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Not long after they acquired the lease to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in April, Elie Samaha and Donald Kushner paid a courtesy call to the captain of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division. “She said, ‘I heard you’re changing [the theater] to a nightclub,’ ” recalls Samaha, who with Kushner also operates eight clubs and several restaurants in and around Hollywood. “I said, ‘Over my dead body!’ “
Instead, the duo is revamping the iconic yet troubled home to eight decades of movie premieres, as well as the hand- and footprints of nearly 200 stars, from Clark Gable to Taylor Lautner. In addition to refurbishing the interior of the 1,200-seat theater, fixing aging infrastructure and adding dramatic outdoor lighting, the goal is to turn the Chinese into a global brand that can be licensed, merchandised and possibly used as an anchor for a movie exhibition company.
The duo took control of the venue from Mann Theatres, owned jointly by Warner Bros. and Paramount, and changes are afoot: They have increased the frequency of cement ceremonies, especially those that generate huge publicity like the Nov. 3 event with the Twilight cast. Guided tours for the 15,000 or so visitors who walk past the Chinese daily have been added (at $14 a head), as have movie memorabilia in the lobby and monthly concerts such as the December performance by DJ David Guetta. The lobby of the adjacent Chinese 6 multiplex, part of the Hollywood & Highland complex but operated by Samaha and Kushner, has been turned into Grauman’s Ballroom in a remodel shepherded by Gulla Jonsdottir, who renovated the Roosevelt Hotel across Hollywood Boulevard. “The intent is to reinterpret in a modern way,” says Jonsdottir, “paying tribute to the Chinese’s historic essence.”
Kushner says he and Samaha have closed deals to host much of the annual AFI Festival and a Turner Classic Movies event, and they are in talks to throw a lavish Oscar soiree (the Academy’s Governors Ball takes place just upstairs from the Chinese 6). Grauman’s hosted 40 premieres in 2010, for which studios typically spent $50,000 to $100,000 on theater rental and the red carpet. The duo wants to increase that number and convince event planners to hold lucrative post-screening soirees in Grauman’s Ballroom rather than more traditional venues like the Roosevelt.
“We’re actively going after the studios for premieres and afterparties,” says Samaha. “We’re going to do it very cost-efficiently so the studios don’t have to get shocked. Our prices will be super-competitive.”
Discussions also have begun to license the theater’s iconic facade for a range of products and possibly combine it with images of the deceased celebrities whose hands and feet continue to attract visitors.
These moves represent a significant investment (sources say $10 million has been spent, though the duo declines comment) in the theater complex that opened in 1927 and was managed by promoter Sid Grauman until his death in 1950. The Chinese, along with the Egyptian Theatre two blocks down Hollywood Boulevard, were conceived as flashy, themed temples of cinema designed to lure movie-goers from downtown L.A., then home to the city’s top moviehouses. Everything from The Wizard of Oz to Avatar has premiered at the Chinese, which hosted three Academy Awards ceremonies in the 1940s and was declared a historic landmark in 1968.
But despite its studio ownership and popularity for premieres, for the past decade the theater has had difficulty booking popular movies because newer competitors, such as Pacific Theatres’ ArcLight, typically generate higher ticket sales. Movies can’t play both because of their proximity. “The Chinese was getting a little tired, and I don’t think it was booked as well as it could have been,” says Dan Fellman, Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution, who has known Samaha for years. “They’re trying to revive that.”
Samaha and Kushner debated buying the entire Mann Theatres chain, which Warners and Paramount have been shopping for years, but they balked at a rumored $40 million price tag. Instead, the duo saw potential value in the underused Chinese brand, as well as the premieres and tourism business. They also have hired a new movie booker to try to upgrade their offerings, with limited success. During the lucrative Christmas week, Grauman’s was playing the low-grossing The Darkest Hour, while the ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome had Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. Away from the glamour of premieres, movies often play to small crowds.
If Samaha and Kushner can revive the Chinese, it will be a welcome success for men with checkered pasts in Hollywood. Kushner, 66, produced plays, TV and movies (1982’s Tron and 2010’s Tron: Legacy), many of them with the Kushner-Locke Co., an active indie in the 1980s that went bankrupt. Samaha, 56, a Lebanon native who once worked at New York’s Studio 54, operated a chain of dry cleaners as well as L.A. nightclubs, which introduced him to Hollywood stars. By 1998, he had formed Franchise Films with producer Andrew Stevens and was making movies like The Whole Nine Yards and Battlefield Earth, many of which were financed with German tax-shelter money. When the law in Germany changed, Franchise went bankrupt and investors sued, claiming Samaha had improperly inflated movie budgets to secure extra funding. After years of litigation, a judge awarded more than $100 million in damages, including a $77 million judgment against Samaha personally. He settled for $3 million.
Samaha says he has put the Franchise litigation behind him. He and Kushner tout their background as movie producers as well as the experience of their minority investors: Steve Ransohoff, co-president of completion bond company Film Finances; Steven Markoff, co-chairman of A-Mark Entertainment; Samaha’s sister Carol Braidi and her son Eli Braidi, who operate Supperclub at the Vogue Theater and Playhouse at the Fox Theatre, both nightclubs in Hollywood; Swiss investor Enrique Steiger; and Kushner’s former business partner Peter Locke. Kushner’s daughter Alwyn Hight Kushner is president and GM of the Chinese.
It was Ransohoff who introduced Samaha to Kushner nearly five years ago, a meeting that led to partnerships in hot Hollywood nightclubs including Hemingways, Roxbury and The Writer’s Room, as well as dabbling in movie and real estate investments.
The duo secured a 13-year lease on the Chinese and a 78-year lease on the adjacent Chinese 6 with the right to eventually buy the real estate from owner CIM Group, giving them a big incentive to build the brand and win premieres from competitors in Westwood, the Arclight, the Grove and downtown L.A.’s Regal Cinemas.
Next year, they have big plans for the Chinese’s 85th anniversary, from special events to wrapping the whole complex around Halloween to create a haunted-house attraction. “We’re taking a cue from Sid Grauman,” says Kushner. “He was a promoter. He was like Barnum & Bailey. So we’re kind of going back to that.”
What Samaha and Kushner thought would be a part-time investment has become their obsession. “We are on every detail,” says Samaha. “The general contractor we hired got frustrated because we made design changes, so we said: ‘Take a walk. We can do it ourselves.’ It’s something we are very passionate about. We want this to be around for the next 500 years.”
BRINGING THE CHINESE TO CHINA: With an exterior resembling a huge red pagoda and an 80-year association with Hollywood stars, Grauman’s Chinese is perhaps the most globally recognized movie theater. Yet its previous owner, Mann Theatres, did little to exploit the brand worldwide. Since taking over in April, Samaha and Kushner have begun hatching plans to leverage the iconic structure into a chain of replica theaters throughout the U.S. and beyond. “This should be the biggest franchise theater chain in the world,” says Samaha. The duo has begun negotiating with existing theater chains to re-create the famous theater abroad. Samaha is taking the lead on talks for an initial facility that would anchor a 15-acre retail complex in Abu Dhabi on a site originally developed by Warner Bros. International, which has dropped out of the venture. And Kushner has taken several trips to China to discuss building a Chinese there, most likely in Beijing. He says the project is still in early negotiations. One question is whether the duo has the right to re-create the star handprints and footprints that adorn the theater’s courtyard. That will have to be addressed on a case-by-case basis, depending on the star’s publicity rights.
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