Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

In the Netflix age, some small suburban theaters have found success. A Wayne theater is still looking.

Cinemas are trying harder than ever to get suburbanites off their couches and away from their Netflix accounts. The Anthony Wayne Theater is struggling to keep up.

At the Anthony Wayne Theater, general manager Newt Wallen and owner Greg Wax started a Save the Wayne fundraising campaign in order to keep up with regional competition.
At the Anthony Wayne Theater, general manager Newt Wallen and owner Greg Wax started a Save the Wayne fundraising campaign in order to keep up with regional competition.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Once a shining movie palace along the Main Line, the Anthony Wayne Theater has lost its luster. Over the last few years, online reviews have told the tale of its descent.

"Why were seven or eight seats in the theater covered in plastic bags?" one woman wrote on Yelp earlier this year. "Why were the arm rests sticky? What's that smell?"

Newt Wallen has read all the negative reviews. For a long time, he said, the place had a bad rap; the building was in disrepair, service was lackluster, and amenities were sparse.

Three years ago, Wallen took over as a general manager armed with a vision: Revitalize the theater and make it competitive with the big chains — the AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas of the world — and the nonprofit, membership-funded theaters that have found success elsewhere in the Philadelphia suburbs. In January, that vision became a campaign called "Save the Anthony Wayne," which owner Greg Wax recently said had raised between $8,000 and $10,000 toward its $2 million goal.

Without enough donations, Wallen said, the theater, founded in 1928, is at risk of closing by next year. Wax, whose Reel Cinemas also owns the Narberth Theater, said he doesn't see that happening. Locals will jump onboard to save the Wayne, Wax has no doubt.

"These places need to be here. This is part of Americana," Wallen said. "Philadelphia used to have so many movie palaces. They're gone. They're Walgreens."

At a time when research indicates  more than 60 percent of young adults subscribe to at least one streaming service, movie theaters are trying harder than ever to get suburbanites off their couches and away from their Netflix accounts. To persuade folks to cough up at least $10 a ticket, some local cinemas have started offering recliner seating, alcohol, gourmet food options, and intimate viewing experiences. Both chains and private theaters have gotten in on the act.

And those who couldn't keep up? They're closed now — turned into gyms or restaurants or furniture stores, sometimes with marquees still intact.  The former Westmont Theater in Haddon Township became a Planet Fitness. On the Ocean City boardwalk, the old marquee of the historic Strand Theatre now bears a glowing Manco & Manco's Pizza logo.

Wallen and Wax hope that isn't the fate of the Wayne.

They have already added a new sound system and  made "superficial changes," such as adding Dippin' Dots to the concession stand and upgrading to a higher-quality popcorn seed, Wallen said. They have also tried to focus more on customer service (Wallen was recently encouraged when someone slipped a note through the door to say what a wonderful experience they'd had there).

But the to-do list remains daunting.

Wallen wants to get those reclining leather seats, to build a bar and a kitchen so he can provide a wider array of food and drink options, and upgrade the carpets and drapes. The theater is soliciting donations online (with a $750 option to "sponsor" a seat), asking for help from the same community it is trying to win back.

"It is a struggle, no doubt about it, for a lot of theaters," said Samuel Scott, executive director and CEO of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. "To be successful in an age where there's so much competition from Netflix and other streaming services, to be able to have sellout crowds and 9,000 members like we do, it's almost unprecedented."

Only four miles down Lancaster Avenue, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute sits on the opposite end of the movie-theater spectrum and represents a rousing success in the digital age.

Its secret?

Tapping into the movie-loving community in its backyard.

Back in 2002, amid stiff competition from the big chains, the historic Seville Theater was set to be shuttered and converted into a Philadelphia Sports Clubs gym, as had happened to the Ardmore Theater a couple of years earlier.

But Bryn Mawr College trustee Juliet J. Goodfriend wouldn't have it. She founded Bryn Mawr Film Institute as a nonprofit, purchasing the Seville Theater building and setting in motion a decadelong, $10 million renovation and expansion project.

Her efforts paid off. Big time.

Today, weekend showings there are usually sold out, and its more than 9,000 members are fiercely loyal.

"A fairly significant contingent comes in on an evening and they don't know what they're going to see," Scott said. Instead, they ask"what's good?" and buy tickets accordingly.

Annual adult memberships range from $60 for an individual to $110 for a family, and come with discounted admission to movies and discounted enrollment in the institution's film education programs.

The audience skews older than the crowd that one would likely see at the multiplexes, Scott said, but he is hopeful one ever-changing group will sustain the institute going forward.

"One audience we're growing now are empty-nesters, whose kids have gone off to college and they've turned to each other and said. 'What are we going to do now?' " he said.

The Bryn Mawr Film Institute isn't the only place that has found success as a membership-supported nonprofit. Phoenixville's Colonial Theatre, Doylestown's County Theater, Jenkintown's Hiway Theater, and the Ambler Theater have also thrived under this model.

How have they pulled it off?

"People love the theater," said John Toner, executive director of the County Theater, the Hiway Theater, and the Ambler Theater. "They love local golden-age theaters in downtown settings."

"I think we're such a part of the community," said Brendan Carr, marketing director for the Colonial Theatre. "People want this place to keep going."

That isn't to say these places don't invest in their facilities.

The Colonial Theatre recently completed an $8 million renovation, expanding from one theater (of The Blob fame) to three unique theaters, and adding beer and wine to the concession-stand offerings. "It's just one additional perk to come here," Carr said. "We're not Movie Tavern. We're not a restaurant."

At the end of the day, all the theater folks agreed that what customers care about most is not beer or wine or luxury amenities. Yes, they want their theater to be clean and well-maintained, and Heineken on tap doesn't hurt. But they are drawn in by the films themselves and the viewing experience.

"It's a completely different experience to see a movie on a big screen with an audience,"  Toner said. "Seeing Casablanca with a sold-out audience is a completely different experience than watching it for the umpteenth time in your living room."

"The biggest challenge for me is to maintain the balance showing films people want to see with showing films people should see," Scott said.

In that regard, the nonprofits have an edge over places like the Anthony Wayne, which provides first-run films and has a harder time showing the types of documentaries and special, or repertory, films that have made places like Bryn Mawr Film Institute and the Colonial Theatre such a success.

Wax did start a nonprofit for the Anthony Wayne's fund-raising, he said, and is operating the theater under a half-and-half model — part for-profit, part nonprofit — with plans to start a membership program soon.

For now, Wallen and Wax remain optimistic. Despite all the competition, the Anthony Wayne can — and more important, should — be revived, Wallen said.

"I'm just out there screaming into the heavens," Wallen said. "All we need is that spark and we'll be something."

"Given what Wayne is, we'd really like to make [the Anthony Wayne] a Main Line niche," Wax said. "We hope everyone feels the same way and wants it to stay a theater."