A New Life for the Old Boyd Theatre

An entertainment entrepreneur wants to transform Center City's most storied cinema into a modern movie eatery. So why are some people yelling "Cut!"?

In October I meet with Hashemi, terse and soft-spoken, and Safran, his talkative counsel, in the lobby of the Hotel Palomar. They show me the architect’s renderings and talk about the CEO and his company. On the eve of the revolution in December 1978, Hashemi left Iran for America. In 1984, he invested in his first movie theater, which became the basis of the Muvico chain, with some theaters retro in design but all forward-looking in amenities like gourmet food and child care. He parted ways with the company in 2006.

Muvico built mall-variety multiplexes. iPic, which has 69 screens in nine locations including Austin, Boca Raton and Pasadena, creates upmarket urban bistroplexes. Hashemi proposes to replace the Boyd auditorium with a cluster of eight posh screening rooms adjacent to a fine-dining restaurant and chef-operated concession kiosks. The largest auditorium, with a screen 28 feet high and 60 feet wide (that’s big, folks), would seat no more than 120. Like the other seven, it would be lined with swank leather club chairs. Hashemi is selling “the big-screen experience in an intimate environment.” Plus food and drink. All eight theaters combined would seat around 800.

iPic has a two-tier admissions rate, but all tickets would cost more than the Philadelphia average of $11; general admission would be $14 for non-members and $12 for members. Membership is free, as is popcorn for premium patrons. With general admission, you buy your food at the kiosk and bus it yourself. Premium Plus tickets range from $18 to $24 and get you a prime seat in the back rows, a pillow and blanket, and a call button to get food delivered to your seat. A glass of wine and a salad costs $18 to $20 at iPic locations; other in-theater offerings include fajitas, quesadillas and satay. Entrées at the restaurant are in the $20-to-$35 range. The movie menu? Mainstream, with the occasional specialized film such as The King’s Speech or Lee Daniels’ The Butler. There will be no reduced rates for children. On weekends, he plans breakfast screenings for seniors.

The most appealing part of the plan is the rendering of the restored limestone facade and moderne stained-glass marquee. In the headhouse, Hashemi plans to showcase architectural artifacts from the auditorium. Anticipating criticism of his plan, he says simply, “We’re restoring its historic function, but in a modern way.”

If the project is approved and realized—iPic’s goal is to open doors in the summer of 2015—Center City residents who want to see a wide-release film will no longer have to travel up to the Pearl, down to the Riverview Plaza or across the Schuylkill to the Rave in West Philly. I’m guessing preservationists will charge iPic with “facade-omy,” the practice of preserving a building’s face and gutting its interior. But given the choice of the only movie palace in Center City that’s shuttered and the only theater in Center City that’s open and showing mainstream films, I’ll take the latter.

As one intrigued by the symbolism of movie theater architecture, I think about what Hashemi’s plan tells us about consumer desire. In the 1920s, we watched movies in film palaces, humbled to be in the presence of screen royalty. In the 1970s, we watched in shopping-mall multiplexes, with a film to fit every size and taste. iPic predicts that we will watch in an exclusive lounge, with food and beverage service.

I love movies in part for the mass experience. Hashemi is betting that filmgoers of the future won’t want to sit in coach—they’ll prefer to fly first-class.