U’s CityWalk hailed as a controlled environment success

An hour wait for a seat at a restaurant; hip shops tailored to young, affluent consumers; swarms of people filling the streets, giving the area a festive air; and a seemingly endless number of movie theaters, showing all the big films.

That could describe Westwood Village in the 1970s, when it was just about the only part of town where people could stroll, shop and eat. But those glory days in Westwood are gone, and the shopping district adjacent to the UCLA campus seems almost desolate.

Instead, the mix of movies, meals and mobs of people nowadays describes places like Old Town Pasadena, Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, the Century City shopping center and the newest and most ambitious of these destination malls: Universal City’s new CityWalk, which could be the prototype for controlled entertainment meccas around the globe.

Built for $ 90 million, it is a cluster of streets lined by trendy shops and restaurants, linking the 18-screen Cineplex Odeon theaters to the Universal Amphitheatre and U’s studio tour. In that respect, it’s a model for film exhibitors, who are discovering that moviegoers want more than just movies when they venture out for an evening; theaters of the future will have to offer shopping and eating alternatives too.

And none are more carefully configured than CityWalk.

The intent behind CityWalk was clear — designed and conceived to be a crime-free upscale environment, largely for locals who wouldn’t dream of walking in the “real” city.

Planning out problems

In other words, CityWalk’s planners are intent on avoiding the sort of urban problems that ripped apart Westwood. But the desire for such safe havens may come at a price: Moviegoers who frequent theaters at these new leisure cities may find that the film menu excludes pictures exhibitors fear could trigger unrest.

Both “Posse” and “Menace II Society” were not booked at the Universal City Cineplex, even though the first film’s distributor, Gramercy, is part-owned by Universal. (On the other hand, forthcoming family pictures and social comedies about the black experience such as Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn, N.Y.” will unspool at Universal City.)

Many black filmmakers brand the overt booking policies as censorship. Supporters consider it a matter of security.

A recent survey conducted by MCA reveals that Citywalk is attracting its targeted crowd: Some 75% of patrons are from the San Fernando Valley and neighboring suburban hills and canyons. That represents a multi-ethnic, middle-to-upper-class crowd.

Safety, shops, fish

As part of its planning research, MCA set up a Citizen’s Advisory Group and polled eight core community groups in those areas to find out what they wanted from CityWalk. The poll’s answers included safety, movies, fish, unique shops and a UCLA extension site.

“There’s a very high-level clientele up here,” says one manager who requested anonymity. “It’s not cheap to eat at Gladstone’s. The retail stores aren’t cheap either. You have to pay for parking. All that deters the troublemaking crowd.”

And just what is the troublemaking crowd?

Rowdy teenagers and gun-toting gangs, say those familiar with the CityWalk strategy.

In its first month, crime is almost nonexistent, says an officer with the Los Angeles Police Dept.

Indeed, security is exceptionally tight, with three separate forces patrolling a small area that is already isolated from the city. “We want to send out the message to both the good guys and the bad guys,” says Thomas Gilmore, CityWalk’s VP and general manager. “Trouble will not be tolerated.”

There hasn’t been a violent incident at Universal’s multiplex since July 1991 , when youths opened fire during a screening of John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood.” Five people were injured.

And in an environment like CityWalk, where there are no real streets, there’s no possibility of drive-by shootings, such as the 1988 incident that left one woman dead in Westwood. Westwood Village was wracked by further violence in 1991 when riots erupted at the opening of Warner Bros.’ “New Jack City.” The continued troubles led to the eventual exodus of about 40 businesses.

Warrington Hudlin, president of the Black Filmmaker’s Assn. and producer of “Boomerang,” is concerned that anxiety over potential outbreaks is motivating theater owners to exercise censorship over film booking policies.

“Everyone points to the demise of Westwood because of violence from ‘New Jack City,’ ” he says. “What people forget is that they overbooked the theaters and turned people away without refunds. There was a blatant unjust treatment of consumers, compounded by the racial tension in the city at the time. You have to remember that’s when the video of Rodney King was being aired on television.”

Hudlin, whose Black Filmmaker’s Assn. has 3,000 members, points to Cineplex Odeon’s decision not to book Mario Van Peebles’ “Posse” because of a fistfight that broke out in front of the Universal City complex after a screening of New Line Cinema’s rap comedy “Who’s the Man” in late April.

Hudlin says that “Posse,” a black Western, should have been treated no differently than other oaters.

Call for research

Any policies excluding films, he says, “Should be based on some solid research and analysis … Think about it. Out of how many playdates did these incidents involving violence occur? A few out of 10,000? That’s why I’m calling for research. I want all patrons, black and white, not to be afraid to go and see these films.”

Cineplex, among others, insists it isn’t. Sources say race has nothing to do with it. Although officials would not speak on the record, one points to the Tina Turner biopic, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” currently playing at the Universal venue. And Cineplex exex are considering booking John Singleton’s “Poetic Justice,” although they won’t decide until after seeing a screening on July 7.

“People in the (entire) theater business right now are concerned about avoiding what they perceive as the ‘undesirable element,’ ” one entertainment attorney said. “Translated: that means lower-class Hispanics, blacks and some whites.

“But the truth is, this has always been an issue. In the ’60s and ’70s it was pure racism. Theater owners in white neighborhoods just didn’t want minorities, so they canceled out any films that could spark trouble. Now it’s the fear of people ripping up their theaters and the potential liability. It’s also the fear of people getting hurt. They don’t want patrons to be scared away in the longterm over one incident. Westwood is the case in point.”