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The show must go on

By Paula Arab | December 1, 2015
The show must go on
Neil Campbell

By investing in the latest technology and focusing on customer service, Landmark Cinemas President and CEO Neil Campbell gives movie fans an experience they can’t duplicate at home.

As Neil Campbell sees it, films are the “language of the world” because audiences everywhere watch the same Hollywood hits. “I call movies milestones in people’s lives,” adds the Owner, President and Chief Executive Officer of Landmark Cinemas of Canada Inc., who recently took his grandchildren to the 30th-anniversary screening of Ghostbusters. “Where were you when you saw your first Star Wars? You probably know the exact theatre.”

For the head of Calgary-based Landmark, the country’s second-largest cinema chain, going to the movies also plays a vital social role. “Most people’s first date is in a theatre setting because it’s safe, there’s lots of people, and it’s fun,” Campbell says. “It’s got all the right ingredients for the first date.”

Campbell believes that movie lovers of all ages will keep flocking to theatres, even in the era of Netflix, HBO and video on demand. Ever-improving technology, from vast high-resolution screens to immersive sound, attracts viewers by providing an experience they can’t get in their living rooms. At the same time, Landmark is making its theatres in communities more comfortable and enhancing presentation.

Thanks to a major acquisition, the company is well positioned to keep filmgoers happy. In 2013, Landmark purchased 20 theatres from Stellarton, N.S.-based Empire Company Ltd. It paid about $55-million to triple its number of screens – the total now stands at 312 – and to grow from a regional chain to a national player with a footprint in Ontario. As a result, attendance at Landmark theatres has swelled from three million guests a year to 10 million, and the company has about 1,500 staff where it previously employed 500.

The deal closed ahead of a sluggish year for Hollywood that saw a decline in revenue and attendance. But Campbell, who succeeded Brian McIntosh as President and CEO following the Empire takeover, is optimistic. “It’s been a challenge because 2014 was not a great year for the industry,” he says. “We got through that, and 2015 has shown market increases back to what we are traditionally used to.” Campbell thinks “2015 could end up being the biggest year ever in our industry,” largely due to blockbusters such as Jurassic World and the much-anticipated December release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Still, Landmark must contend with shrinking release windows – the time from a movie’s theatrical release to when it becomes available on other platforms. For the past six years, the window has stood at about four months, notes Campbell, who started out as a theatre manager in Weyburn, Sask., and worked in movie distribution before stepping down as Managing Director at Sony Picture Releasing Canada in 2001 to become Landmark’s Chief Operating Officer.

“We fight hard to maintain that window because we don’t want the public to think, ‘If I miss it in the theatre, who cares? I’ll get to see it really quickly on the next platform.’”

Campbell has faith that the movie-theatre industry will keep growing despite online and at-home competition. “People don’t want to cocoon and spend their lives at home,” he insists, sitting in a leather rocker at Landmark’s luxury Extra theatre in Calgary. “Why do we have restaurants? You have a kitchen? You cannot duplicate the joy of going to a movie with the crowd. You share the laughter, the suspense, the sorrow, the scary screaming scenes with a group of people.

“Comedies are always funnier with a crowd,” Campbell observes. “You are always more afraid if the room is on edge and someone screams.”

When they join that crowd, audiences also reap the benefits of the latest technology. The Calgary theatre is one of Landmark’s four Extra venues, which feature premium large format (PLF) screens, deluxe seating and superior sound systems. Landmark’s ultimate PLF is its one Xtreme auditorium in West Kelowna, B.C. Equipped with a wall-to-wall, wrap-around screen and wide rocker chairs, it’s also the first Canadian theatre to feature Barco’s Auro 11.1 3-D immersive sound.

As Campbell points out, enjoying a film at the cinema today is about so much more than just watching it on a big screen. Take Auro 11.1, which he describes as “surround sound on steroids.” For example, a helicopter flying across the screen might produce a sound that starts over your left shoulder, travels over your head and veers off to your right.

The minimum sound standard for Landmark is 7.1 Digital Surround, “which is beautiful surround sound,” Campbell says. “That is what you would find in the most modern theatre anywhere in the world.”

In a highly competitive business, comfort and good value are two other priorities for Landmark. In July, the company became the first cinema operator in Canada to offer fully reclining leather seats when it installed them at its refurbished theatre in London, Ont.

“There are other competitors in London,” Campbell relates. “We said, ‘What would make it that you want to come this theatre as opposed to the other theatres? We’re going to give you the first-class experience, but we’re only going to charge you regular prices to get it.’”

To accommodate the new chairs, which stretch out to 1.8 metres, Landmark reduced seating by 60 per cent. Although every seat in the house is a recliner, patrons still pay the standard ticket price of $10.99. All chairs are reserved, which helps concession stand sales because it removes the stress of rushing to buy snacks without losing your seat.

“The VIPs in Landmark’s world are our guests,” Campbell says. Everybody is a VIP, so everybody should be able to go and enjoy these luxury recliners.”

The results have been “very strong,” he adds. “You can’t stand still in our business,” Campbell says of the pressure to keep innovating. “More people are coming, more people are going more often, and they’re telling their friends because it is such a premier experience.”

In the wake of its 2013 deal with Empire, Landmark has plans to get bigger. “Going forward, we are looking for opportunities to grow through building and acquisitions,” Campbell says. “We’re going to be financially prudent, but we do want to grow.”

As Landmark expands, it must pick its spots carefully. “You want to have the best possible movie-going experience in keeping with the size of the community,” Campbell explains. “You need a city to generate revenue at this level,” he says of the Calgary Extra theatre. “That doesn’t mean Landmark can’t be right-sized in specific communities.”

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