Ultimate exhibitor: Dan Harkins earns Show 'E' honors


“Providing the ‘Ultimate Moviegoing’ experience to our guests is our mission.”

Dan Harkins, chief executive officer of the largest privately owned circuit in the United States and recipient of the 2012 Show ‘E’ Award, gets right to the heart of what really matters to him and his Harkins Theatres circuit. “We promote this through our passion for moviegoing, the environment we create for our guests and our employees, and approaching everything we do with honesty and integrity. We care about our moviegoers as if they were members of our family and strive to provide the best guest service and moviegoing experience possible.”

This combination of care and enthusiasm exemplifies the qualifications for the Show ‘E’ Award, which is bestowed each year on “an industry member whose achievements, accomplishments and dedication to the industry are unequaled.” To be singled out by his friends and business partners in theatrical exhibition and distribution is “incredible,” Harkins declares. “There are a lot of people I admire in this business and I’ve been doing this my entire life. I love it and can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. It’s a great feeling [to receive the award] and I am extremely honored and humbled.”

For someone who “was literally born into this wonderful business”—his father “Red” and mother Viola not only met while working at The College Theatre (now Harkins Valley Art) in downtown Tempe, Arizona, but they also made the apartment behind the projection booth their home—Dan Harkins surely knows what family means. “Personally, I strive to bring the most happiness to the most people. We are entertaining our family and our friends every day in every theatre, and we have an obligation to them to do our best to provide the most enjoyable movie experience possible each and every time.”

Ever since taking over the business at the young age of 21, Dan has built upon the legacy that Red Harkins began with Tempe’s State Theatre in 1933. (Our 70th Anniversary tribute appeared in the August 2003 FJI) With more than 420 screens across five states today, annual attendance at the home base alone has been exceeding the capacity of Arizona’s top 25 venues combined.

“Our goal at Harkins is to consistently build upon ‘Ultimate Moviegoing’ and provide great experiences for employees, moviegoers, and anyone who has ever stepped foot in a movie theatre. I’m so lucky to be in an industry that is beloved, enriching and carries so many memories for people. I’m constantly looking to help contribute to the communities that we serve so that everyone has an opportunity to experience the magic of the movies.”

For Harkins, the very magic of “sharing in a story with fellow moviegoers seeking the same joy and escape [begins] from the moment the guest thinks about going,” and covers the entire visit. “Starting with the interaction with our website or phone app,” he further mentions “the visual excitement of the theatre as you drive towards it, the ambiance of the lobby, the smell of fresh-popped popcorn, the friendly and helpful interaction with our team members and excitement before the movie begins: We are dedicated to our guests and their needs.”

Establishing amenities and special services—HarkinsTheatres.com, in fact, features an entire menu dedicated to “Only at Harkins”—is really about creating offers that contribute to the enhancement of the theatrical experience, he explains. “We evaluate every angle of moviegoing and work to provide programs and amenities that cater to every moviegoer. We are passionate about independent films, so we support local film festivals and alternative programming. We want parents to enjoy a night out without stressing over a babysitter, so we have the ‘PlayCenter.’ We know that fresh popcorn is essential to any moviegoing experience and we’ve perfected our award-winning recipe. Our loyalty program is unique in the industry, beloved by our guests, and it grows every year. All of these things have become synonymous with Harkins Theatres…and they are what set us apart.”

One of those unique features is the previously mentioned “PlayCenter," where children three to eight years old are entertained while parents watch a movie. Mike Bowers, Harkins Theatres’ president and chief operating officer, came up with the idea when his children were young. “The concept was born out of the need for his family and he knew that other families were in the same situation,” Harkins recalls. “We opened the first location in Chandler, Arizona, more than a decade ago. Since then we’ve opened nine others in Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas and California. The ‘PlayCenter’ makes moviegoing more spontaneous for parents while their children have a great time playing with educational games, reading books, making take-home art and crafts and, of course, watching movies.”

For movies inside the Harkins auditoriums, the “pristine presentations using state-of-the-art audio and 100% digital projection technologies” also include the widely lauded, exclusive “Cine Capri” brand and the 70mm, six-story IMAX theatre. The original Cine Capri opened in Phoenix in March 1966 in a thoroughly modern style with a single and extra-wide screen, and “was a beloved landmark.”

Harkins tells us the story behind the inspiration. “Despite objection by movie lovers” with a 260,000 signatures-strong petition—the largest in Arizona up to that time—it “was torn down to make room for high-rise office buildings. The ‘Cine Capri’ is an integral part of our history and, in turn, our branding. So many moviegoers were part of the fight when we protested to keep the original ‘Capri’ standing. In fact, we have a museum dedicated to its history in our Scottsdale 101 location, which was the first new theatre to reintroduce an upgraded, modern ‘Cine Capri’ to audiences.”

Since June 2003, this special auditorium has been introduced in “all of our markets as the place to see blockbuster movies,” he continues. “The ‘Cine Capri’ offers a more immersive experience that takes you back to the grand movie palaces of cinema’s golden age. With a screen over 70 feet wide [21.3 m], crisp, pristine digital sound, comfortable ‘Ultimate Rocker’ rocking-chair loveseats, combined with the luxury of the gold waterfall drapes, our ‘Cine Capri’ is an experience that just can’t be replicated,” Harkins assures.

“To complement the sweeping panoramic elegance of the ‘Cine Capri,’ we also operate the only full size, six-story IMAX screen in Arizona,” he adds. The Harkins IMAX at Arizona Mills “offers moviegoers a different ‘wow’ factor when watching Katniss in the arena, or Batman taking on Bane.” Harkins is clearly a movie lover, so we wanted to know which film “wowed” him the most. While the first movie Dan Harkins ever saw was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1958 at the College/Valley Art, “Fantasia is my favorite film of all time and the film that turned my business around when it was struggling the most.”

“In order to reach the success that we have achieved today,” Harkins admits to having “struggled mightily,” even in the beginning. “I remember the early days when I had nothing and I was eating popcorn for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” These days, when sitting “in the first row upper section so I can rest my feet on the railing,” he noshes on “popcorn, Perrier and peanut M&M’s. If it’s a special occasion, I’ll get a delicious Freschetta pizza or a couple of White Castle cheeseburgers.”

Harkins also recalls the time between 2004 and 2008 when “we began our biggest expansion and ventured outside of Arizona for the first time. We grew rapidly in a very short period of time, and all of the celebrations and grand openings surrounding the growth were a whirlwind, but extremely rewarding and exciting at the same time.” Praising the entire Harkins team “for sharing my passion and building an extraordinary operation,” he also thanks “countless distributors, filmmakers, exhibitors and vendors who contributed generously to this success.”

Most importantly, however, “I thank my family and friends for supporting me through the years. My two wonderful children, Danielle and James, are without a doubt my proudest achievement.” Harkins feels equally fortunate to have been “in a great position to contribute to the community over the last 40 years and help so many organizations that need it the most. I am now very gratified to look out at all we have achieved and all the lives we have been able to impact.”

Dan Harkins takes pride in carrying on his father’s legacy. As the oldest cinemas in the chain, both Valley Art and Camelview are continuing to bring art and foreign films to Arizona. (Built in 1973, Camelview 5 in Scottsdale is one of the top five art houses in the country today.) “Red opened both locations and they carry so much family history for me, and so many memories for longtime moviegoers. It’s pretty neat to be able to go back there at any time and relive the history. I am so very proud of keeping my dad’s memory alive. He inspired me with his innovative and entrepreneurial spirit which really set me on a track to become what I am today.” He also gives additional credit to fellow exhibitors like Steve Eisner who operated drive-in movie theatres in Arizona, and Charlie Funk, a theatre operator in the south. “Like Red, they were savvy and innovative and their showmanship was an integral part of their success.”

“Over the years,” Harkins concludes, “this industry has been wonderful to me and my family, and I only hope that I have been able to give back something that benefits our communities, families and future generations.”

The author thanks Melissa Rich and Bryan Laurel for their assistance. “Ultimate Moviegoing,” “Ultimate Rocker,” “PlayCenter” and “Cine Capri” are all registered trademarks of Harkins Theatres.