Loews hits 95 with a Big Apple bang

Gotham roots run deep for exhib

New Yorkers love their movies and Loews Cineplex Entertainment is only too happy to oblige.

The only national theater chain headquartered in the Big Apple, the company is busy sprinkling the city with screens.

Its 5-year-old flagship Sony Theatres Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side is already one of the most heavily attended theaters in the country and Loews is marching to beat its own records.

The 15-screen, 3,500 stadium-seater Kips Bay theater opened last May and is going great guns. And November will usher in the company’s coup de grace, a massive, highly themed, heavily decorated movie house smack in the middle of Times Square.

“Loews has always been a major part of New York City entertainment,” says the company’s President and CEO Larry Ruisi, and this latest project “will really be celebrating New York City.

“Times Square has exploded,” he adds. “Weekdays, weeknights, there are so many people it’s hard to walk down the sidewalk. We’re happy to be part of that revitalization.”

The 13-screen Loews 42nd Street E Walk Theater is billed by its parent as “a modern day movie palace with special emphasis on unparalleled film presentation and comfort complemented by a dramatically themed design that pays homage to the city of New York and Times Square’s rich, colorful show business history.”

That means a digital marquee and a multicolored “Loews” blade sign 60 feet tall by eight feet wide and visible up to six blocks away. Art deco box offices lead to concession stands that feature famous New York skyscrapers and offer curly fries, chicken tenders and popcorn shrimp alongside the usual fare. A story-high hand-painted mural honors Broadway, local landmarks of Times Square and, of course, Loews Theatres.

The grand unveiling is scheduled for the week of November 5th or the 12th and opening weekend will be a celebration of Broadway, according to Marc Pascucci, the company’s senior VP for marketing. “We’re talking with reps from several Broadway shows to work with us on that,” Pascucci says.

The idea is a blast from the past. We’re “going back to the golden age of movie theaters, those huge single-screen theaters, ornate; when it was just an experience to walk in the door,” Ruisi says. That all changed with multiplexing starting in the 1960s, but the good old days are here again, he insists, and even better now with stadium seating, surround sound and other comforts.

Loews Cineplex wants to “take a step back in time and try to recreate the magic,’ he says, noting that the fantasy-esque Sony Lincoln Square was a key trendsetter. “People like coming to a place like that, themed with history and nostalgia.”

With the E Walk, Loews will operate 83 screens in 13 locations in Manhattan. The city currently generates a hefty 20% of the company’s total box office revenues. And it plans to keep on building. Ruisi says attendance has more than kept pace with new construction — at least at his theaters. “On weekend nights we are still selling out and turning people away,” he notes. Loews already has two other theaters on 42nd Street and Ruisi says he isn’t the least bit worried about cannibalization.

In fact, he sees the E Walk drawing new audiences. While “Lincoln Square has become a Manhattan favorite,” he says, “Times Square can draw people from the boroughs and New Jersey and the Island and Westchester, making a day of it.”

Looking forward, Magic Johnson Theatres, Loews’ joint venture with the basketball superstar, is set to open a site in Harlem. Loews Cineplex is also planning a 34th Street and 8th Avenue location at Madison Square Garden, across from the city’s Post Office which is slated to become the new Penn Station.

Did you say Imax? Well, Ruisi thinks Imax theaters are just too dependent on variable product right now to open any more of the eight story-high 3D wonders in NYC beyond the Sony IMAX at Lincoln Square. “One Imax screen in Manhattan is fine. When we get good product and great product it’s fine (but) I don’t know if there’s room for another.” The company also has an Imax venue in Chicago and is planning two more in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

That’s right. Loews Cineplex may dig New York, but it’s got other interests too. The company has 266 locations and 1,787 screens in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Its Canadian arm, Toronto-based Cineplex Odeon Corp. boasts 132 locations and more than 800 screens. Cineplex Odeon, founded in 1979, was the first exhibitor in North America to introduce VIP Screening Rooms, complete with coat checks, table-side concierge service, private washrooms and lounges. Loews Cineplex may roll the VIP thing out in some U.S. locations — but not New York. “It wouldn’t work. There are so many wonderful things to do in New York City,” Ruisi says, besides putting in extra time in a movie theater, no matter how you’re pampered.

Loews Cineplex International, formed just over a year ago, is operating in Spain, Turkey and Hungary and working on joint ventures in other major markets in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe.

Loews Cineplex itself was formed just last year by the merger of Loews Theatres and Cineplex Odeon. But its roots go way back. Marcus Loew founded Loews, the oldest theater circuit in North America in 1904. To supply his theaters with new film product, he bought a failing silent movie production studio called Metro Company. In 1924, he joined forces with Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn to form the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio.

The company grew rapidly throughout the 1930s and 1940s. But in 1954, the Department of Justice ruled that that studios couldn’t own theater chains, or vice versa. That decision was reversed years later, but meanwhile Loews Theaters and MGM parted ways. After a number of stops, Loews wound up as part of Sony Corp. of America in 1989. Sony still holds a sizable investment in the combined company. So does Seagram Co., whose Universal Studios bought a chunk of Cineplex Odeon in 1986.