Banowsky’s Violet Crown Santa Fe cinema is set to start up May 1, opening a new chapter for the slowly developing, city-owned Railyard and for Santa Fe’s uniquely diverse film market.
“We’re trying to marry the two things” – food and film – “in the most pleasant viewing experience we can imagine,” said Banowsky, amid a cacophony of noise from power tools and practice fire alarms as finishing touches were being made at the cinema last week.
“We want to give people a reason to get off their couches and come down to our cinema,” he said. “That’s the biggest challenge for theaters anymore. Attendance is down over the last 20 years. You really have to change the experience so that people really have a reason to go out to a movie.”
The Violet Crown’s plan for drawing out filmgoers particularly includes food, which customers can take into the theaters and eat in specially designed chairs that combine the kind of comfy, padded, lean-back seats of a deluxe megaplex with retractable trays that fold over the viewer’s lap to hold dining choices. The chairs were produced with the help of an Australian seating company.
Banowsky, who has a smaller Violet Crown operation in Austin, describes the fare – which will also be served at tables in the restaurant – as “fast casual farm to table” with a gourmet approach, and with a 600- to 700-degree pizza oven as a centerpiece. There will be four fresh wine taps along with all those draft beer choices.
“It will be better than any cinema food you ever had,” Banowsky promised.
And then there’s the mix of movies that Violet Crown intends to present. For the opening week, the main attraction is a super-hero blockbuster: “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
But there are also art screen offerings, with a documentary by German director Wim Wenders and the latest film by French director Olivier Assayas, along with “The Age of Adeline,” an “epic romantic fantasy” from Hollywood, and a new Disney nature film.
Another unusual feature for a multiplex: Violet Crown has one large theater with 150 seats and 10 other auditoriums with just 60 seats – all of them with big, curved, wall-to-wall screens, 42 feet wide in the big theater and 30 feet wide in the smaller ones. All the auditoriums have vast banks of sound speakers.
It’s a new model in a business that has traditionally been based on drawing throngs into huge auditorium spaces on weekends, said Banowsky.
“You’ll see these big spaces with 200 or 300 seats and Monday to Thursday there’s not more than 20 or 25 people, certainly no more than 50,” he said. “We’re trying to build more of a demand across the board.”
“On the one hand, we’re going to have the ‘Avengers’ and then Wim Wenders on the other hand, and then films we think are important, like (Assayas’) ‘Clouds of Sils Maria,'” he said. “So having smaller auditoriums is helpful. We’re putting on films that have a smaller commercial potential, but we’re still giving them a chance at a good run.”
The idea, he said, is to have “a much greater seat utilization than in the traditional cinema.”
“We’re far enough away from the Regal 14 (under movie business rules) that we can play any of the large Hollywood movies that are playing down there. No one on the north side of town has done that. That will be our bread and butter, movies like ‘Mad Max.’ But we also love art films. We’ll play art films that we think our audience will enjoy.”
Admission prices will be “competitive,” he said. Tickets will be $7 for shows before noon; $8 for kids and $9 for adults at matinees before 5 p.m.; and $9 for children and $11 for adults at evening showings. There’s a $3 surcharge for 3-D movies.
Ramping up the competition
The Violet Crown’s upscale, state-of-the-art facility and film mix seems poised to raise the stakes in movie competition in Santa Fe across the board – for Regal, with its more commercial offerings at two locations, as well as for the City Different’s beloved coterie of art screens, including The Screen, the CCA Cinematheque and author George R.R. Martin’s Jean Cocteau Cinema, a short walk from the Violet Crown.
Peter Grendle, general manager of The Screen on the campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, had nothing but good things to say about Banowsky, who in the past started Magnolia Pictures and worked with Landmark Theaters, which shows movies in impeccable, technically spectacular auditoriums in cities like Los Angeles.
Grendle calls what he’s seen of Violet Crown in Austin “the best in the business.” And if Banowsky had duplicated the Austin operation here – focusing mostly on art films in only four 50-seat theaters – the Violet Crown Santa Fe could have been worrisome for the likes of The Screen, said Grendle.
But now, “I don’t see them treading on our territory,” Grendle said. He believes Violet Crown may be more of a threat to Regal.
“We’re going to do the same thing we do every day and that’s fight for the best pictures for our audience,” Grendle said. “I say welcome to the party.”
The Screen’s official welcome for Violet Crown will be in the form of some counter-programming in May, with “a slate of really challenging art films,” Grendle said.
Jon Bowman of the Jean Cocteau said the Violet Crown “obviously raises the bar for all of us … . It will put the onus on us to improve our operations and make sure our viewers are happy.”
He said it remains to be seen what impact Violet Crown will have on the market, but that Banowsky is trying to fill a different niche than the smaller art screens. “It’s kind of like a daily newspaper and a weekly newspaper – there are different niches and markets,” he said.
Bowman noted that the Jean Cocteau, whose particularly varied programming goes from old pulp movies to art films to live performances by musicians and magicians, hasn’t shied away from Hollywood’s big movies. It screened the 35mm film version of sci-fi hit “Interstellar,” for example. And the Jean Cocteau will also show the new “Mad Max” movie next month. Relations with Violet Crown are so copacetic that Violet Crown isn’t “insisting” on sole rights for the big movie on the north side of town, Bowman said.
Banowsky said he and his wife have purchased a home in Santa Fe and, with a child graduating from high school, they will split time between Austin and Santa Fe. “We are a locally owned business,” he said of Violet Crown.
‘Magic’ going underground
Violet Crown’s 11 auditoriums have been built in a structure that maintains the low-level, modern industrial look of other buildings in the Railyard, with metal siding on the facade that has already started displaying its natural orange rust. There will be validated parking in the next door Railyard garage.
The “magic” of the construction project was that, “to make a cinema of any size, we had to go down 26 feet (underground),” Banowsky said. He said the hole that was dug, then left unfilled for years by a previous theater company that later baled out of the Railyard really didn’t help much in the excavation.
Banowsky believes the Railyard, for which a movie theater was always considered a linchpin and anchor, is “the ideal spot for what we want to do,” despite the empty retail space in the commercial building near the theater where the Flying Star restaurant recently closed.
“We’re confident that, once we get up and running and going in full operation, you’re going to see a lot more traffic in the Railyard and a whole lot more opportunity for restaurants to open up down here and create some vibrancy,” Banowsky said. “That was the original idea for the Railyard.”