Southwest success story: Harkins Theatres marks 80 years of achievement


Great enterprises often have humble beginnings, but few can match the story of Harkins Theatres. A company that began with a restless 18-year-old’s acquisition of a shuttered movie theatre in Tempe, Arizona, in 1933 has grown over the course of eight decades into the seventh-largest theatre chain in America (the fifth when measured by box office).

The first half of the Harkins Theatres saga belongs to Dwight “Red” Harkins, teenage inventor, bandleader, engineer and entrepreneur. Red successfully operated that first theatre, the State, throughout the Depression, and opened a second nearby location, the College Theatre, in 1940. He also invented FM multiplex, a system enabling stereo broadcasting on both television and radio, and launched the first FM station and second TV station in Arizona.

In 1973, Red Harkins opened his fifth theatre, the two-screen Camelview in Scottsdale. One year later, he died of emphysema. His son Dan, who was already working as the chain's general manager, left his pre-law studies at Arizona State University at the age of 21 to run the family business.

Dan Harkins has fond recollections of his father. “I was literally ‘born’ into this business. My father and mother lived in an apartment behind the projection booth at the College Theatre, which is now the Valley Art. I remember how hard my father worked at achieving his goal in life, which was to bring happiness to the most people. I can’t think of another career I would rather be doing. My love of the entertainment industry was nurtured by my father. I am proud to honor his legacy by continuing to bring the ultimate moviegoing experience to moviegoers, and like my father I love creating state-of-the-art entertainment venues that exceed moviegoer expectations.

“My father taught me the meaning of showmanship,” Dan adds. “He taught me that showmanship means much more than it sounds. To my father, showmanship meant you were a good marketer, a good leader and a good citizen. Being a good showman meant operating with high integrity and giving back to the communities we serve.”

When Dan Harkins took the reins of the circuit, it was in dire financial shape. But the son benefitted from the goodwill Red had accrued. As Dan recounted in this magazine ten years ago, “Our vendors and creditors and the media all worked with us because they knew my dad. It was a nice community feeling: 'Hey, let's help Dan—his dad died young and he wants to make a go of it.'"

In 1977, Harkins took the bold step of filing an antitrust suit alleging that the national theatre chains and major studios were effectively denying his circuit access to top films. The case was finally settled in 1991, when Harkins received an out-of-court settlement that afforded Dan’s theatres an equal opportunity to license first-run films. From that point on, the chain grew substantially, building deluxe new complexes and acquiring 41 screens from Mann Theatres and 21 from General Cinema. By 1997, Harkins had entered the megaplex era, opening such huge venues as the Superstition Springs 25 in Mesa and the Arizona Mills 24 in Tempe.

One of Harkins’ major initiatives in the 2000s was the launch of the circuit’s exclusive “Cine Capri” brand. The original Cine Capri opened in Phoenix in March 1966 with a single extra-wide screen and “was a beloved landmark,” as Dan Harkins told FJI’s Andreas Fuchs last fall when he won ShowEast’s annual Show ‘E’ Award for excellence. The original was torn down to make room for high-rise office buildings, despite a vigorous petition campaign garnering over 275,000 signatures. “The Cine Capri is an integral part of our history and, in turn, our branding,” Harkins declared. “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 premium auditorium has been introduced in “all of our markets as the place to see blockbuster movies,” according to Harkins. “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, crisp, pristine digital sound, comfortable ‘Ultimate Rocker’ rocking-chair loveseats, combined with the luxury of gold waterfall drapes, our Cine Capri is an experience that just can’t be replicated.”

The 2000s also marked the arrival of the digital revolution. “Digital technology has created efficiencies and has opened the door for new content,” Harkins observes. “Certainly the consistent quality of the presentation throughout the run of the film has been its biggest impact. When I would visit a megaplex, I would check every screen to ensure the print was in perfect condition, and now digital cinema has put me out of a job!”

Digital projection also offers the promise of new programming options. “We are passionate about independent film, so we support film festivals and alternative content,” Harkins states. “By offering a variety of programs, we entertain a greater population. Alternative content is in its infancy and we are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.”

Today, Harkins Theatres has 30 locations totaling 428 screens in five states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. The circuit just announced the acquisition of the Tower Theatres at Arizona Pavilions in Marana, Arizona, which will be upgraded, renamed the Arizona Pavilions 12, and reopened on May 2 in time for the debut of Iron Man 3. Harkins also revealed plans to build the Queen Creek Marketplace 14 megaplex in Queen Creek, Arizona, for a late 2014 debut.

“We are constantly evaluating new opportunities to organically grow the Harkins brand throughout the western U.S.,” Harkins states. “We expect to open one or two theatres each year. It’s exciting to introduce more moviegoers to our ‘Ultimate Moviegoing’ experience... Our services and amenities will continue to evolve with the changing environment, fulfill the desires of moviegoers, and make us the venue of choice. We are excited about the innovative ways we can continue to improve the experience.”

In Dan Harkins’ view, what are the highlights of his circuit’s remarkable 80-year journey? “Certainly my father opening his first theatre, the State Theatre, in 1933 was most significant because it symbolized his dream come true and it was the beginning of Harkins Theatres. Another significant moment was my run of Disney’s Fantasia. The film had already run in Phoenix multiple times, but my promotions and marketing campaign for the film tripled the prior highest gross in a single week. Another notable moment was my post-theatrical run of Star Wars at the original Cine Capri that set an all-time record for the highest weekly box-office gross of a post-theatrical run (and 21 years later it still holds the all-time record). Some other notable moments include my acquisition of General Cinema Theatres and Mann theatres in Phoenix, the rebirth of the Cine Capri, and Tempe Marketplace winning the world premiere of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”

Harkins elaborates on that last coup: “In 2009, Twentieth Century Fox held an online voting contest where U.S. cities competed to host the premiere of Wolverine. Over 3,000 cities competed and Tempe was the winning city! With the wonderful support of loyal moviegoers and amazing efforts from the Harkins team, we won the contest and privilege to host the premiere. On April 27, 2009, the Harkins Tempe Marketplace hosted Hugh Jackman, along with other cast members Ryan Reynolds, Liev Schreiber,, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins and director Gavin Hood, along with over 10,000 fans. It was a great day that I know many of us will never forget.”

While a premiere with major movie stars is a rare occasion, Harkins Theatres makes a point of delivering customer amenities on a daily basis. “We focus most on our guests and the experience they enjoy when they visit a Harkins theatre,” circuit president Mike Bowers attests. “We know we are entertaining our family and friends and we take that responsibility very seriously. We promote guest services through our passion for the moviegoing experience and by doing everything with honesty and integrity.”

Parents especially appreciate Harkins Theatres’ innovative “PlayCenters,” where children three to eight years old are entertained while parents watch a movie. “We opened the first location in Chandler, Arizona, more than a decade ago,” Bowers recalls. “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.”

Like many circuits, Harkins Theatres encourages loyal customers. Created nearly 25 years ago, the Harkins Loyalty Cup and T-shirt program rewards moviegoers with $1.50 soft-drink refills every time they bring their Loyalty Cup to the movies, and a free medium popcorn every time they wear their Loyalty T-shirt to the movies.

Contemplating the next 80 years, Dan Harkins says, “We are very bullish about the future of the exhibition industry. Like any industry, we have faced a number of challenges, but people love being entertained at the movies. However, unlike other industries, we continue to flourish in spite of formidable competition. As long as there are creative new stories being told, there will be a future for our business. Over the years we’ve had the pleasure of getting to know our moviegoers and they tell us they attend our theatres for a variety of reasons—the chance to escape and be entertained, being a part of a community or just being social with friends and loved ones. So as long as exhibitors can make it the best value for your entertainment dollar, the exhibition world will remain solid and grow.”