks Violet Crown’s presence will increase attendance at cinemas all over town. “We don’t want to see any theater suffer based on our being here.” That said, Violet Crown Santa Fe brings the movie-screen tally up to 35 in a county with about 148,000 residents, according to 2014 census estimates.
It’s unclear whether Regal Stadium 14, based on the south side of town, or Regal DeVargas, the six-screen house in the DeVargas Center, are nervous about the new player. Regal Entertainment Group’s media division did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
Santa Fe is also home to three single-screen independent houses: The Screen at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, the Cinematheque at the Center for Contemporary Arts, and the Jean Cocteau Cinema, which is now owned by author George R.R. Martin. While the managers of those three cinemas expressed hopeful optimism that all will remain well, they also stated some concern about potential fallout down the line.
“There is no way that having another 11 screens downtown would not cause some sort of chaos,” said Peter Grendle, general manager of The Screen. “Some are dreading it and some are celebrating it.” But, he said, “I don’t see Violet Crown invading The Screen. As a single-screen theater, we do one thing, and we do our very best to do that very well. Being a single-screen entity, we only need so much. We can manage with one employee at a time, for example. We can afford to play the art-themed, less-commercial movie.”
Jason Silverman, director of CCA’s Cinematheque, said Santa Fe already has more movie screens per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. “It’s already the most crowded marketplace in the country. And we have Regal, The Screen, the Jean Cocteau, CCA, and now Violet Crown all competing for the same films.” He said Violet Crown’s programmers have been “hugely aggressive in seeking the kinds of titles that CCA and The Screen have been playing for years.” But, like Grendle, he said CCA has its own mission and that, as the only nonprofit cinema in town, it will continue to show films that “help make Santa Fe a better place.”
Jon Bowman, who manages the Jean Cocteau and who has seen movie houses come and go, said there’s no doubt that another cinema will make it more difficult for theaters to attain some titles from distributors. He said Violet Crown could also cut into Santa Fe’s audience base. However, he added, more films are being made every year — thanks to the advent of digital media — which means there are more titles to choose from, an abundance that could offset that impact. “Even though the competition grows, each theater in Santa Fe already has a niche, an identity. Distributors know that. Audiences know that.” Bowman said he doesn’t see Violet Crown affecting Regal Stadium 14, The Screen, CCA, or the Jean Cocteau.
Banowsky said Violet Crown has told the major distributors that it doesn’t care if they also screen their films at other Santa Fe cinemas. Efforts to reach representatives of Magnolia Pictures and Landmark Films for comment on the distribution issue were unsuccessful.
Banowsky grew up in Southern California — “around the film industry” — but never saw himself working in the movie business. He practiced law for 10 years before moving into acquiring radio stations. In 2000 he found himself “without anything to do ... so I had the freedom to imagine what I wanted to do.” So a year later, he and Eamonn Bowles started Magnolia Pictures, a film-distribution company. Banowsky later helped run Landmark Theatres, visit-ing many of the country’s art-house cinemas during that time. That, in turn, led him to ponder how he could create a small chain of cinemas offering anything and everything patrons might want, including food and drink. (Be advised that there isn’t any wait service in the cinemas at Violet Crown, so food must be ordered before the show and eaten in the theater on a tray.)
Banowsky’s wife, Susan — a voracious reader — came up with the name Violet Crown, which is inspired by the writer O. Henry’s use of the term to describe the city of Austin in a story about a French detective, Tictoq. However, its earliest origins date back long before, in reference to Athens, Greece.
Banowsky said Santa Fe is the perfect venue for the second Violet Crown project. “It has a lot of connection to the film industry here, there are a lot of Academy voters living here, and there is no question in my mind that it is a good film town — maybe a very good film town. We think we can help make it a great film town.” ◀