More Magic theaters due

The same way he used to pour in the points for the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson is expecting people to pour into his movie theaters around the country as they expand into 14 new locations in 10 major cities.

Just as with the hugely successful pilot theater in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall in Los Angeles, the other nationwide Magic Johnson Theaters will be located in low-to-middle-income minority and suburban neighborhoods, now across the country. The idea is to bring a safe, respectable chain of first-run movie theaters to people who might not usually venture out of their neighborhoods.

Magic Johnson Theaters recently opened in Atlanta. Later this year, more screens will debut in Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, New York and another venue in Los Angeles. Then, in 1998, Baldwin Hills will expand four more screens. A 12-screen space in Harlem is planned. San Diego, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and yet another L.A. venue in the San Fernando Valley will also preem.

So far, according to Magic, the theaters have worked far beyond even the former NBA All-Star’s wildest dreams.

“First of all, it’s very important to know that (blacks are) the No. 1 moviegoers and there are no movie theaters in our neighborhoods,” says Johnson, who has watched the Baldwin Hills complex bring up property values and attract restaurants and businesses in the surrounding mall. “Also, you’re employing the people who live there. If there are more jobs for people, that means there is less crime.”

The Baldwin Hills venue opened in June 1995 and immediately drew local cheers from residents as well as the business community. The 12-screen complex runs first-run major release movies, but also dabbles in specialized fare like an African-American Festival that concluded a few weeks ago.

Largely due to Johnson’s continual presence at the theater — he goes twice a week with friends and family — the complex has been a magnet for celebrities from the film and sports worlds. He points to such stars as Michael Douglas, Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Vivica A. Fox as patrons of the MJ Theaters. He also has brought in nearly every one of the Los Angeles Lakers at one time or another.

“We get celebrities all the time,” Johnson says. “They love it. They love their movies and they like to see how crowds react, especially any urban movie. If it doesn’t make it with us, it’s probably not going to make it.”

Sony used the theaters to premiere the Rhea Perlman starrer “Sunset Park” last year. The pic not only drew the usual cadre of celebs who attend preems, but filled several of the 12 theaters with eager ticket holders.

Overall, in its first year of business, the theaters have served more than 1 million patrons, ranking it as one of the highest-grossing kinos in the country. It also has spurred business in the adjacent Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall, with store-owners there reporting a 50% jump in sales.

One restaurant owner who declined to be named said his eatery has been wildly successful since Magic Johnson’s theaters opened. “We’re doing incredible business now,” says the owner. “Those theaters have helped clean up the whole neighborhood and given it more respectability.”

Local leaders as well point to the gains the community has seen since its inception. L.A. Councilman Mark Ridley Thomas has praised the Johnson complex for creating jobs and bringing more movies to Baldwin Hills.

“One thing we do is treat our customers with respect,” Johnson says. “That’s the one thing that has been missing. That’s why there’s been no graffiti and no crime.”

The Baldwin complex offers numerous community outreach programs that are groundbreaking, if not unheard of at most national chains. The theater offers free lunches and movies for neighborhood kids. Last year, McDonald’s sponsored the program.

The theaters also brought in a Santa Claus and a choir at Christmas. They’ve been the locale for town hall meetings, health fairs, voter registration, even a senior citizens film festival.

In short, the theater has taken the place of the town center in Baldwin Hills — a fact that makes Magic proud.

“You tell me, who else does all that?” Johnson boasts.

Sony Theaters chairman Barrie Lawson Loeks adds, “The partnership with Magic Johnson has been both rewarding and successful, allowing us to bring the best movie theaters into new markets and communities that had been previously overlooked.”

Johnson, who towers over the petite Loeks, says she was a primary force behind the theaters from the beginning.

“My hat goes off to Barrie,” Johnson says. “One thing she’s taught me, too, is that she’s a driver and a pusher. She doesn’t mess around. She’s a tough businesswoman. She has taught me so much about this business.”

The MJT expansion will bring the total screens to 200 nationwide. Not exactly in the league of AMC or Mann Theaters yet, but Magic says he and Sony will continue to look for expansion opportunities.

“Our goal is as many as possible,” he says. “We want to be on the same level as everybody else. Just like the big fellas, AMC and Mann and everybody. You want to play somewhere around their neighborhood. You don’t actually have to be right with them, but just below.”

Each of the new Magic Johnson Theater locations will boast at least 12 screens and a total seating capacity ranging from 3,600 to 4,600. Each venue will feature stadium-style seating, screens that are double the size of typical theater screens and increased leg room. Sony’s Dynamic Digital Sound system is also in place.

Johnson, meanwhile, is happy simply watching the customers come and enjoy themselves in a neighborly way. “You see kids outside playing, and the theaters packed inside,” he says. “People just sit outside and talk and laugh.”

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