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A Magic Johnson Theatre Era Ends 

Its South Los Angeles flagship was a game changer in black business and film

Thursday, Nov 25 2010
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Oscar Turner, who was Tyler Perry Studios' chief operating officer before running his own Gallery Road Productions, has seen plenty of movies. But he remembers vividly the first time he went to a movie at the Magic Johnson Theatre in South Los Angeles.

It was 1998 and Turner had been to theaters targeted at an African-American audience before. This one was different. He was surprised by the sheer size of the venue, the number of screens, the workmanship within the theater — for instance, the quality of the carpet — and the size of the crowd. "There must have been a million people there," he says.

Finally, there was the courtesy of the cinema's staff. Turner, who at the time was vice president of financial planning for Paramount Pictures, found himself treated with politeness at every juncture. Though he doesn't draw the comparison, it's easy to conjure images of employees of other theater chains who can barely conceal their discontent.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAN GROSHONG/NEWSCOM
  • PHOTO BY DAN GROSHONG/NEWSCOM

Turner credits Johnson for the vibe. The Magic Johnson Theatres, launched nationwide in partnership with the Sony-Loews Theatres, embodied the former basketball star's hustle combined with his warm persona.

"There was an appreciation for my movie dollar," Turner observes. "I felt respected."

Although Turner lived in theater-heavy Westwood, when he left the Magic Johnson Theatre, he said to himself, "We have to come back" to the venue.

But what lasts forever? Not basketball careers. Not business ventures. Not Los Angeles malls. Like celluloid stories, there's always a fade-out.

In June, AMC Entertainment Inc., which acquired control of the theater through its merger with Loews in 2006, shuttered it. That left open only Johnson's theaters in Washington, D.C., and Harlem. Yet the closed building was to sprout a sequel.

Flash-forward, film fans.

This month, the owners of Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza announced that Rave Motion Pictures, which runs 61 theaters nationwide — including 18 at Howard Hughes Center — will reopen in the former Magic Johnson Theatre space in May after a major renovation of the mall.

But the Magic Johnson marquee will be gone.

Say goodbye, Magic, hello Rave — although the new owner is dubbing its theater the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw 15.

Situated on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Crenshaw Boulevard, the cinema was a beacon for black moviegoers across Southern California, and the flagship of a chain slotted in inner cities across America.

A Rave Motion Pictures executive says the new name won't mean a different audience.

"We are well aware that it's an African-American community," says Jeremy Devine, vice president of marketing for Rave.

With 15 screens, he says Rave can maintain a mix of films at the venue and still devote three or four screens to movies aimed specifically at black moviegoers. Rave will screen "most all of the studio product, and that crosses all demographics," he says. "Our audience is everybody that loves motion pictures."

Oscar Turner believes that dropping the Magic Johnson name won't hurt as long as the new exhibitor has "respect and appreciation for the audiences that they serve."

He adds, "The one thing that Magic did, that I always respected, was his commitment to creating jobs." Not only did the theater provide local kids with part-time jobs and a place to go, but it also gave them an interest in filmmaking. "If Rave doesn't do that, that would disappoint me."

In truth, compared to a multiplex in Pasadena or Manhattan Beach, the Magic Johnson Theatre in South L.A. carried a heavier load. Its goals were always multifaceted.

The Magic Johnson Theatres were born out of the 1992 L.A. riots prompted by the jury acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King. Many hand-wringers in politics and business promised investment in black areas.

Johnson delivered, opening the pioneering theater to major media coverage and investing in a string of new Starbucks cafés in the inner city. As the Chicago Tribune reported in 1995, "The opening of yet another theater shouldn't have raised a ripple of excitement, let alone attracted limousines full of celebrities and corporate kingpins and a gantlet of paparazzi. But this 12-screen multiplex, which wouldn't seem out of place in countless other malls in most American suburbs, represents something quite different here, and the stars — including Michael Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal — came out last month to mark its arrival." About four miles from "the intersection of Florence and Normandie, the epicenter of the 1992 riots in South-Central Los Angeles, the Magic Johnson Theatres are a symbol of hope," the newspaper wrote.

Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA, explains, "There was something significant to them being 'black-owned,' when black people don't tend to own things in their own community."

But, he says, "I do think we lose a little bit by not having Magic Johnson associated, because of what his name, what his brand means. There was something special about his connection to the theaters."

Johnson's South L.A. theater drew a wide range of African-Americans, from working-class residents who lived well outside the immediate area — who, Hunt notes, "had to travel quite a distance to a movie theater to see a movie that they might want to see" — to the more affluent Turner, and Hunt himself, who moved to Baldwin Hills around the time the theater opened.

"There was a feeling of ownership," he says.

"I enjoyed the communal experience," says Amanda Seward, an entertainment industry attorney and former senior counsel of Turner Broadcasting Systems, who now sits on the board of Gallery Road Productions.

Seward lives on the Westside near a slew of cinemas, yet she frequently drove to the South L.A. theater.

"One thing about going to a film with an audience that is predominantly African-American is that the audience talks back at the screen," Seward says. "There's laughing, and comments from the audience."

The strong attendance by an underserved demographic delivered a message to movie distributors: "It served as a recognition that African-American audiences were important," Turner notes.

"Before Magic, there was this mythology that black folks were not going to movies and, therefore, anybody that put a movie theater in the black community was going to lose money," says Ayuko Babu, executive director of the Pan African Film Festival, held at the Magic Johnson Theatre for more than a decade.

Babu, Turner and Hunt all say Johnson changed this perception.

The theater showed that exhibitors could "create something successful in the black community and sustain it," Babu says.

This in turn, Turner believes, helped films starring black actors to get made. "Magic, at one point in time, had some of the highest-grossing theaters in the country," he says. "To the extent that studio execs were looking at cinema that was targeted at urban audiences, they took Magic's theaters into consideration."

Still, an international barrier exists. Hunt notes, "One of the arguments that the powers that be in the industry use is that [majority-black-cast films] don't sell as well overseas. I think that's debatable. I don't think there's been major attempts to test the conventional wisdom."

While Rave says some of its screens will target black ticket-buyers, is that a monolithic consumer audience?

Tyler Perry, one of the most bankable African-American actor-directors, serves an audience that adores him. But like all stars, he doesn't speak for all sectors of a demographic. "I think there is such a thing as a black-themed film and an 'urban' film, but it is difficult to define," Seward says. "Will Smith has moved beyond that category and is now one of the most marketable stars in the industry. Part of it is the market perception, part of it is the lack of focus on racial issues in his films."

Turner says his Gallery Road Productions wants "to make high-quality films, using African-Americans and other ethnic minorities as part of a multicultural cast. We want to make films that look like America."

What won't be different at the Crenshaw Plaza is the mall's owner — Capri Urban Investors of Chicago, a black-owned firm. Capri specializes in investing in inner-city businesses, and its management team is made up of top African-American development experts. And that alone signifies change.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@gmail.com.

Reach the writer at tibbyrothman@verizon.net

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