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 Adam style 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 Thomas Lamb designed Capitol Theatre in Manhattan, New York, its exterior is in the Italian Renaissance style and is an almost identical copy of the facade of Thomas W. Lamb’s E.F. Albee Theatre, Cincinnati, Ohio of 1927. The auditorium was in an Adam 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 December 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 and the film ran until 9th September 1968. This was followed by a revival of “Gone With the Wind”, presented in 70mm which ran for 10 months. “Ryan’s Daughter” was presented in 70mm from 9th December 1970 until 2nd February 1972. Loew’s/MGM sold the Empire Cinema to Cinema International Corporation(CIC) in 1973.

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. In May 2007 the downstairs ballroom was converted into a casino. 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 704 comments)

CF100 on January 29, 2020 at 5:51 pm

Having not visited the “Superscreen” at this location in years—in fact, the cinema was still operated by Empire Cinemas and it was called the “IMPACT” screen—with some trepidation, I recently attended a screening in that auditorium.

The headline is: As far as I can ascertain, LASER projection has now been installed.

I had wondered if Cineworld would upgrade this location given that they have upgraded both Picturehouse Central Screen 1 and the O2 Superscreen with laser projection, as well as Cineworld rolling out laser projection in new sites.

During the performance, I was impressed by the picture quality achieved, and wondered if this was indeed the case. The “tell-tale” signs of laser—speckle, etc.—however, were either non-existent or hardly noticeable, and whilst well saturated colours were achieved, as well as a very good black level, it perhaps didn’t quite look “laser” in this respect, either. But it hardly looked like Xenon, either.

To add to the puzzle, I was slightly surprised to see that only one of the two Barco 4K projectors was operating, though, as is always for the Leicester Square Superscreen, it was a 2D presentation.

Looking into the booth, as can easily be done from the back of the main seating area (i.e. non-balcony), it was noticeable that on top of one projector was a large black rectangular-shaped unit, and this was not the case for other—not in use—projector.

To cut to the chase, it seems that likely Cineworld have NOT upgraded the Superscreen to all-new projection, but added Barco’s laser “retrofit” option, which amounts to converting the model from a Barco DP4K-23B, as moved over from the old (and very much still missed by myself!) Empire 1 on opening, to a DP4K-23BLP—the unit on top is in fact the “lamp house” for this.

The “LP” stands for “laser phosphor,” so it does not use separate red, green and blue lasers.

To quote from Barco’s website:

“The light source in an RGB projector contains red, green and blue lasers. The light source in a laser phosphor projector contains only blue (and sometimes red) lasers, combined with a yellow phosphor wheel. Both types of light sources create a uniform white light interface that enters the engine; just like a Xenon lamp did before. Only when you analyze the spectral properties of this white light, you can discern the narrow bandwidth of RGB from the broader bandwidth of LP.”

So there we are. Not the “real deal” but a, hopefully, good upgrade nonetheless. It always seemed to me that the auditorium was “made” for Atmos with laser-light source projection.

There’s more to say, but that will have to wait for a full write-up.

The sound was definitely on top form, too, with outstanding rear imaging from the Atmos system.

So, FWIW, I am happy to say that a high standard of picture and, particularly excellent sound quality was achieved; as a modern-style “own brand” with Atmos “premium large-format” auditorium, it is a very good place to see a film.

A photo looking into the booth clearly showing the two Barco projectors has been uploaded.

PhilipWW on February 17, 2020 at 12:53 pm

Good to read that the Superscreen has all the latest projectors.

I presume though that the screen itself is still 1.85 necessitating that all Scope movies are shown letterboxed with no masking. This may be fine for bright day scenes but for dark or night scenes, I think this letterboxing makes a mockery of the presentation.

Additionally if the image is projected with the projector set to ‘Flat’ (as it will be), the sides of the image will be truncated; only 1998 horizontal pixels displayed instead of 2048, thus cutting the aspect ratio down to 2.32.

In all, somehow I don’t think the ‘Superscreen’ concept is quite as super as Cineworld would like us to believe.

Lionel on February 26, 2020 at 1:31 pm

I was just looking for plans of the Empire on Google and came across this architect project from 2017:

CF100 on February 29, 2020 at 4:27 pm

Lionel: Those plans were for London and Regional Properties who are the freeholders (owners) of the whole building.

At the time the scheme to which you linked was developed, the adjacent 1-4 Leicester Square (which also happens to house the old Empire 2, now the 4DX auditorium in its basement!) was being redeveloped with the primary use being a hotel, and they had added windows on the reverse side of the building. In a nutshell, there was a “dispute” about this as L&R argued that it affected future development potential of the site, as in the windows would be overshadowed (or completely blocked!) if building higher. However, the “authorities”* sided with the owners of 1-4 LSQ, for one because there was really no evidence that any scheme to develop 5-6 LSQ (aka “The Empire”) had progressed beyond a long term wish on the part of L&R.

theatreofvarieties confirmed that the cinema still has ~60 years on its lease. The casino still ~10 years on its lease and various parts of it have been recently refurbished/altered. Not to mention the amount that has been spent on the cinema in recent years, and the amount (substantially over valuation) Cineworld paid to acquire LSQ and other Empire sites.

There are other constraints, including another hotel, and presumably structural issues given adjoining properties.

So, I wouldn’t expect any similar redevelopment scheme to be progressed any time soon…

(* Namely “The Planning Inspectorate” as it went to appeal. If exceptionally bored (!) see the document titled “APPEAL DECISION” in the relevant planning application documents.)

CF100 on February 29, 2020 at 6:50 pm

PhilipWW: The unmasked areas of the screen (in scope) are not ideal but the black levels are quite low, so it is not the disaster that it might have been.

A “flat” screen can be advantageous, for one because otherwise the trailers/adverts end up letterboxed within the central “flat ratio” part of the screen. (Obviously, ideally with vertically movable masking.)

As you say, the horizontal resolution specified in DCP for “2K flat” is 1998 pixels. However, on a “scope” screen switching from “flat” to “scope” can be accomplished by simply automatically zooming the lens. (858 rather than 1080 pixels high for “2K scope.”) 2K DLP cinema chips, of course, provide 2048 horizontal pixels.

CF100 on March 13, 2020 at 12:38 pm

I paid a visit to Screen 2 in February to see “Parasite,” which was not programmed in any of the largest auditoria of any venue, and this location seemed to me to be the best option available in the West End.

Very good picture quality was achieved, bright and with good saturation, and, IIRC, with good black levels. The sound seemed to be lower than reference level, but the quality was very good, aided by the low reverberation time of the auditorium. The surround imaging was good although as with any “legacy” system using a rear array, it was diffuse even when it should have been directional. The bass was well extended, although presumably this feature did not push LFE to the limit.

Quibbles: The auditorium has some audible HVAC noise and/or noise from the (boothless) projection (situated above the rear rows of the stadia.) Also, before the programme started, the left surrounds had a clearly audible noise floor. Fortunately, no leakage from the foyer nor the adjacent Screen 1 was audible.

The screen is scope ratio and moveable masking is not used. In practice, given that the adverts/trailers are shown in “flat” ratio in the centre section of the screen, and any that are scope end up being letterboxed, this entire aspect of the presentation is compromised, anyway. It obviously made no difference to the main, scope ratio, feature.

The screen is very generously sized for the auditorium depth.

The red upholstered Lino Sonego seating is comfortable, and the restepped stadia from Cineworld’s 2018 refurbishment provides good legroom.

All in all, as a “standard” auditorium, a good place to see a film. Remarkably non-compromised given that it occupies the former space occupied by the toilets.

Several photos have been uploaded.

CP200 on March 18, 2020 at 3:51 am

cineworld closed odeon closed all uk cinemas closed. its the end of hollywood box office as we know it?

Ian on March 18, 2020 at 6:54 am

Not all cinemas closed – yet. I have just seen Military Wives this morning at the Savoy in Grantham. They have stopped doing allocated seating, are doing extra cleaning, and ask patrons to allow two empty seats between parties (as well as all the usual advice). In fact there were only four of us in so isolation was not a problem at 10:30am.

moviebuff82 on March 18, 2020 at 10:38 am

The shares of Cineworld, as well as AMC and Cinemark, are at all time lows as box office sales have been slowed down by recent events as well as growth in streaming at home. 100 years from now, cinemas might be obsolete?

CF100 on March 19, 2020 at 1:30 pm

Universal Breaking Theatrical Windows to Stream ‘Invisible Man,’ ‘The Hunt,’ and ‘Emma’.

Who can say if this will set a precedent?

It might well be the case that investors are lumping cinemas in with “legacy” bricks and mortar retail/leisure businesses.

Cineworld FY2019 Results Presentation/Conference Call – 12th March 2020.

Results (as presented!) are good. Cineworld, however, have a mountain of debt. In the above linked presentation/conference call, they said that without doing anything they can cover costs for several months before being at risk of breaching loan covenants. At the time of the call, they had negotated lease payment breaks in Poland in case of closure.

At the time of the presentation, they also seemed to be working on the assumption that this would be over in 6 months.

Unless it is blocked, they are obligated to complete the takeover of Canada’s Cineplex.

Here’s the latest news:

Telegraph – Cineworld begins laying off staff. (Behind paywall.)

In the case of the share price tumbling, it is pretty clear that a lot of short positions were being held and were “cashed in.”

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