Cineworld Cinema - Leicester Square

5 Leicester Square,
London, WC2H 7NA

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Empire Cinema

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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 751-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.

Contributed by Ross Melnick, Ken Roe

Recent comments (view all 488 comments)

PhilipWW on September 26, 2017 at 9:08 am

I would be interested in knowing what the aspect ratios of all the screens are now.

Screen 1 is presumably the 1.90 digital IMAX ratio. When not used for IMAX presentations, standard 1.85 films will be shown very slightly pillarboxed and Scope films letterboxed at 2.39.

Screen 2 : I hope will be 2.39 Scope when refitted as a 4DX screen. I am not familiar with Cineworld 4DX standards.

Screen 3 Impact I presume is 1.85. I have seen one Scope movie there which by necessity was letterboxed to obtain 2.39. An Empire projectionist did tell me at the time that they were thinking of installing top and bottom masking as it would be better, but I guess nothing came of that.

Screens 4 and 5 were 2.39 Scope with side masking. Screen 4, I thought, was very impressive for the size of the auditorium.

Screen 6 was just 1.85 ‘Flat.’ I only went there once and didn’t like it. If I remember correctly they had bottom up masking to achieve the Scope frame. That may have changed now.

Screens 7, 8 and 9 were 2.39 Scope with side masking. Screen 7 I also thought was an impressive size for the auditorium.

Has anything changed or is anything about to change under Cineworld ?

CF100 on September 26, 2017 at 9:57 am

PhilipWW: Empire Cinemas gave the screen sizes as:

IMAX: 26.5mx15.6m = approx. 1.7:1.

IMPACT/SuperScreen: 20.5mx11m = approx. 1.86:1.

I don’t think the IMAX projection quite reaches the top of the screen, but IIRC almost all of the screen was filled for the segments of Dunkirk shot using IMAX 15/70 cameras. The IMAX laser projectors can do 1.4:1.

BTW, Screen 1 is actually the IMPACT/SuperScreen, Screen 3 is the IMAX.

When I spoke to someone from Cineworld (who has worked at the Empire since the UCI days) last month, they told me that the 4DX conversion and foyer refurbishments were the first priority. I walked past the Empire yesterday, I couldn’t see any sign of foyer refurbishment. The 4DX is definitely underway as a month ago progress was at least up to the point of completing the strip-out.

Screen 7 is definitely impressive for the size of the auditorium, I think it’s as big as those much larger auditoria in some other nearby venues, almost the same width as VUE West End Screen 6, if I’m not mistaken.

The IMPACT/SuperScreen definitely needs masking and I can’t understand why it wasn’t installed in the first place.

An upgrade to laser projection would also be good.

Zappomatic on September 26, 2017 at 12:08 pm

The trouble with screen 7 (and some of the other wide but shallow auditoriums) is that with the way the audio is set up and balanced, if you’re not sitting in the middle you end up so close to one of the left or right front channels that it almost drowns out the centre dialogue channel.

Screen 6 still does have bottom masking. It’s a slightly claustrophobic auditorium.

I can’t say I’ve found the Superscreen to particularly suffer from its lack of masking as there’s a good level of contrast and sharpness from the current projectors. Conversely the masking isn’t working in some of the smaller screens and they definitely do suffer for it.

CF100 on September 26, 2017 at 12:37 pm

Zappomatic: Interesting point, might be because the high frequency dispersion of the screen speakers doesn’t work with a relatively wide auditorium with seating that close to the screen?

Having a quick look at speakers for small auditoria, the specification sheet for the JBL 3678 gives 90deg as the nominal horizontal coverage for the high frequency horn section. So based on that, the side seats in Screen 7 would indeed be outside this for the centre speaker.

Albeit the screen perforations will cause some high frequency spreading, which might help.

OTOH, why would you sit off centre, if you had a choice…? Where possible, I always pre-book centre seats.

I haven’t been to the IMPACT/SuperScreen for a while, but IIRC the picture didn’t have perfectly straight edges, some “barrel” (like a goldfish bowl) distortion.

Whereas the IMAX seems to be perfect in this respect.

CF100 on September 26, 2017 at 4:12 pm

theatreofvarieties: Thank you very much, your comments are clearing up a lot of questions that have been floating around in my head!

Suffice it to say that spending £4 million on it wasn’t done whimsically and without very good reason.

Of course—I was just curious. :–)

Sintered tiles

RPG… I shudder to think of the cost… Alas, I can’t find anyone selling them online.

two decorative brass ones under the projection overhang in the back wall (only decorative part of the 60’s auditorium to survive albeit now sprayed black) in addition to about 300 small grilles under the seating at every level.

I noticed that feature remained—that solves what was another mystery for me. As a teenager, I had thought they were “hatches” that could be opened to sell concessions!

The small grilles I think are visible in your photos of the strip-out—do these date back to the 1927 auditorium?

I hope you won’t mind if I ask a few more questions…

-In the IMAX auditorium, I assume the “boxing out” beneath the ceiling at the screen end and the “kinks” at the ends of the adjacent curved ceiling section cover up parts of the roof structure?

-The IMAX auditorium I estimate to be 120x90ft. max, with the screen moved forward by 40ft. or so from its position in Empire 1?

-I assume there is no baffle wall in the IMPACT auditorium?

-In UNICK Architects' rendering of the IMPACT auditorium, it shows red LED strips on the sidewalls. Were these originally planned but later dropped?

-It seems that the American Seating Company no longer sell auditorium seating. Do you know the model of the seats used in Empire 1?

CF100 on September 26, 2017 at 4:33 pm

PhilipWW: Forgot to say—I did ask about the 4DX auditorium screen size, but I didn’t get a clear answer.

In terms of width, tricky to do much, e.g. there is a fire exit on the right side etc., unless the screen is moved forward.

4DX has nothing to do with the picture whatsoever, control data is added for the seat movements and FX (lights, smoke, scents, etc.)

According to the British Board of Film Classification:

“The 4DX DCP is identical to the regular DCP that we will have classified in the usual way. So, unlike a 3D or IMAX version of a 2D film, 4DX does not involve a different version of the film. In a 4DX exhibition, the classified DCP plays in parallel with a file containing instructions [for the 4DX seats/equipment.]”

Zappomatic on September 27, 2017 at 8:34 am

CF100: Regarding non-Central Seats, on this occasion I was with a friend with a dodgy knee who needed the aisle to stretch into. The reclining seats don’t have anywhere to recline into (except for the knees of the person behind!) so that could have been pretty unpleasant. I do sometimes prefer an aisle seat myself but don’t book them in the small screens here due to the sound issues.

CF100 on October 9, 2017 at 3:30 pm

As part of my ongoing research into all aspects of cinemas, I stumbled on the following, which I found amusing:

“In the Towngate Theatre (Poole)… (there is a very) obvious echo (from the rear wall)… Acoustic tiles were installed (as an attempted remedial treatment) in 1978, but the NEXT DAY (my emphasis) (they were painted) the same colour as the adjacent walls… blocking the pores which made them acoustically absorbent.”

(From the book Auditorium Acoustics and Architectural Design.)

At least it took more than 25 years for the same blunder to occur in Empire 1!

theatreofvarieties on October 10, 2017 at 4:40 am

The small grilles I think are visible in your photos of the strip-out—do these date back to the 1927 auditorium? NO, THE STADIA ONLY DATES FROM 1962 AND THATS WHERE THEY ARE FROM.

I hope you won’t mind if I ask a few more questions…

-In the IMAX auditorium, I assume the “boxing out” beneath the ceiling at the screen end and the “kinks” at the ends of the adjacent curved ceiling section cover up parts of the roof structure? YES.

-The IMAX auditorium I estimate to be 120x90ft. max, with the screen moved forward by 40ft. or so from its position in Empire 1? CANT REMEMBER

-I assume there is no baffle wall in the IMPACT auditorium? NO, IT HAS BAFFLETTES AROUND THE STAGE SPEAKERS

-In UNICK Architects' rendering of the IMPACT auditorium, it shows red LED strips on the sidewalls. Were these originally planned but later dropped? CORRECT.

-It seems that the American Seating Company no longer sell auditorium seating. Do you know the model of the seats used in Empire 1? It was the 1960 comfort deluxe model, there were 100 taken out and saved, the rest were scrapped.

CF100 on October 12, 2017 at 10:32 am

Turns out that the American Seating Company has sold its architectural fixed seating business to the Irwin Seating Company, also of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

They still offer the following product from the American Seating Company range suitable for auditorium use:

Irwin Seating Company – American Seating Products – Stellar.

This seems to be the closest available new seating to the seats that were installed in Empire 1.

They also have a page showing an example refurbishment of old American Seating Company product.

Aspects of these seats are rather familiar.

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