Landmark Moments: Neil Campbell recounts key steps and business milestones
“Landmark has always been community-oriented.” Neil Campbell, owner, president and chief executive of Landmark Cinemas, names one characteristic that sets his circuit apart. “We encourage promotions at the local level and are making sure that we are thought of as a part of every community that our theatres are in. This helps our management to be involved…to help out and have fun with their guests.” That community spirit has been duly acknowledged: At ShowCanada 2014, Landmark Cinemas won nine of the 16 awards for showmanship that were bestowed. “This is a wonderful industry,” Campbell enthuses, “and it needs everyone working their best to make great movies and exhibit them with the latest technology and comfort for our guests.”
While assuring all of the above and weathering the occasional storm along the way, a pivotal moment in the development of Landmark Cinemas came in 2007, Campbell continues. “When Brian McIntosh and I executed a 100% management buyout of the company, that was a very big change for us and for the company.” The next great opportunity arose when Campbell, McIntosh and their Landmark team purchased a large number of locations from fellow Canadian exhibitor Empire Theatres. The sale was announced in June 2013 and closed on Oct. 31, bringing 23 theatres in Ontario and Western Canada into the Landmark portfolio. “This is a once-in-a-career opportunity,” Campbell feels. “The Soby family was doing a massive takeover in their main grocery business and decided to focus all their efforts on that alone and to divest all their non-grocery businesses.” The sale was broken into two segments; Campbell “cuts to the end of many, months of negotiating,” in which Cineplex Entertainment purchased the Maritime properties from Empire. “We instantly tripled in size and became Canada’s second-largest exhibitor. We now run 46 locations and 312 screens across five provinces and one territory.”
Without doubt, both these acquisitions represented not only major investments, but also big challenges and great opportunities. “They both qualify as exciting and a nightmare because we have to deliver on growing the company.” Given the nature of the Empire sale and its size, Campbell concurs that it required a large amount of due diligence, planning and financing. “We had to raise the capital, expand our management strength at the head office, and coach our existing management team to a new future. What we knew then would only get us to where we were and we had a long and big trip ahead of us.” Helping on that trip was capital coming from Alberta Treasury Bank, he emphasizes, and from TriWest Capital, Landmark’s private-equity partner. “Both are Alberta-based companies and very committed to us for the future.”
On the cinema front, Campbell gives an equally generous shout-out to Landmark partners in distribution. “We have known all of them for most of our careers and we think of them as our friends and allies building this industry. Except on the odd Monday,” he qualifies in jest. “One cannot survive without the other… We work very hard to ensure we have the best films possible to play on all of our screens. We also align ourselves with distribution to maximize all the promotion synergy for every movie we can.”
With more happiness to share, Campbell praises other good friends of Landmark Cinemas. “We also really enjoy and benefitted from our strong relationship with Coca-Cola. They truly are our partner and work closely with us to ensure we are doing what is best-of-practices marketing of their product. In the equipment arena, we are connected to IMAX, Christie, GDC, Barco, Doremi, Dolby and, of course, RealD. These companies brought us through the digital transition and are now taking us into immersive sound and beyond. This is all to improve the guest experience.”
On a personal note, he adds that his wife provided the necessary backbone and has made that successful journey possible. “Louise is how I got in the business. She has supported me and the company through all of its periods of growth and challenges. I think more people know Louise than me and they like her more, for sure. And so do I!” Before joining Landmark in June 1974, Campbell explains, “I was dating this young girl who got a job at the local theatre as a ‘Candy Girl.’ When we finished university and were married, her former boss called and made us an offer we could not say ‘no’ to.” They moved to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, to manage the SOO Theatre, which not only still shows movies today but is also operated by Landmark.
“I loved the Saturday matinees as a kid and then as a theatre manager,” Campbell elaborates. “Everyone falling in love with the moviegoing experience every Saturday afternoon” has informed his professional life and many favorite movie theatre memories. He fondly recalls “watching the crowds scream every night while viewing Jaws and The Exorcist or everyone laughing at Animal House.” Closer to today, he names watching Gravity and Avatar on a huge IMAX screen in 3D.
As master of so many more Landmark cinemas now, Campbell shares his passion with a great group of people at the head office and in theatres. “We have grown our Support Services Center,” as the office is appropriately called, along with administrative staff and the senior management that is working there. “Our strategy was to focus on former Empire Theatre employees, with their intimate knowledge of the acquisition locations, and attract them to move to Calgary, Alberta, from Nova Scotia.” Campbell is proud to have succeeded. “I am very happy to say that we have added former Empire executives to fill the roles of chief financial officer and chief operating officer” (feedback from Paul Wigginton and Bill Walker, respectively, appears on the following pages), as well as vice presidents of human resources and information technology, and the director of food services. At the same time, “we have promoted former Landmark executives to VP level in marketing, accounting, administration and at King Cinema, our technical support division.” As the film-buying department, headed up by Kevin Norman (interviewed later in this section), was moved to Toronto, the enlarged Landmark group “added several other new positions and departments,” including directors of distributor relations, corporate sales, and executives in charge of customer services and digital technology, he adds.
“We are now in the position to grow either through building, mergers or acquisition. With the quality of the senior management team—and with the training and collaboration that we provided—Landmark Cinemas is poised for a dynamic future.”
That future is strongly connected to the past, not just in an anniversary year. “Our goal is to continue building Landmark Cinemas Canada into a strong exhibition company…and our focus is to ensure that this continues for another 50 years.” And that future looks bright to boot. “We will always go to the movies”—about that Neil Campbell is certain. “It is the only way we, as a society, can enjoy the magic of the movies as a group. There is nothing worse than watching a comedy alone, a horror movie alone or an action movie alone. You need the group to share those emotions with. A great movie is when at the end, the whole audience walks out laughing, crying or talking excitedly… It was a shared experience which is bigger and better than anything you can do alone.”
Neil Campbell, Up Close and Personal
What achievements are you the proudest of?
Our three children and now four grandchildren; being awarded “Pioneer of the Year” by the Canadian Picture Pioneers organization.
What is your favorite movie snack and drink?
Large Diet Coke and large buttered popcorn with M&Ms sprinkled on the popcorn.
What are your favorite films?
Paint Your Wagon, The Usual Suspects, Jaws, Blazing Saddles.
Your favorite movie theatre?
While the Landmark 10 in Calgary ranks high on the list today, Campbell fondly recalls the Derrick Theatre in Virden, Manitoba: “This is where I grew up and it had a balcony. I saw my first film there, Bridge on the River Kwai.” Other highlights were Around the World in 80 Days, Lawrence of Arabia and Saturday matinees, he adds. “Never missed those…”
If you could change one thing about the way how this industry works, what would it be?
Easy: insuring we maintain a four-month window between exhibition and the next platform. This would benefit all concerned by having a constant release pattern.
Any parting words of advice?
Having fun! That is my first rule of business. You should always work to enjoy what you are doing. This will change just working for a living into enjoying and having fun doing what you love every day.