Empire Cinema

5-6 Leicester Square,
London, WC2H 7NA

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Empire Leicester Square marquee with new IMAX sign

Viewing: Photo | Street View

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 over the years: 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 Charity Premiere-17th December 1959 Charlton Heston “Ben Hur” which ran for 76 weeks until 28th May 1961, 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.

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 ‘Empire 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 is known as ‘Screen 2’.

The 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’. The final world premiere held in Screen 1 was the One Direction film “One Direction:This Is Us” on 21st August 2013. Screen 1 was sub-divided to provide a 398-seat ‘Impact’ screen which opened 16th May 2014 and a 751-seat IMAX screen which opened on 30th May 2014. The conversion was carried out to the plans of architectural firm UNICK Architects.

Contributed by Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 285 comments)

CF100 on November 28, 2014 at 3:07 am

The IMAX and IMPACT screens are featured in the current issue of Cinema Technology Magazine. Not much new information, but some lovely pictures, and equipment is listed for the IMPACT screen.

Apparently the dividing wall weighs 90 (!) tons, is 1 metre thick, is built using 8 layers of plasterboard, and is hung from new girders in the ceiling.

The IMPACT screen has 87 JBL speakers including 5 stage speakers and 16 18" subwoofers (same as Screen 1) and some 58 surround speakers… plus 8 more 18" subwoofers in the side-walls! The Barco projectors have been moved over from Screen 1.

Unfortunately, not much info on the IMAX system other than the usual vague corporate stuff, except that all 750 seats will be available for 3D screenings once the laser projection system is installed.

Both screens are fitted with the fully-sprung “Empire” seat from Seating Concepts.

The article ends by saying that “the Empire Leicester Square has two new first class auditoria capable of producing the finest in picture and sound. Both have an undeniable ‘wow’ factor and won’t disappoint anyone.” It goes on to say that “for those of us who knew the unforgettable Empire One in its starlight glory days, [the new screens] just can’t recreate that special magical environment that went before.”

A sentiment, I think, that we could all agree with.

mhvbear on November 28, 2014 at 6:24 am

It seems amusing the OdeonNotFanatical is only on here to voice disparaging on the Empire conversion. 18 for 18 so far.

FanaticalAboutOdeon on December 16, 2014 at 2:51 am

I sampled the Empire’s IMAX auditorium recently, albeit not to watch an IMAX film, and my impressions were mixed. The screen is large of course, too large. “The Imitation Game”, in ‘scope, certainly filled most of the screen but, from two thirds of the way back in the centre block and sitting on the right-hand aisle, there was a distinct loss of light over to the left during what is admittedly a fairly dark film and, given such a huge image, the resolution at such close quarters was “soft” rather than sharp. The guy checking tickets and helping people to find their seats was enthusiastic and welcoming but for him to be spotlit just prior to the programme starting, in order to say “Welcome to the Empire Leicester Square, enjoy "The Imitation Game”, whoop!“ was well intentioned but amateur and unnecessary as was the on-screen reminder that "This film is not enhanced by IMAX” – a negative announcement presumably to protect the IMAX system’s potential advantages. Had I sat nearer the screen or in one of the side blocks, I would have been requiring a refund. On the credit side, the seats were extremely comfortable and the constantly colour changing LEDs in wall and ceiling coves were a thoughtful way of recalling the far more effective cold-cathode lighting which so beautifully lit the former Empire One. No tabs, of course, although a single track with tastefully lit tabs would, in my opinion, add greatly to the presentation and create a sense of occasion in place of today’s utilitarian feel. Remembering that the Curzon, Mayfair, Warner West End and Rendezvous and Odeon, St Martin’s Lane were all either modernised or opened with no provision for curtains, these were later added at all these venues and enhanced the presentation, could the Empire follow suit? I rather doubt there is space or will for this to happen. My conclusion is that Empire’s IMAX screen is too large and too close to the seating. I prefer not to have my eyes “popped” and if I wanted to “be part of a film”, I would join the union and apply to the relevant organisation. The Empire will doubtless entertain thousands, especially with IMAX enhanced films, sadly it’s no longer a cinema of choice for me.

CF100 on December 16, 2014 at 2:23 pm

FanaticalAboutOdeon-As I understand it, non-IMAX films in IMAX digital cinemas don’t have the same projection quality as IMAX releases, e.g. only one of the two projectors is used. Also, the picture hasn’t been gone through IMAX’s DMR processing (nor has the sound been remixed for IMAX’s sound system, and, AFAIK, the Empire IMAX doesn’t have a rear array for non-IMAX films.)

The on-screen announcement is, therefore, absolutely necessary.

I agree that sitting in the front row could be overwhelming, but I’ve found middle seats absolutely fine. As mentioned in a previous post, the screen width to auditorium depth ratio is about the same as found in a “classic,” purpose-built IMAX venue. In some ways I preferred the smaller Empire 1 screen, which somehow “felt” bigger than these monster screens, but the central seats in the IMAX auditorium are right in the sweet spot.

Regarding the side seats, sitting on the far sides of the front rows would be a poor experience… but those seats are currently not even in use for IMAX presentations, with the seating down to less than 500 seats for IMAX 3D. However, in my view, the width of the auditorium is an advantage—making it feel spacious, and prevents a problem I find with “wall-to-wall” screens in rectangular auditoria, where I am constantly aware of the side walls framing the screen.

The new LED lighting lacks the diffuse properties of cold cathode lights, and the new walls are black. The effect is more one of slightly inconsistent “bands” of light rather than smooth “bands” with the walls being “washed” in colour. But, the flipside is that Empire did not have to reinstate anything, and it seems much attention to detail has been lavished on this project—I notice the steps up to the aisles have been moved and rebuilt… in exactly the same style!

The lack of tabs is a shame but in some ways the large screen speaks for itself, being most impressive when one first enters the auditorium and is presented with it and the very wide, colour-lit space. I have found the standard of presentation to be very good, with pre-show music, lighting fades etc. all well-timed, IMAX trailers, and so on. Much of the magic is still there!

On the other hand, the IMPACT screen desperately needs tabs and masking, and some other extra touches.

I took someone to see “Lucy” at the Empire IMAX and their jaw dropped on entering, not expecting the screen to be that big and afterwards they said that they had never seen or heard anything like it.

FanaticalAboutOdeon on December 17, 2014 at 2:16 am

Perhaps it’s a shame that most of the IMAX branding at the Empire is semi-permanent when only one of their many screens is so equipped and even then not used exclusively for IMAX product. Replacing the word “CINEMA” on the canopy with “IMAX” might lead the less technically informed, i.e. the majority of customers, to assume everything there was somehow presented in the format and thus necessitating the announcement I find negative. I certainly didn’t expect “The Imitation Game” to be in IMAX and understand the visual and audio differentials you describe but I question whether a complex that was not showing a single IMAX film should be so “adorned” with such branding. I can understand the IMAX Corporation wanting their magic word to be emblazoned in Leicester Square and, on the surface of it, Empire Cinemas' willingness to have their West End premises associated with the brand but with all previous “value-added” formats like CinemaScope and Todd-AO, their names were given along with the appropriate film titles rather than becoming part of the cinema’s own overall offering. Trading standards legislation could also be behind the need to remind audiences they are not seeing something in IMAX on the Empire IMAX screen. I enjoy IMAX documentaries at Bradford and Waterloo and the Empire IMAX auditorium appears successfully to replicate such spaces but forty five minutes is about my limit for the effect on neck and eyes!

CF100 on December 17, 2014 at 5:45 am

All of these issues—IMAX exterior branding and potential confusion—occur with all multi-screen venues with a single IMAX screen. The strategy of IMAX Corporation in recent years can be questioned, but there is plenty of upside.

Of course, Empire used to have a THX sign attached to the marquee, and that did not mean all screens were THX-certified!

Non-IMAX films aren’t advertised as “IMAX” presentations and Empire’s IMAX screen should be listed as “Screen 3.” There seems to be a slight problem with the online booking system in this respect, as when proceeding with the booking it displays “IMAX” as the screen, but on the main listing page all of the IMAX branding is dropped.

As I understand, most IMAX screens play IMAX content for the vast majority of—if not all—presentations. The Empire Leicester Square is unique in having difficulties in obtaining IMAX bookings.

FanaticalAboutOdeon on December 18, 2014 at 3:14 pm

The Empire is indeed just another multi-screen venue and, yes, the potential confusion is no different to numerous other such venues with one IMAX screen, however, it is in Leicester Square and seems to be regarded by Empire Cinemas as something of a flagship so did the operator expect always to be showing an IMAX film when they decided/agreed to replace “CINEMA” on the canopy with “IMAX” I wonder. I would have thought, when investing so much money, they would have been well aware what would be available to them from the distributors, though I may be wrong. THX certification, though very worthwhile and a valuable asset was altogether more subtle – to the man in the street – and didn’t have quite the same marketing dynamism as a full IMAX installation, I’m not aware a higher price was charged for compliant product and the THX sign on the Empire’s front-of-house was actually quite discreet in comparison. I earlier omitted to say I thought the sound in Empire 3 (which, as you say, the auditorium should be called in ALL publicity when not showing IMAX) was terrific.

CF100 on December 19, 2014 at 4:08 pm

It would appear that a lot of politics are in motion in relation to Empire’s IMAX screen!

Empire’s booking page shows that the current and next film for IMAX/Screen 3 are IMAX releases.

I completely agree, non-IMAX features should not be advertised as such, though I’ve not noticed anything other than the gaff with the online booking system. Empire seem to have gone to some lengths to get IMAX signage up, I notice the planning application for a “high level” sign (visible from the Coventry Street approach) was rejected but one has been installed nevertheless, so I assume it went to appeal.

One also has to also wonder if IMAX were aware of the potential booking situation, as the Empire is cited by them as being of their “landmark” installations in a world-famous location and is one of the venues due to be equipped with their laser projectors. I imagine that it remains to be seen how this plays out; the current situation is at best absurd.

The former Screen 1 had premium ticket prices, e.g. the “£9.95 all day” offer is/was only valid for Screens 4-9.

AFAIK the cost of the IMAX/IMPACT conversion was £4m.

terry on December 24, 2014 at 4:22 am

Serves Empire right that the distributors do not look kindly upon their act of butchery at Leicester Square – here’s to the Odeon!

CF100 on January 27, 2015 at 4:42 pm

MasterImage 3D’s DUAL3D system to be installed in the IMPACT screen:


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