By now you’ve likely heard that Florida-based luxury theater giant iPic Entertainment are looking to set up shop in the Boyd at 19th/Chestnut, which has been closed since 2002 (the photo by HiddenCity’s Peter Woodall to the left is how it currently looks). Some people are excited, others are outraged. To briefly summarize: iPic plans to reopen the Boyd as an eight room luxury theater by completely gutting and rebuilding the interior while preserving its historically-designated exterior. Local nonprofit Friends of the Boyd aren’t happy, they’re sending out letters like the one at the bottom of this post, which I received earlier today.
Cinedelphia recently chatted with Hamid Hashemi, Founder, President and CEO of iPic Ent., to find out more about his company’s intentions, the history of the theater biz, and the luxurious details of the proposed theater itself, which sounds like it provides an experience leagues beyond what Philadelphians have grown accustomed to…
CINEDELPHIA: What sets the iPic theater chain apart from other multiplexes?
HAMID HASHEMI: In the simplest words, it’s really a memorable experience. If you compare going to our facilities over traditional theaters, the differences are night and day. This is all about bringing back the glamour and the excitement of going to the movies.
C: So this experience you describe encompasses both the architecture and content?
HH: If you look at the history of this business and what the people who started the industry were doing in the ‘20s and ‘30s, they were building palatial environments in very atmospheric places. When you walk into these facilities you were completely transformed. We do the same thing today, and we pack it with a lot of modern day amenities and services. In the old days people used to get dressed up and go to the movies, it was a real night out. Going to an iPic is the same thing, people dress up, they go on dates, they meet their friends. The average trip to an iPic facility is four and a half hours, it is not going to the movies in the traditional sense of the last twenty years. I’ve built theaters in this country in the days of megaplexes that had 2.8 million people coming through the door. Every theater I built was doing 2 to 2.8 million people. That business model of doing megaplexes was all about getting people in and out as soon as possible and selling them as much popcorn and soda as you can. iPic is all about keeping you there, we want you to come and we want you to stay. In order to do that, we have to give you a facility, an environment, that you want to hang out in.
C: Do you have any thoughts on when that classic moviegoing experience went away?
HH: TV was the biggest blow to the theater industry. Since TV came out, every five years or ten years you hear that the theater industry is going away. I got into this business in 1984, when I bought my first theater. Blockbuster was first rolling out and everybody said that the theater industry wasn’t going to survive. Frankly that was the driving force for me to do this because I didn’t believe that people were going to give up the social experience for the comfort of their home. People allocate their dollars to out-of-home entertainment and in-home entertainment, we compete with out-of-home entertainment. All of the changes that have happened over the past 20, 30 years starting with videos, then DVDs, then 500 channels of cable, now you have the iPads and iPhones and Netflix, you have all of these ways of consuming media, faster than you ever did before, but that all happens at home. You have a kitchen in your house, but you still go out to a restaurant. Why? Because it’s an out-of-home experience. You don’t go out on a date in your home, you go out for a date.
C: So you aren’t concerned with the new delivery methods like VOD and the streaming services?
HH: Believe me, I’ve talked to media analysts, I’ve been in this business long enough and seen at least five major changes where they all said that the theater business is dead. Well it’s healthy and it’s going to continue. If you look at the ’50s, we used to have single screen theaters. The numbers of productions went up and you couldn’t survive as a single screen theater so it went to two screens, then four, then six, and by the time I got into this business in the ’80s we were building eight-plexes. By the time we got to the ’90s there was more production because there was more consumption, we were doing 12 and 14-plexes. Then came the era of the megaplexes and stadium seating. As a society we’re changing, we’re demanding more, the affordable luxury that everyone is after. Look at Starbucks, who would have thought that a coffee could be in such demand? It’s an affordable luxury. People are looking for more value for their dollars. People have the greatest coffee machines at home these days, but that doesn’t stop them from going to Starbucks. It’s a social event, it’s a social experience, it’s an affordable luxury. Our industry is changing, we’re pioneering this change and we’ve been very successful at it.
C: Can we go into the details of the affordable luxury that ipic provides?
HH: Tickets range from $12 – 24, depending on time of the week and we have two types of seats: premium and premium plus. The premium tickets are comfortable leather seats with a lot of leg room, they’re typically 33 inches wide compared to a traditional theater seat which is 19 inches wide. Typical leg room in a theater is 32 to 42 inches, we’re at 54 inches. There’s a table at your side, we offer all kinds of quality, chef-prepared meals with wine and martinis. The premium plus seats are just as wide, they completely recline and you get a pillow and a blanket and free popcorn. There’s no extra charge for a larger screen or 3D or to buy your tickets online, those are all common things in other theaters where you also go and watch a lot of commercials, that doesn’t happen in our facilities. There’s no noise in the auditorium, there are no commercials on the screen. Most theaters struggle to keep the doors open in the middle of the week and we’re selling out then. There’s always a lot of action and a very lively environment.
Every seat in our theater for every show is always assigned. You’re never rushing to get in to get a good seat, every seat is a good seat and you select online where you’ll be seated. No one jumps from one movie to the next in our facility.
C: How did your attention first turn to Philadelphia?
HH: In my former company we’d been looking at the Philadelphia market for the past 12 to 15 years, especially Center City. This is the only lively downtown market in this country that doesn’t have a modern day theater of any kind. The last theater that was built in Center City was in the 1960s. A lot has changed in this time frame, there’s a good amount of population in Center City and a void of any kind of moviegoing experience. So we’ve been looking at it for a long time, but unfortunately with movie theaters you can’t just walk into an existing space like a retailer does…downtown Philadelphia is an expensive real estate market. Where there’s a place to build people are putting 30 to 40 story complexes on it and making a lot more money than building a theater on the site. We looked at a lot of different properties and unfortunately we couldn’t find anything that made any kind of economic sense and in terms of existing buildings didn’t fit into a theater box. So when the Boyd option was brought to us two years ago we decided to take a look and see if we could convert the interior to our business model. We spent about a year and a lot of capitol and at the end of the day we came to the conclusion that we can’t do anything with it. At the time a different developer that owned the property wanted to take the box and break it up into smaller auditoriums and build a highrise above it. So when we couldn’t make the numbers work the deal went away and six months later they came back to us and said the interior is not designated historic, it’s the exterior that’s dedicated historic. And frankly there’s nothing historic about it. When you look at it, other than the façade and the head house, there’s no architecture to it, it’s just blank brick walls with a bunch of steel staircases on the outside falling apart. So when we came around the second time we decided to restore the façade and the head house, which is really the visual part of the exterior, we’ll restore that to its original condition. And then inside we need to take down the auditorium and rebuild it as four auditoriums on top of four other auditoriums and make it a modern day multiplex. The intended use of this building has always been a movie theater and we’re going to be a modern version of the theaters you saw in the ‘20s and ‘30s. You’ll be transformed when you’re in that space. This is an opportunity for us to take a historic experience and make it modern day.
C: I assume that it wasn’t an easy decision to forgo the interior restoration…
HH: I love this business, for 30 years I’ve been doing it. Even when I was building multiplexes I mimicked what the forefathers of the industry were doing. I’ve visited at least 90% of the classic theaters out there today, I’ve been to the best of the best. These are classic theaters that have been rebuilt with millions and millions of nonprofit dollars at a time when people were spending the money and able to do these things…we’re not mean developers coming in to destroy this theater. If we were looking at it from a pure profit basis, that location as a highrise building is ten times more profitable as a piece of land. We’re not looking at it purely for profit, we’re restoring the intended use of the property and as much of the property as possible. No one’s been inside recently and seen the condition of this property, there are holes in the ceiling like you’ve never seen before. There is not much of it left, pictures are printed in the media today that were taken 50 years ago. There is not much left to restore. And if there’s anything we can remove and reuse then we’ll do it, we’re gonna try to rebuild this thing to its original glory days, we’re not going to restore the exterior to its ‘30s glory and not have the inside match, it wouldn’t make sense.
Detailed information about the history of the Boyd can be found on Cinema Treasures. Other local coverage of the proposed theater’s announcement can be found at Philly.com, HiddenCityPhiladelphia, and PlanPhilly. And below is the aforementioned solicitation from Friends of the Boyd: