Philly Deals: An unlikely cinema mogul comes to Wilmington

Posted: June 18, 2012

Soft-spoken Penn Ketchum seems an unlikely cinema mogul. The Brooklyn native married a Manheim girl he met on his first day at Susquehanna University, settled in Lititz, near Lancaster's airport, and spent 10 years working for Lancaster County, starting as a $20,000-a-year drug-and-alcohol counselor at the King Street prison.

After losing the county's top staff job (county administrator) to a rival with an MBA, Ketchum turned to the private sector. Tired of driving his young family to distant theaters, he scouted the cinema business, dominated by national chains, haunted by bankruptcies. He learned that AMC Theatres had planned a Lititz complex but canceled after imposing a metro-only corporate policy. He dialed investors.

The result is the 15-screen, Imax-and-nacho-equipped Penn Cinema in Lititz, with Ketchum as managing partner. Last week, he broke ground for a similar $20 million complex on Wilmington's Christina riverfront. He plans to open Nov. 9 with Skyfall, the next James Bond film, adding Peter Jackson's The Hobbit in December.

It doesn't seem to scare Ketchum or his partners that Americans make fewer trips to multiplexes as more view films on home or mobile gadgets. Cinema sales have dropped three years straight, to just more than $10 billion; cinema visits this year will fall below 1.3 billion, from 1.6 billion in 2002, according to Nash Information Services of Beverly Hills, Calif.

"I can tell you we have been pretty successful by keeping it simple," Ketchum told me. "We don't have any movie-theater-owner business experience of bad habits. ... We've been very aggressive in managing our mortgage" to Lancaster-based Fulton Bank. Lititz-based Susquehanna Bank will finance the Wilmington project, with federal Small Business Administration guarantees.

"We jumped right into digital projection and alternative content," he said. Unlike the high-end chains that grew in the mid-2000s (like, say, Florida-based Muvico, which canceled plans for a 3,800-seat Chester County theater after the recession), "we don't have martini bars or specialty pizza."

Managing his own bookings, "we show live content, opera series, fights" next to first-run movies. "We have a commercial-exhibition license for the World Series. Someone who wants to come out with their kids and not be in a smoky bar, they can get nachos and sodas and watch the game" with that crowd feel. Ketchum tells staff that customers come "to escape their reality" — jobs, parents, kids — "for a couple of hours. Let ‘em know you're happy to see 'em."

On Thursday, Ketchum marked the Wilmington groundbreaking with his daughters, a friend dressed in a Captain America suit, Imax executives, builder Chris Buccini, cheerful job-seeking neighbors from the city's nearby Browntown section, and a crowd of city and state officials, who have been subsidizing office, retail, entertainment, and residential projects in the former industrial zone since the 1990s, with mixed success.

When he started, Ketchum pitched investors as far away as Utah, until he was referred to a Lititz neighbor, John Byerly, son-in-law of the late fuel-trucking magnate and C.R.'s Friendly Markets owner Carlos R. Leffler. Byerly signed on as partner four days later. Byerly was also key to the Wilmington move: His wife was a childhood friend of builder Buccini's mother. "We grew up with the Byerlys," Buccini told me.

Buccini/Pollin Group prospered in the boom years, building taxpayer-aided projects in Wilmington and Chester, including the Union's soccer stadium. As the economy slowed, the Buccinis pitched Ketchum about putting a Wilmington cinema by their proposed Westin hotel. Ketchum hoped to open last year, but waited until the Buccinis had won state and city loan guarantees for the hotel.

Will Ketchum's cornfield concept transplant to urban Wilmington? "I like it here; it's like Brooklyn," he told me.

"When the industry doesn't put out great movies, theaters suffer. But city theaters have done well," said Philadelphia developer Bart Blatstein, who built the Main Street Cinemas in Manayunk, the Riverview in South Philly, and the Pearl on North Broad Street. "Urban areas are still under-screened. And people still love getting out and going to the movies."

Contact Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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