Cineworld Cinema - Leicester Square

5 Leicester Square,
London, WC2H 7NA

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Empire Cinema

The Empire Theatre was designed and built as a music hall by architect Thomas Verity and could seat 3,000. It opened on 17th April 1884. The old Pit seating entrance can still be seen today if you go around to the left of the theatre into Leicester Street. In 1893 a new facade and foyer was built on Leicester Square, designed by Frank T. Verity. This facade and entrance is what is seen today, as on 22nd January 1927, the old Empire Theatre was closed, after it had been taken over by Loew’s Inc. in 1925. The auditorium was demolished and a new one built to the plans of Scottish born theatre architect Thomas W. Lamb (from the USA) assisted by F.W. Boettcher (from the UK) and associated architect was Frederick G.M. Chancellor of the noted UK theatre architectural firm Frank Matcham & Company.

The new Empire Theatre opened on 8th November 1928 with Norma Shearer in “Trelawney of the Wells” and for the following 33 years became the London premier home to MGM feature films. It housed 3,330 seats in its massive and decorative auditorium. There were 1,916 seats in the stalls, 180 loge seats in the front of the circle and the remainder of the circle seated 1,234. The Empire Theatre had a fully equipped stage and for a period in the late-1940’s until February 1952, it was put to full use when a stage show accompanied the main feature film. The proscenium was 54 feet wide and the stage 35 feet deep. It was equipped with a WurliTzer 4Manual/21Rank organ. The Leicester Square landmark also had an opulent lobby and all the normal regalia of an American movie palace, its interior resembled the Adam style Thomas Lamb designed Capitol Theatre in Manhattan, New York, its exterior is in the Italian Renaissance style.

Of course, as the Empire Theatre was Loew’s premier theatre in the UK, all the MGM films which opened at the Empire Theatre over the years were UK premiere presentations, as were the occasional productions from other studios, but there were also many special premieres: the first of these being a midnight charity premiere-4th September 1935 Eleanor Powell in “Broadway Melody of 1936”, gala late night premiere-31st March 1938 Robert Taylor “A Yank at Oxford”, evening premiere-concurrent with the Palace Theatre and the Ritz Cinema 18th April 1940 Vivien Leigh “Gone With the Wind” (which ran at the Empire Theatre for 12 weeks), Charity Premiere-10th August 1944 Irene Dunne “The White Cliffs of Dover”, Royal Command Performance (the first to be held)-1st November 1946 David Niven “A Matter of Life and Death”, Royal Command Performance-29th November 1948 John Mills “Scott of the Antarctic”, Royal Command Performance-30th October 1950 Irene Dunne “The Mudlark”, Royal Premiere-12th June 1952 Robert Taylor “Ivanhoe”, Royal Film Performance-27th October 1952 Mario Lanza “Because Your Mine”, Royal Film Performance-15th November 1954 Stewart Granger “Beau Brummel”, Royal World Premiere-16th May 1955 Richard Todd “The Dam Busters”, Royal Charity Premiere-16th November 1955 Jose Ferrer “Cockleshell Heroes”, Gala Charity Premiere-19th September 1956 Marlon Brando “Guys and Dolls”, Royal Charity Premiere-29th June 1957 Marlon Brando “Teahouse of the August Moon”, The Royal Film Performance-2nd February 1959 Alec Guinness “The Horses Mouth”.

A Gala European Charity Premiere-16th December 1959 Charlton Heston “Ben Hur” which ran for 76 weeks until 28th May 1961. This was the last film to be screened in the original auditorium. For this final presentation a new projection box was built in the centre of the stalls, beneath the front of the balcony (loosing half the stalls seating due to the projection box and bad sightlines of seating on the extreme edges). The projection had a straight throw of 78 feet to a new 52 feet masked wide screen which had been erected just in front of the proscenium arch. The seating capacity was reduced to 1,723.

With its attendance already declining before the “Ben Hur” run, and mounting criticism of the theatre’s technical quality, it had been decided to ’re-do' the theatre. It was closed and totally gutted internally. The building had been purchased by Mecca Ltd.

It re-opened on 19th June 1962 with Doris Day in “Jumbo”. The cinema had a completely new look inside the shell of the old theatre. Designed by noted cinema architect George Coles, his last major project, it was in a ‘modern’ style for the 1960’s. Seating was provided for 1,330 on a single floor which was formerly the circle, now extended forward. There were 688 in the front seating section and 642 in the former stepped section of the circle. The former stalls area became a Mecca Dance Hall (which in 2006, became a casino). The original facade was entirely covered by a new advertising hoarding. On 25th November 1965 the World Premiere of “Lasy L” was held at the Empire Theatre. On 26th April 1966 a Royal European Gala Charity Premiere of “Doctor Zhivago” was held at the Empire Theatre.

Later incorporating two other spaces, the adjacent Ritz Cinema and another small space off the foyer which opened as the 80 seat, Screen 3, on 29th November 1985 with Harrison Ford in “Witness”, the Empire Cinema was now a triplex. Many more premieres were held in the Empire Cinema’s magnificent main auditorium (Screen 1), which in 1989 was refurbished and was THX certified.

Seating 1,330 in the main Screen 1 (with a huge 60 feet wide by 25 feet high screen) and 77 in Screen 3. (Screen 2 in the former adjacent Ritz Cinema is listed seperately as ‘Cineworld at the Empire Theatre – Screen 2’ on this site, and has a current seating capacity of 349). The facade has since been restored. After many years being operated by UCI it was taken over by the Irish based Empire Cinemas Ltd. as part of a new circuit they are now operating in the UK. On 20th June 2008, two new screens 4 & 5 opened in spaces that had originaly been a toilet area and green room. In August 2009, a further four screens were created in the building, giving a total of eight screens, plus one screen in the former adjacent Ritz Cinema which was known as ‘Screen 2’.

The final world premiere held in Screen 1 was the One Direction film “One Direction:This Is Us” on 21st August 2013. George Coles designed Screen 1 was closed for redevelopment on 26th August 2013 with the horror film “Big Bad Wolves” screening as part of the annual weekend ‘Frightfest’.

Screen 1 was then sub-divided to provide a 398-seat ‘Impact’ screen with Atmos sound, which has a stadium seated main floor and also seating provided in a balcony (in the former Empire Theatre’s stage house). It opened on 16th May 2014. It is located in the screen end of the former Empire 1, with its huge ‘Impact’ screen now back to back with the new IMAX screen next door.

The 723-seat IMAX screen which opened on 30th May 2014 is located in the former rear seating area of Screen 1, and has retained some of the cinema’s 1962 George Coles designed decoration, with illuminated troughs across the ceiling and down the side-walls which have ever-changing colours. The conversion was carried out to the plans of architectural firm UNICK Architects.

The Empire was one of five Empire cinemas purchased by Cineworld in July 2016, the others were Basildon, Hemel Hempstead, Poole and Bromley. The deal also included that Empire Theatres would take over the Cineworld Haymarket. The Cineworld Cinema Leicester Square was closed on 7th January 2018 for refurbishment and re-opened 9th February 2018.

Contributed by Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 694 comments)

CF100 on April 13, 2019 at 10:22 am

Zappomatic: Indeed, and I bought ice cream from there myself from the kiosk in the linked image! However, the unit’s current use class remains the one in place for the Bureau de Change that previously operated there, so Cineworld still need permission for the change of use to allow the operation of a takeaway.

CF100 on May 25, 2019 at 2:47 pm

Westminster Council have refused permission (22nd May 2019) for the food kiosk, on the basis that customers queuing outside would block pedestrian traffic, and as all customers would be served off the premises, it would result in negative environmental/amenity effects (“late night activity, noise and smells.”) Obviously, Cineworld have the opportunity to appeal this decision.

CF100 on May 25, 2019 at 6:16 pm

Addendum: Ironically, the application for the “advertising” aspect has been approved.

(“Display of two internally illuminated fascia signs measuring 1.00m x 6.25m and 2.49m x 1.15m, a non-illuminated projecting sign measuring 0.60m x 0.60m and retractable awning.”)

Thus, Cineworld may now, for instance, add an awning advertising non-existent “Hotdogs, Jacket Potatoes, Nachos, Hot & Cold Drinks.”

Zappomatic on June 25, 2019 at 8:46 am

Superscreen logos have been added to the side walls of the Superscreen

CF100 on June 28, 2019 at 1:58 pm

Zappomatic: Thanks for the update/photo. Positioning looks dreadful—and acoustically not a good idea to be sticking reflective surfaces up that close to the screen on straight sidewalls (lateral reflections affect dialogue intelligibility [perhaps not too much of a concern here?] and stereo imaging.)

Alarmingly ill-thought out for a premier screen in their flagship site, with this auditorium having a very highly specified sound system!

By the way, do you, or anyone else reading this, know if Cineworld have or are planning on installing laser projection in the LSQ Superscreen?

Cineworld are definitely rolling them out:

Cineworld Group and Cinionic strike 1,000+ unit deal to roll out acclaimed Barco laser projectors to theaters worldwide .

Zappomatic on June 28, 2019 at 3:49 pm

I didn’t notice any effects on the sound but they certainly were noticeably reflective in brighter scenes in the film.

CF100 on June 28, 2019 at 4:18 pm

Zappomatic: Possible effects on the sound could be at the subtle “audiophile”/“fusspot” level. ;–) Although, I suppose, your comment does suggest that the sound quality hasn’t been ruined!

Too bad that they distract from the picture—and one would certainly hope that Cineworld would notice this issue?

CF100 on July 8, 2019 at 1:23 pm

An application [dated received 20th March 2019] to replace the three banner adverts on the LSQ frontage with LED display module screens has been refused by Westminster Council.

(Note that this application was for Caesars Entertainment UK, i.e. the casino operator.)

The document listed as “DELEGATED REPORT” makes for some particularly interesting reading.

In summary, it turns out that none of the existing three banner adverts is approved; although the applicant claims that “Deemed Consent” was obtained by virtue of the high level banner being displayed for more than 10 years, the report shows archival photos demonstrating that it was not continuously displayed for this period; and, the two side banners (which made their first appearance at a later date) constitute an increase in the quantum of advertising which in any event voids this claim.

Apparently, Westminster have, over the years, issued enforcement notices in respect of removing these adverts; however, they were removed and then reinstated at a later date

(The report states that, in relation to advertising, Westminster Council only proceed with legal action as a last resort.)

According to the report, Cineworld advised the cinema’s use of the banners was “entirely at the discretion of Caesars.”

Last Friday, i.e. 5th July 2019, no banners were in place. The “rods” for the side banners remained, and, it looks like some “making good” is needed to the upper parts of the façade.

Presumably, then, Westminster have (again!) taken enforcement action.

Of particular note from the report:

“The theatre is a very significant building architecturally and its status as an unlisted building of merit reflects this. There are a number of architectural features at the main elevation to Leicester Square, including the original ‘Empire Theatre’ sign to the parapet, a tri-partite arch, classical columns and coffered ceiling within the arch.”

This may be of some relief to anyone concerned about future alterations/additions.

In my view, notwithstanding the desires of the casino operator to add advertising of greater promenance—and surely this use should not overshadow the cinema aspect?—the upper/wide banner typically used for movie advertising was a reasonable compromise. The two side banners looked awful, and this scheme, to “bolt on” LED display module screens, is now demonstrably ill-conceived.

Meanwhile, the canopy remains in desperate need of being reimagined…

CF100 on August 16, 2019 at 8:53 am

In addition to the Superscreen sidewall signage mentioned by Zappomatic, similar signage has also been added to the IMAX auditorium. (Photo uploaded.)

In the photo, this signage doesn’t look so bad; however, the illumination is uneven, particularly for the white “Leicester Square” section, and the kerning (spacing) for the IMAX type (“Microgamma” typeface) is incorrect, with the “X” in particular too far from the “A,” and the second letter “e” in “Leicester Square” is slightly rotated anti-clockwise, rather than being straight.

Also, the quality of the LEDs used does not match those used for the concealed LED bars or house lights of the auditorium (OSRAM.)

Worst of all, for the screening I attended (matinée performance of “Once a Time in Hollywood,”) they remained fully illuminated until the start of the main feature, and then simply switched off.

IMO they look completely ridiculous, and, it hardly seems necessary to remind patrons that they are in an IMAX, when its logo is plastered on all 723 seats.

(Just noticed a correction to the CT description—the seat count given for the IMAX auditorium of 751 seats is incorrect—the 2016 licensing plans state 723 seats [plus 6 accessible spaces.])

In every other respect, the cinema was absolutely fine, with the usual excellent picture/sound from the IMAX with Laser GT installation, effective air conditioning, and all lights were off during the main feature.

CF100 on October 31, 2019 at 7:30 pm

Having recently paid a visit to the IMAX auditorium, the sidewall IMAX signs now fade in/out—however, the fade is extremely “stepped,” obviously sequencing through a handful of different levels, rather than smooth.

The sidewall signs were also (irritatingly!) turned on as the end credits started.

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