Blazing Achievement: Landmark's Neil Campbell accepts Show 'E' accolades

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“This is about as good as it can get.” Neil Campbell, vice chairman at Landmark Cinemas Canada and this year’s recipient of the Dan Fellman Show ‘E’ Award, is grateful to his industry colleagues. “We do not get an Academy Award. So, I am thinking this is as close to the Academy Awards as our industry has. Fellow exhibitors are giving me this award. And that is where I have set my whole career, in the movie theatre business.”

About the distribution legend in whose name he will be honored at ShowEast 2018 for “unequaled achievements, accomplishments and dedication to the industry,” Campbell adds: “I do know Dan, and I have worked with him. He has been at Warner Bros. for so long… I think we have a good friendship.”

Friendships in business are rare, and hard to maintain, especially when looking back at 44 years in theatrical exhibition and distribution. Campbell reflects on the achievements of Fellman and Warner Bros. “that stuck with me,” one related to another industry honor. “Every year they publish the tribute book for the Motion Picture Pioneer of the Year. Dan’s was the only one I ever saw that had three different Presidents—Presidents of the United States—included and giving him a full page. This guy travels quite a bit, I thought, and in quite the circle of influence. I was really impressed by that.”

As for Warner Bros., “They have always been the number-one company. They did more promotional contests, they were always out there working—doing what they needed to do as a distributor to get the public to attend their films… I got like four or five television sets from them,” he chuckles, praising their showmanship. “It was just an absolutely natural to work with Warner Bros. and getting an award named after Dan makes perfect sense.”

“Anybody who knows me knows that I love doing promotions,” Campbell elaborates. “Someone always said, ‘What are you talking about [with] promotions? You know, you don’t have a big budget.’ To which I responded, ‘For Blazing Saddles, I had a one-horse parade down Main Street.’ You know, you can make anything out of anything when it comes to promotions.” Saddles blazing down Main Street did indeed have a lasting influence on Campbell. “Barry Meyers, the film buyer for my very first theatre, really inspired me. ‘You know kid, you’re a go-getter,’ he told me. ‘That’s great. But never ever hold over a movie in a town that small.’ Of course, I thought, that is bullshit and that’s when I really got into doing promotions. And Blazing Saddles was the first movie I ever held over.”

That happened at the Soo Theatre in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, in 1974, when Campbell first got involved with the movie business. “I married the popcorn girl who worked at our small-town single-screen theatre,” he says about meeting Louise Campbell, who is celebrating her 50th year in the business—with a certificate from the Motion Picture Pioneers of Canada—and their 46th anniversary.“Everybody knows her. Everybody loves her and way more than me. And I agree, she is a bunch nicer,” he confirms. By the time Campbell finished university, he was working at a bank. “Louise’s old boss was at Landmark by then. He invited us for dinner and…the next thing, you know, I stopped being a banker and I was in the movie business.” Continuously operated by Landmark until last November, the Soo Theatre, Campbell admits, “is just too small for a company of our size to carry.”

Another business decision was the December 2017 sale of Landmark Cinemas to Belgium’s Kinepolis Group. (For additional details, see our July interview.) “At the end of the day, it was the right thing to do for our company.” Campbell adds that he had known Kinepolis as “really great” operators for several years. “They too have been in business for a long time and they understand how it works, why it works. Kinepolis puts the customer first. This is what we do every day and it is also their model. Aligning of the companies was easy, like matching brother and brother.”

Without the sibling rivalry. “It’s been very, very good,” he assures, and exciting. “The most exciting event,” however, came when Campbell and business partner Brian McIntosh bought Landmark Cinemas of Canada Inc. in 2007. Landmark’s biggest growth occurred in 2012, with three new theatres plus fully digitizing the circuit, he proudly recalls. “And then in 2013, Empire Theatres, the number-two company in Canada, came up for sale, and we were successful again…tripling in size in one day.”

“I never had anything that was scary,” Campbell laughs at our suggestion. “No, I do not feel that we ever had anything that we were not in control of. The only thing that was scary was the movie Thirteen Ghosts. And I played it for matinees and it used to scare the hell out of all the kids in town. I loved it and think scaring kids is a good thing,” he chuckles. “Kids remember it forever. I still run into former customers and they remember this like it was yesterday.”

Campbell also remembers “praying for the Greyhound bus to come in on time and to have my film onboard.” In those days of 35mm film, cans were loaded Thursday nights and Friday mornings, and transferred at the major bus depots, hopefully onto the right bus. “Every Friday was a nightmare day. We did not go out for lunch. We did not dare to do anything. Because the phone would start to ring, ‘I don’t have my film.’ No one wanted to run in there, because we had sold tickets, and say, ‘Can you give me half an hour?’ The film is supposed to be here, but the bus is running late.”

Film supply remains a concern for Campbell, albeit not from a delivery standpoint. “I am very concerned over the [studio] mergers, because we are going to end up with less films than we have right now. I believe in more films to make this business bigger. The more you can offer, the better the rewards are going to be.” In addition to quantity and quality of product, he feels our business needs “a wider variety, whether family movies, an art picture or action film. We have customers who come every week and if I only have a new movie to offer to them, they do not like it… We are trying to be the one place for everybody to visit. And if you give the public what it wants, then that is success.”

“My goal is for people to enjoy coming to the movies,” Neil Campbell says, sharing his mission as an exhibitor. “I want them to think about moviegoing as the premier out-of-home entertainment experience, and the cheapest. The way that movie theatres are being built today, it has never been better going to the movies… It is the best moviegoing time ever because the product is perfect every time we put it onscreen. That makes me very proud.”

Neil Campbell’s Favorites

Movie snack and drink: “On top of a large Diet Coke and large layered-butter popcorn, I like to sprinkle a bag with M&M Peanuts. I will not apologize, because you get hooked on it. It’s that good.”

Films: Thirteen Ghosts and Blazing Saddles.  My other two are The Usual Suspects and the movie nobody has ever heard of, called Paint Your Wagon. Yup, with Clint Eastwood singing, and Lee Marvin, the nitty-gritty dirt man… It’s from a Broadway musical and was the most expensive movie made. And it’s a western, and I grew up in Western Canada. Both of those actors were movie stars to me, is big as they got. And I like musicals.”