Alwyn Hight Kushner is making her own imprint on Chinese Theatres
The gig: Alwyn Hight Kushner, 33, is president and chief operating officer of TCL Chinese Theatres in Hollywood — once known as Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (and, for a while, Mann’s Chinese Theatre) —home to the handprints and footprints of 279 celebrities. Kushner oversees an operation that employs 130 people and includes seven movie auditoriums with a total of 2,291 seats. The historic theater on Hollywood Boulevard is also a tourist attraction that draws as many as 5 million visitors annually, more than even Yosemite National Park.
Sid’s booze closet: A small closet in the corner of Kushner’s second-floor office was used more than 80 years ago by theater founder Sid Grauman to hide liquor during Prohibition. But the mechanism to open the door, controlled by a button discretely hidden under a light fixture, doesn’t work. Kushner has not had time to fix it. She has been busy converting the historic theater into one of the world’s biggest Imax auditoriums while holding 40 to 50 red-carpet premieres a year. “I work long days, but I love what I do,” she said.
A movie family: Kushner’s father, Donald, has produced scores of TV shows and movies. He is best known for producing the 1982 cult hit “Tron” and the 2003 film “Monster,” starring Charlize Theron. He was among eight individuals and companies that bought the theater complex in 2011 and hired Alwyn Kushner that year to run it. She said her experience as a producer got her the job, not her family ties. “People that know me, know my work,” she said. “The responsibilities are too important to give to someone who hasn’t earned it.”
Romania to Hollywood: After graduating from Wellesley College, Kushner worked for two years as a producer’s assistant in Romania, helping on several English-language feature films. She returned to the U.S. to produce or co-produce 16 movies of her own before taking over the Chinese Theatres. “I learned the entire process of moviemaking, from inception to delivery, as well as the financing,” she said.
Transferable skills: Kushner said that some of the skills she learned from producing are key to running a theater. “You need to learn how to think on your feet,” she said. “You never know what to expect.” For example, during the filming of “Blessed,” the 2004 movie starring Heather Graham, the death of one of the leads, British actor David Hemmings, forced producers to use special effects, previously filmed scenes and creative script doctoring to finish without the actor.
Red carpet mayhem: Kushner’s longest days take place when the theater hosts a red-carpet premiere. The most hectic day unfolded shortly after she took the job. The theater was premiering a documentary about a popular music festival. But when a DJ who was scheduled to perform at the premiere afterparty sent out a Twitter message encouraging fans to converge on the theater, it caused a near riot, with about 3,000 people swarming in. “L.A riot police showed up,” she said. “It was pretty crazy.”
Going big: In 2013, the new owners installed an Imax screen in the theater, a tough endeavor because the building is a historic landmark. The ornate theater ceiling could not be lifted or cut to fit the 92-foot-by-46-foot Imax screen. Instead, workers tore out the orchestra pit and the basement to remove tons of soil under the theater to fit the screen. “It was time for a change,” Kushner said of the theater.
Return on Investment: Kushner declined to disclose the renovation cost but said it has already paid for itself. Box-office revenue tripled after the installation, she said. The Imax showing of the movie “Gravity” in 2013 brought in as much revenue as the theater generated in all of 2012. “I think it’s come a long way in the past few years,” Kushner said.
The movie experience: With movies available for download on smartphones, laptop computers and tablet computers, Kushner said her biggest challenge is convincing movie lovers that her Imax theater is the best way to enjoy a film. “You are not just seeing a movie here — you are experiencing it,” she said. “You have to feel the sound in your gut. Here, you feel like you are in the movie, which is something you don’t get everywhere.”
In Sid’s office: Kushner is still amazed that she works in the office where Sid Grauman once played poker with his business partners, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. “He was one of the best showmen of all time, so I consider it my job to take that showmanship to the next level,” she said. As for the closet where Grauman hid his booze, Kushner said: “I keep drinks in there but only nonalcoholic drinks because I don’t drink at work.”
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