The Busiest Movie Theater in America
1:03 AM 4/21/2011 by Pamela McClintock
How the AMC Empire 25 in New York City’s Times Square grabs audiences four times the national average without special tricks (no gourmet dining) but with lots of choices (“Rio” … and art films!)
It’s just past 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 13, and at least a dozen people waiting to be let in are peering anxiously through the glass doors of the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street in Times Square. One man is pacing the lobby, having slipped through unnoticed when an electrician entered.
The doors open, and the customers quickly buy their tickets, disappearing up the network of narrow escalators leading upstairs to five levels of auditoriums. Two buy tickets for the indie comedy Win Win, and three tourists from California are going to see the animated Hop. An elderly man says he’s hard of hearing and wants the loudest auditorium sound possible. He’s in luck; there is both an Imax and an ETX theater, AMC’s version of Imax that vibrates with bass. Today, Hanna, an arty action pic, is the ETX offering.
Most multiplexes in the U.S. don’t open until noon and, if they did open earlier, would be hard-pressed to get any traffic. But early openings are all in a day’s work for the Empire, which accommodates more than 2 million moviegoers annually. It’s been the top-grossing theater in North America for years — a surprising fact, even within the film business, given that it doesn’t have bells and whistles like reserved seating or high-end dining. Not to mention that 42nd Street is best associated with the surrounding Broadway legit theaters (and, of course, the often seedy history of Times Square).
The story of how the Empire — which has gone from Broadway theater to burlesque house to shuttered operation — came to be the U.S.’ busiest theater is emblematic of the resurgence of Times Square and New York City’s tenacious ability to reinvent itself. Beyond its singular success, the Empire offers a profile of how the modern multiplex — albeit one on steroids — operates. Individual movies are assigned screens based on their drawing power, and the number of screens can change quickly from one day to the next. To maintain cost-effectiveness, staffing is constantly adjusted based on projections about how upcoming movies are expected to perform. And even orchestrating the concession lines is a near-science.
All those individual tickets — the Empire’s top regular adult price is $13, and Imax tickets go for as much as $18 — quickly add up. In 2009, the Empire generated a stunning $26.1 million in revenue, and $24.4 million last year. AMC, the country’s second-largest theater chain, also operates the next two top-grossing U.S. theaters: Lincoln Square 13, on New York’s Upper West Side, grossed $22.6 million in 2009 and $23 million last year, and AMC Burbank 16 north of Los Angeles took in $21.1 million in 2010.
Combine the Empire’s 2010 haul of $24.4 million with the $13.1 million earned by the Regal E-Walk Stadium 13 across the street on 42nd, and you’ve got the hottest box-office zone in the world. It is no wonder studio distribution executives get stars in their eyes when talking about that particular block.
“Think about it — that’s more business there than you can shake a stick at,” Disney president of distribution Chuck Viane says. “There’s lines in the morning, and there are lines at midnight.”
Shane Householder, the trim and fit GM of the Empire, says average weekly attendance at his theater is 42,000, compared with 10,000 or 15,000 at most multiplexes (granted, few theaters in America boast 25 screens).
“You ask any studio, and they’ll tell you this is the center of the movie universe,” says Householder, who joined AMC 17 years ago in New Orleans, fresh out of college, and has worked in seven cities for the circuit. “I can do 10,000 people on a Saturday. And you figure in two weeks, I could fill a football stadium, which holds 80,000 people. In a month, I can fill it twice. For Avatar alone, we did 80,000 people in one week.”
Perched in the heart of Times Square, the Empire benefits from tourist foot traffic and accessibility to everyone who lives or works nearby. It’s next door to the busiest subway complex in the city and across the street from the Port Authority bus terminal, ready to deliver people to and from nearby New Jersey.
And because the Empire — an air-conditioned oasis during summer-blockbuster season — is also a well-located escape from cramped apartments, terrible winter weather and the madding crowds of its neighborhood, it is immune to the current debate raging between theater owners and Hollywood studios. Circuits like AMC say the new premium VOD service that would make films available 60 days after their theatrical release for a pricey $30 sends the message that going out to the movies is passé. Even during box-office slumps — like the past five months — the AMC Empire has seemed to prosper.
But location doesn’t entirely explain the Empire’s incredible draw. The success it enjoys is just as much about its breadth of product. Many multiplexes rely mostly on commercial product, but the Empire offers a healthy diet of specialty films on top of the usual tentpole and genre fare — and not just after those specialty titles cross over from select engagements and start courting a wider audience.
“For years, I’ve been telling people the Empire is one of the best art houses in America. They look at me like I’m nuts,” says one top independent distributor. “Years ago, I told a director that I wanted to play his movie at the Empire, and he said: ‘Why in the world would you do that? It’s 42nd Street.’ When he saw how well it did, he changed his opinion. He recently called me and said he’d been to the Empire with his family. His kids went to see a Disney film, and he saw an art film.”
There’s no official census on the makeup of the Empire’s customers, but unofficially, staffers believe a large number are tourists, many from overseas. That sometimes makes for cultural confusion. Europeans, for example, are always surprised there’s no reserved seating.
“A funny story,” Householder recalls. “Over Christmas, a lady comes up to me and, with a thick European accent, asks, ‘Where is Seat PG-13?’ I said: ‘That’s not the seat, it’s the rating. You can sit anywhere.’ That’s my funny story. But we get a lot of that. They see ‘PG-13,’ nice and big. It’s Times Square, and people are from all over.”
Most of the patrons walking into the Empire also have no idea of its history. In the lobby, they are actually standing inside the shell of the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre, which opened Sept. 11, 1912, and was named in honor of the most popular female impersonator of the time, Julian Eltinge. Renowned theater architect Thomas Lamb designed the Beaux Arts-style hall, whose features are still visible, including its ornate ceiling mural.
By the Great Depression, though, the Eltinge had fallen on hard times and become a burlesque house. In 1937, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia used the city’s obscenity laws to shut it down, and it became part of the Laffmovie theater.
Renamed the Empire in the 1950s, the theater eventually had to rely on showing grindhouse and porn flicks — staples of a deteriorating Times Square. It closed in the mid-’80s, but later the revitalization of the area and success of the first multiplex in Manhattan gave AMC an idea. The circuit bought the Empire, moved it 200 feet west — an impressive bit of engineering, given that it meant moving a
7.4 million-pound structure — then built the multiplex around it, including a soaring glass-curtain wall that rises five levels above the original facade.
The revamped multiplex opened for business a decade ago, in April 2001, and became the top dog within a few years. “The AMC Empire 25 is a special theater to both our company and the exhibition industry,” AMC CEO Gerry Lopez says. “The theater has an emotional history and fits right into the bustling Times Square environment with 25 screens spanning seven stories. It has been and will continue to be a crown jewel in our circuit.”