Penn Ketchum has been considering an IMAX screen at Penn Cinemas since first opening three years ago. There were just some things in the way. It’s not just the scope of the 65-foot screen that was immense; Ketchum spent months in negotiations with IMAX Corporation before sitting down to read every nook and cranny of the 54- page contract he signed to bring a top-of- the-line IMAX to Lancaster.
With Penn Cinemas flourishing and near bursting at its seams—Manheim Township code prohibits buildings over 325 feet, and Penn Cinemas is currently at 323 feet—Penn needed an idea to cater to his increasing audience. The solution is a stand-alone IMAX theater separated from Penn Cinemas by only a courtyard. The plan is to have the new Penn Cinemas IMAX eventually to be flanked by two restaurants operating by November 19.
I recently caught up with Penn, oddly enough away from the theater, and learned a little history of what it took to bring in IMAX.
Fine Living Lancaster: Why did you decide to go the IMAX route?
Penn Ketchum: We love IMAX, and we’ve always loved the fun of seeing a movie in an IMAX presentation because it’s such a special experience. The quality of the picture and the quality of the audio is excellent.
A lot of people ask me, “Why didn’t you just build an IMAX when you were building the theater? Why now?” Over the last three years [the IMAX] business model has changed a lot. It used to be that IMAX was open for educational movies, documentaries, and stuff like that. And occasionally they would release a Hollywood feature film in an IMAX format…. It has gotten more and more regular that all the big movies are coming out in IMAX presentation. Once they started including more of the feature films, the business model made a whole lot more sense, and we started getting really excited about the prospect of getting into business with them.
Our business has been really growing, and we’ve been really proud of it.
FLL: Are you going to bring in some of the educational films?
PK: Absolutely, we’re already reaching out to some local museum-type groups, and we will definitely be showing a lot of interesting [scientific films]. I wish we were open right now for Hubble 3D.
FLL: What’s the difference between an IMAX 3D and the 3D you show right now?
PK: Every movie that’s made for IMAX goes to a laboratory in Toronto where they literally break the movie down frame by frame. They go through every single frame of an entire movie, and they correct the color, the ratio, and the scope. The movie is pretty much perfect to begin with, what they do is they go in and say, “If we’re going to blow this up to be six stories tall, we might as well correct every little tiny fraction while we’re in there.”
They do the same thing for the audio. The speaker layout of every IMAX auditorium is exactly the same. So, they set up the audio in Toronto, and they know that every layout in the country is the same. Therefore, they know that if it is perfect in Toronto it is going to be perfect in Lititz.
The difference between 3D IMAX and 3D, like what we are showing today, is just as simple as a big step forward in terms of quality and depth perception.
FLL: For the IMAX, what steps have you had to take that were different from getting the original theater running?
PK: The biggest step was going through a series of negotiations with the IMAX Corporation. The IMAX is not like going to an equipment dealer and buying a bunch of equipment and putting it up in your booth. The second hurdle was how to fit a 65-foot screen in a 45- foot building. [Essentially, construction will work with the current grade of the site to slope the theater below ground.] We’re digging in about ten feet where the screen goes and basically sticking part of the screen underground.
FLL: That’s cool.
PK: It is cool.
FLL: How many seats?
FLL: How many?
PK: 428. Our biggest theater now is 250. So this is almost twice as big as our biggest theater.
FLL: I think that’s a lot even for an IMAX, isn’t it? What does the IMAX in Harrisburg seat?
PK: You have to remember the one in Harrisburg is not a full-size feature IMAX. Don’t get me wrong; there’s nothing wrong with that. When we were working with IMAX [they] sent over the blueprints for the auditorium—the way the seats are laid out—and I said, “Is this the best layout you have because we have a clean slate, and we want to do the absolute gold standard, best IMAX layout that you have.” They said, “This is it.”
FLL: Is there something that is going to be different concession-wise at the IMAX?
PK: We have a philosophy at Penn Cinema that we are a movie theater, and we are not going to try and be all things to all people. We never installed a martini bar; we don’t have the odd little things that come and go in trends. We sell popcorn, soda, and hot dogs. We really believe in keeping it simple and being true to who we are, which is a movie theater and not a gourmet restaurant.
With that being said, we are going to follow the same philosophy at the IMAX, but everything at the IMAX is going to be a bit more special and a bit more unique. We will have some menu items at the IMAX concession stand that we won’t have at the Penn Cinemas stand.
FLL: Do you have an opening date set?
PK: I have a rock solid date of November 19, which is the day that Harry Potter [and the Deathly Hollows: Part One] opens…We’re like that movie Smokey and the Bandit—we’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there.