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First Peek Ever Inside America's Most Successful Movie Theater

Interior Design
Chris Kincaid/AMC

It's in NYC (of course), but the other reasons for its success aren't so obvious: there are no special tricks (gourmet meals aren't here), lots of unusual choices (art films!), and a commando-like operation.

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."


"You could show a home movie at the Empire, and it would work." -- Chris Aronson, Fox distribution executive

Now it's Friday night, April 15, and the Empire lobby is jumping. The biggest titles are two new commercial movies: Scream 4, playing on five screens, and Rio, on three, though more will be added Saturday. (On Friday alone, the Empire drew $56,000 for Scream 4, which made $8.2 million nationwide for the day).

A group of younger teenagers who want to see the R-rated Scream 4, but aren't with an adult, instead buy tickets to Rio. In the lobby, they quietly discuss their plan to sneak into Scream, assuming the theater is too big to be patrolled. They're wrong. A security guard upstairs is checking tickets.

Outside on 42nd Street, more than 200 people are waiting for a 7 p.m. word-of-mouth advance screening of Universal's Fast Five, which doesn't open until April 29. Those at the front of the queue have been there for more than two hours (only the first 100 get in).

That constant level of activity -- the theater is open from 9 a.m. until past 2 a.m. on weekends -- requires extra diligence on the part of the employees. Among the 25 auditoriums, which range in capacity from 50 to 513, there are 4,764 seats to potentially fill. So staffing the Empire becomes a delicate and challenging dance.

"Every Monday, we get a report of the movies coming out and their potential grosses," Householder says. "We know what percentage of that gross we're going to get, and then that tells us our attendance. Based on years of experience, we know we have to staff X amount of people for X amount of attendance."

In fact, every theater in the country does much the same. There's no bigger financial drain than having too many people working. Conversely, if there's not enough staff, it's a customer-relations nightmare. At the Empire, theater staffers are used to getting calls around 10 p.m. Friday asking them to come in -- or not.

"Our film programming team in Kansas City at AMC headquarters meets throughout the week and weekend," Householder says. "We get an update on Thursday and then on Friday. We can tell immediately where we need to add staff."

On a normal weekday, there are about 20 AMC associates on duty at the Empire, not including supervisors and projection crew. If a weekend is slow, 60 or so associates are needed. If it's busy, the number shoots up to 93. In the summer, there are 120 employed, plus about 18 managers and supervisors working.

Householder runs a tight ship, as if taking his cues from Stanley Durwood, who, in 1961, took control of the Durwood Theatres circuit his father and two uncles founded in the 1920s. The younger Durwood renamed the chain American Multi-Cinema Inc. and applied the management style he learned as a U.S. Air Force navigator.

On the face of it, the Empire is an operational nightmare. Most multiplexes are on one level, making everything easy to monitor. Not here. There are seven levels: The lobby makes up the first two, and the mammoth concession stand is on the third, where tickets are taken and the first theaters are.

What the public doesn't see, however, is a large room that is the future of exhibition. On two computer screens, a film crew member digitally programs the entire theater. The Empire has been all-digital for a year. Movies come on tiny hard drives instead of heavy reels of film.

"This has been one of the biggest changes, but at the end of the day, it's much easier," Householder said. "It's like going from standard transmission to automatic."

Then there are concessions, the lifeblood and profit center of any moviehouse. At the Empire, keeping customers sated is an enormous undertaking. At most theaters, the stockroom is a tiny closet; here, it's a room at least 25 feet by 40 feet.

The resident expert on ordering for the Empire is a young woman (AMC has a policy that doesn't allow associates or supervisors to be quoted by name). "Trucks come twice a week. We get deliveries in the morning, on Tuesday and Friday," she says. "There's no comparison, and it isn't like any other theater. You could have one person do stock at the AMC Magic [Johnson] in Harlem, where there are nine auditoriums. Here, it's several. Most theaters get one delivery once a week."

She rattles off statistics without having to think. Popcorn and Coke are the top-selling items, hands down. Popcorn kernels come in 35-pound bags, and the Empire can go through 100 bags a week. She likes to keep 70 bags on hand at all times.

The Coke syrup comes in 5-gallon boxes, and the theater will go through 40 to 50 in a regular week. The syrup is mixed with water and carbon dioxide, the latter of which is kept in huge tanks and piped into the various concession stands.

Nachos are another favorite. The cheese mixture comes in cups, 48 to a box. "If we are really, really busy, we might run out of nachos because we just don't have the space to hold all the chips," she says. "You have to call other theaters."

The biggest complaint associates hear -- other than the price of food and drink -- is about concession lines. The main stand, on the third level, is equipped for volume, with 12 registers. But the crowds still build up, so the Empire has started hiring "greeters" on weekends to take questions and calm frayed nerves.

"They also keep people moving to other lines because people have a habit of getting in one line, even when other registers are open," another supervisor says. "It's the strangest thing. They do it at tollbooths, too. People will always get in the longest line."

AMC won't disclose concession revenue, but generally speaking, sales make up a third to a half of a circuit's take.

Cleaning the auditoriums is another constant task. The staff tidies up after each show in each auditorium, and an outside cleaning service comes in each night after the Empire closes.

Then there's the unexpected. Last year, theaters throughout New York, including the Empire, were swept up in the city's bedbug crisis. In August, the Empire had to shut its doors late one Tuesday after a customer complained of being bitten. The theater was exterminated and reopened the next day.

"Every time someone said they'd seen a bedbug, they had to call in these dogs that were trained to sniff them out," a nearby worker says.

But bedbugs, real or not, have been hardly a blip in the Empire's industrial-strength box office.

"You could play a home movie at the Empire, and it would work," Fox senior vp distribution Chris Aronson says. "It's the theater that never sleeps."

Jody Kivort
Jody Kivort
Jody Kivort
Newscom
Douglas McKeown

AMC EMPIRE 25 BY THE NUMBERS

  • 2 million-plus: Annual admissions at the Empire theater complex
  • 650,000: Annual attendance at the average U.S. multiplex
  • 9/11/1912: When Broadway producer Al Woods opened the venue as the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre
  • 1929: When Laurence Olivier made his U.S. debut at the Eltinge in Murder on the Second Floor
  • 100: Number of 35-pound bags of popcorn kernels used every week at the Empire
  • 72: Length in feet of the longest of the theater's 14 escalators (a 36-foot vertical rise)
  • 42: Difference in shipping weight between 35mm film prints (50 pounds) and digital-film hard drives (eight)
  • 3 Seat sizes (slender, medium and stout) in the original Eltinge Theatre