Features and Columns · Movies

Movie Houses of Worship: Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema

By  · Published on January 19th, 2014

“Movie Houses of Worship” is a regular feature spotlighting our favorite movie theaters around the world, those temples of cinema catering to the most religious-like film geeks. If you’d like to suggest or submit a place you regularly worship at the altar of cinema, please email our weekend editor.

The Violet Crown Cinema

Location: 434 West 2nd St. Austin, TX

Date Opened: April 29, 2011

No. of Screens: 4

Current First-Run Titles: Her, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle

Repertory Programming: While there are no repertory screenings currently being exhibited at the VCC, the theater has hosted repertory programming in conjunction with Janus Films and The Criterion Collection, typically before Criterion’s release of new or upgraded titles.

Special Events: Besides showing first-run arthouse, independent and documentary works, the VCC has often provided a special showcase for local talent, hosting (for example) an advance screening party for Richard Linklater’s Bernie, Q&As with Texas-based filmmakers like David Lowery and David Gordon Green, and special screenings of worthwhile, below-the-radar Texas indies like Brandon Dickerson’s Sironia and next week’s screening of Yen Tan’s Pitstop.

Why I Worship Here: I first moved to Austin in 2009, and my movie houses of worship were strictly theaters with the word “Alamo” in the title – specifically, The Ritz and South Lamar. While the Alamo certainly lived up to its reputation and provided a great mix of mainstream, limited release, repertory and completely off-the-wall programming, it was quite clear that the city was missing the opportunity to run a full-time arthouse with a rich theatrical experience comparable to the Alamo. That Austinites would respond to such a venue seemed like common sense. Sure, there was always the suburban North Austin-based Regal Arbor, which houses 6 screens worth of mainstream indie and limited release material. But as a chain theater with standard concessions and regular projection problems, it was quite clear that many of the patrons of Austin’s then-only fulltime arthouse cared about movies far more than anybody who worked at the Regal.

Thus, when the Violet Crown Cinema opened in downtown Austin, it arose like an answer to a cinephile’s prayers, filling a niche that had long been left empty. Not only did the VCC provide the types of movies that had sometimes been surprisingly hard to find in a moviegoing city like Austin, but the theater did so while also implementing strict policies that contribute to an uninterrupted experience (no entries 10 minutes after the film starts, assigned seating, a no-talking warning, small theaters of deliberately limited capacity in which all seats can see the screen clearly, minimal trailers, nobody under 16 allowed without an adult) alongside numerous perks (a full bar, kitchen and cafe with delicious signature cocktails and some pretty scrumptious pizza).

It may seem at first glance that the VCC simply provides the services of an Alamo-style experience for the cultured urbanite crowd. After all, how could you open a new theater in this town and not serve food? But in the short time that this movie house has been open, the Austin moviegoing scene has witnessed some significant changes: the historic Dobie (where Austin’s culture of cinephilia arguably began) closed just a few months before the VCC opened; and the Alamo Drafthouse is rapidly expanding both inside and outside of Austin, which elevates the standard of moviegoing to a national level yet also makes for a group of theaters that quickly feel as if they’re losing their grasp on their uniquely “Austin” origins. While the Alamo is certainly still a chain tailor-made for people who take movies seriously, venturing to any Austin-based Alamo location besides the Ritz now feels more like taking part in a national brand project than participating in a local movie culture attached to an idiosyncratic history of offbeat filmmaking.

Thus, aside from offering a reliable, well-run venue for arthouse, independent and non-fiction programming by people who clearly care about movies, the VCC offers something consistent for locavores in a rapidly changing city. Lodging itself in the second floor of a downtown building reads almost like a promise that the Cinema’s small but comfortable limited-seating arrangements won’t ever expand into something more traditionally ambitious. The intimacy of seeing a movie in such a small theater is notable, which contributes to the VCC’s status as a perfect venue for watching challenging, deliberately paced or unconventional fare like Meek’s Cutoff, Amour or Only the Young.

The venue has also proven itself the go-to home in Austin for Texas-based filmmakers to exhibit their work, hosting Q&As and special screenings to highlight the good movies still being made in a state that was once a hub for independent filmmaking. The intent of the theater to cater to Austin’s moviegoing desires and avoid the unspecific cosmopolitanism of other arthouses in comparably-sized cities is perhaps best exemplified by the Cinema’s name, “Violet Crown,” a reference to Austin’s longest-lasting nickname (dating back to the 1890s).

Recent Screening of Note: As I alluded to above, the VCC has fewer special screenings than some of the other theaters that are typically discussed in this feature. So, rather than highlight one individual screening, I’ll just reiterate the reliability of my many repeated experiences here: the VCC is a seriously good place to see serious movies.

Devotion to the Concessions: The VCC offers signature drinks, plenty of beer on tap, local desserts and a full menu of snacks, meals and more conventional moviegoing concessions. Just make sure your order ahead of time to bring the food in with you; in order to minimize distraction from the film, there is no table service in the theaters. I recommend the margherita pizza with the Bonnie and Clyde to sip on, depending on what movie you’re seeing.

Last Word: It’s been a long, long time since Austin was properly weird, but with the VCC, it’s good to have a theater that is properly Austin.

Photos taken from Violet Crown Cinema’s Facebook page except bar image, which is by Jodi Bart (tastytouring) via Flickr.

Related Topics: , ,