The Penn-dulum swings

By on September 5, 2018

Lititz-based movieplex completes newseats, opens new theater…what’s next?

Penn Ketchum, Jonathan Byler, and Bob Tucci–the forces behind Penn Cinema–have been busy. The Lititz location has been fully updated, ahead of schedule, with new reclining seats. The Wilmington, DE location–opened in 2012–is running smoothly. A new Huntingdon Valley location opens Nov. 1 and will be a seven-screen, upscale endeavor. Penn Cinema IMAX was selected to be a part of the recent Marvel Studios 10th Anniversary Film Festival and Monday Night Movies are back after a brief respite.

“It’s been an interesting couple of years,” said Byler, who helped open the Lititz theater back in 2006.

“That’s the understatement of the year,” said Ketchum.

In an effort to attract customers and heighten the moviegoing experience major national chains started installing recliner seating as early as 2013. The results were positive and soon almost every theater had plans for converting stadium seating-once a hot trend in its own right-to recliners.

“We were certainly late to the party with the recliner conversion and we dipped into it to see how the reaction would be,” said Byler, who handles the financial aspects of Penn Cinemas. From a business aspect the reaction to the recliners was shocking. In order to make room for the large recliners each theater lost seats. But, with a lower volume of seats overall attendance grew.

“We lost a lot of capacity. We thought we would keep some theaters with the regular seats and a higher capacity and have some theaters with recliners,” said Ketchum. “What we discovered was that people weren’t going to the regular seats. It was like they didn’t exist.”

So, the trio put the plan into high gear.

“It was a big project. It went from a multi-year project to getting it wrapped up quickly,” said Byler, of the $2.2 million project. Along with the recliner seats came the implementation of reserved seating. Other than some initial feedback from guests adjusting to change, reserved seating has been well accepted.

“People got used to it,” said Tucci, of the new touch screen method of choosing a seat at the ticket counter. “Sometimes using new equipment needs getting used to.” The next big question mark surrounding seating has to do with the 400-seat IMAX screen. “It’s our opinion that at some point IMAX will have to give in (and adopt reclining seating),” said Ketchum.

But for now, there are no plans for the conversion.

“And on opening night of big movies we still need 400 seats,” said Ketchum. “It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

“There is such a large investment in IMAX,” added Byler. “You need X number of seats to get that return because of the up front (costs). It’s a balancing act of can you get that return and does the whole economic model make sense.”

When the economic model makes sense the partners are inclined to take advantage of it. Such is what happened in Huntingdon Valley. The partners hear from a lot of people with potential locations for new theaters, but they do not always fit.

“The population (in Huntingdon Valley) is dense. If you look on a map it looks like there are plenty of theaters, but we found a pocket,” said Ketchum. The pocket was room for a $5 million, seven-screen, luxury theater complete with a small bar and pizza oven. The Penn Cinema in Huntingdon Valley will also be the first in the area to have reclining seats.

“We’ll be the first to market,” said Byler. “We are always looking at different projects and sometimes we find one that makes sense.” Byler, a longtime Lititz resident, said the location reminds him of a highly-populated Lititz.

“It’s a very nice area,” said Byler.

Pictured (left to right) Bob Tucci, Jonathan Byler and Penn Ketchum.

The Huntingdon Valley location may serve as a proving ground for future additions to Lititz. The partners agree the next item in need of an update in Lititz is concessions.

“This may be a glimpse into the future. Our whole business has always been: simple. We didn’t rush into dining; we’re not opening martini bars or serving shrimp tacos. We’ve always believed, ‘keep it simple and do it well.’ What we are doing in Huntingdon Valley is consistent with that motto,” said Ketchum. “But, when something seems like fun we just do it.”

Like Monday Night Movies, which restart in Lititz on September 17. For the past eleven years, Penn Cinemas has been showing “classic” movies on Monday nights, but the program needed to take a break this spring as construction and installation of the new recliners took precedence.

“During construction we had two, three, sometimes four screens off-line, so scheduling was really tight,” said Ketchum. “And we got a lot of comments and questions about Monday Night Movies during that time.”

Ketchum calls creating the lineup for Monday Night Movies a balancing act between genres and ages. He will sometimes enlist the help of Facebook followers for suggestions. One thing he knows never works are horror films. The 13-movie list for this fall has just been released.

“This list includes staples like ‘Jaws’ and ‘Godfather,’” said Ketchum. The lineup also includes “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” both of which have run all eleven years.

“’Christmas Vacation’ is a huge event here,” said Tucci, noting people will dress up in their best Griswold family gear.

New additions testing the waters of Monday Night Movies popularity are “Mean Girls,” which has a newfound interest due to the popularity of its transition to a Broadway show, and “Hugo,” a personal favorite of Ketchum’s and an often-overlooked film by director Martin Scorsese.

“We’ve never shown ‘Ghost’ and its been a few years since we’ve shown ‘Princess Bride,’” said Ketchum.

Both films play in October. The full list of Monday Night Movies can be found on the Penn Cinema website, penncinema.com, and shows start at 7:00 p.m.

At Penn Cinema, keeping things simple can be a bit complex, but the ownership group is well adjusted to the demands.

“We all found our perfect fit,” said Ketchum about his partners. “We each do the things we are all really good at.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *