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 271 comments)

davepring
davepring on September 12, 2014 at 6:24 am

The only masked Imax is the Chinese in Hollywood as far as I know which also retains curtains.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on September 12, 2014 at 6:35 am

Don’t blame Empire, blame IMAX. They have sold out their brand and ruined a once wonderful concept.

rasLXR
rasLXR on September 12, 2014 at 7:25 am

Business I suppose, great as IMAX films are I doubt the Empire or the chinese would have been converted to screen them. There were few IMAX screens around that were not associated with theme parks or museums a few years back. Now they are everywhere perhaps also diluting the brand.

CF100
CF100 on September 12, 2014 at 8:31 am

The critical feature of IMAX is not the aspect ratio, it’s the horizontal and vertical viewing angles. (Size as well, to a point—sitting up close to a 15" laptop screen isn’t the same.) The Empire’s screen roughly falls well within those requirements, the auditorium is about 1 screen width deep, and any central seat is certainly very immersive.

Also, the screen height is within the range of IMAX GT venues (albeit at the bottom end), and the width (87.5ft) is far greater than many, the smallest is 71ft wide.

As for the projection, the entire industry has transitioned to digital and IMAX isn’t immune to that transition; furthermore the use of film for shooting purposes is rapidly diminishing. IIRC they had a replacement digital projection system in development, but it didn’t work out and they ended up using DLP projectors. The other risk, of course, is that eventually the rest of the industry would have digital projectors capable superior quality to 15/70.

The DLP projectors do surprisingly well in the Empire, and are perfectly aligned, but of course we wait laser projection. The lack of masking isn’t an enormous problem as there’s not much light leakage, in 3D it’s almost black. (I did, however, find it to be a serious problem in the Empire’s IMPACT auditorium.)

The Empire (and Chinese) have been reconstructed for the laser system, DLP is only a stopgap. Even so, the picture and sound as it stands, as Dave Pring says, are both superb and the conversion is excellent.

So the real question, which awaits a definitive answer, is does the IMAX laser projection system match 15/70? If it does, then there’s nothing “Lie"MAX about the Empire. As for the resolution—the “real world” resolution of 15/70 as projected is not the same as the potential resolution.

If the IMAX laser projection is, as IMAX claim, superior to competing products, then surely Empire have actually done the right thing to ensure that their flagship auditorium is equipped with the very best?

There wouldn’t be so many “tentpole” IMAX releases now if they had not expanded via “scaled down” venues; the problem, I think, is taking it too far. Perhaps the laser projection system will give IMAX the chance to do some differentiation among between different venues, presumably they will want to shout from the rooftops about it.

CF100
CF100 on September 12, 2014 at 8:32 am

A more useful note: I can confirm that there is some sound leakage from the IMPACT auditorium in the IMAX auditorium. However, it was only audible when there was no audio playing (after the main feature had ended) and it was a distant rumble, which must have been at peak levels. I have heard similar in VUE West End Screen 7, so I would guess “THX” requirements for inter-auditorium sound leakage would be met.

AlAlvarez
AlAlvarez on September 12, 2014 at 9:11 am

The LIEMAX element, digital or not, is most evident in New York City where one screen is eight stories high and the one down the street is twenty feet high. Both charge the same price and are branded as IMAX.

70mmbobbyj
70mmbobbyj on September 12, 2014 at 9:59 am

Digital is so good that a cinema owned by Quentin Tarintino in LA had had a digital projector installed by the person running it. When Q T took over full control he visited the projection booth and saw the digital projector he said “ I want that out of here, this is a 35mm house”. Also this so called laser projection it will still mean the the Empire is “lie Max” as the screen is wider than it is tall{1.9:1 not 1.4:1}

CF100
CF100 on September 12, 2014 at 11:42 am

The row A is about 0.45 screen width away, row M about 1.0. (Row AA and N are not used for IMAX presentations.) This gives minimum horizontal /vertical viewing angles of ~53/32deg, and maximum viewing angles of ~96/66 deg.

If you read http://www.lfexaminer.com/20090522a.htm, you’ll find then, that this, give or take, is exactly the recipe for a “classic” IMAX venue and a central seat is absolutely immersive and perfectly positioned. IMAX releases are transitioning to 1.9:1, so the ratio would be the same even in 1.4:1 venues.

The fact that this has been achieved in a conversion of a conversion, the building dating from 1928, and the shoehorning in of such a large screen, is remarkable. There is an operating Casino below and it is not as if they can dig a large hole in the ground; the project was delayed by months due to structural difficulties.

Empire Cinemas should be applauded for doing their very best in preserving what they could of Screen 1 and commissioning what must have been an expensive and difficult project.

I sincerely hope that IMAX will do something to differentate such “premiere” venues, perhaps once the “laser” projection system is installed, as there are a number of other IMAX venues now in London suburbs with smaller screens (typically 50ft. wide.) (The BFI, on the other hand, hardly needs it as it is well established.)

michaelbrent
michaelbrent on September 12, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Any pictures of the Impact screen?

CF100
CF100 on September 12, 2014 at 12:57 pm

There are two photos of the IMPACT screen on the Empire Leicester Square Facebook page.

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