Comfort over headcount: Penn Cinema adds recliners

By on May 17, 2017

Penn Ketchum of Penn Cinema is pretty comfortable with his theater seating conversion plan. (Photos by Missi Mortimer)

In the face of what would be a massive opening weekend for the early summer blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” on May 5, two theaters at Penn Cinema sat devoid of moviegoers. Nothing was projected onto screens 2 and 3 as work continued to bring recliner-style seating to the Lititz movie house. The project means greater comfort and viewing options with a reduction in seats per screening room.

In response to customer demand, Penn Cinema began transforming its traditional seating into electric recliners in March. Now, with a push of a button viewers can recline back or sit up to find their optimum viewing angle. Loyal Penn Cinema customers were not abandoning the theater completely, but were sometimes searching out other theaters that offered recliners and reserved seating.

“We definitely noticed we were losing customers to theaters that had reserved seats and recliners,” said Penn Cinema owner Penn Ketchum. “That was the eye-opener for us. Stay fresh or die.”

Two of the smaller theaters in the 14-screen complex have completed the transformation so far, with two larger screens projected to be completed in time for the opening of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” on May 26.

Eventually, all of the theaters at Penn Cinemas will be equipped with third generation electric recliners manufactured in the U.S. by Irwin Seating Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The transition will eliminate more than half of the seats from each theater. The completed theater 11 went from 90 to 40 seats with a price tag of approximately $100,000 to upgrade each theater.

“We’re going to end up converting everything. The plan is to convert (the theaters) two at a time,” said Ketchum. “It’s a big, expensive conversion, but on the other hand it’s really simple.”

Using the existing seating levels as a base, Hess Home Builders “built-up” new foundations for the recliners. All new carpet is required since trenches needed to be dug in the concrete flooring to run the electric for the seats.

Ketchum has considered the move to recliners for some time, but when he first saw a movie with recliner seats he was not too sure about them. He wasn’t ready to fully recline back to watch a movie.

“Then I realized the whole point is you can get the right ratio that you want. I could put my feet up and they weren’t on the back of anyone’s headrest. I was able to scooch around and make myself super comfortable,” he said. “There may be some people who don’t like to lie down, but you don’t have to lie down. You can sit it up to whatever level you like.”

The change was not made on an impulse. Ketchum checked in with other theater owners and found “the numbers don’t lie.”

Reclining with some buttery popcorn and a cold drink is the preferred way to enjoy today’s blockbuster movies. (Left to right) Devin Zunner, Penn Ketchum, and Tiffany Chubb from Penn Cinema.

“Of course, on opening night you wish you had a theater with 400 seats in it, but the whole industry is changing,” said Ketchum. “The overflow … ends up being a net gain as people go to earlier or later shows.”

Nationwide, more and more theaters are installing recliners. The buzzword in 2015, as mega-chains Regal and AMC began full conversion to recliners, was “plush-seating.” Locally, the response has been favorable.

“The people like the seats so much better,” said Ketchum. “In a couple years you won’t be able to find a new theater that doesn’t have recliners.”

He likened the advancement in seating technology to stadium seating. Theaters of yesteryear, some still in existence like the historic Ephrata Main, use a sloped floor. When stadium seating was introduced the majority of theaters converted to the more viewing-friendly design.

In addition to the comfort of the seats themselves, customers have given Ketchum positive feedback on the expanded depth of the aisles.

“With our old seats we’ve been dealing with the ability to walk through (the aisle). Now you can walk right by. You don’t have to squeeze by anybody or worry about someone having to go to the bathroom,” he said.

The new recliners also appeal to customer demand looking for reserved seating. Upon arrival at the box office, theatergoers looking for recliner seats will be asked to choose a seat from a monitor displaying all available choices. Advanced purchase online also provides users a choice of available seats. And although there is no plan to install recliners in the IMAX theater, reserved seating will also become available with the opening of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” on May 26.

Like Jim Carrey said in “The Cable Guy,” “the future is now!”

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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