Landmark moment: Canadian circuit navigates massive triple growth
“We just spent millions of dollars to triple our size and become the second-largest theatre chain in Canada. Therefore, it would be safe to assume we are bullish on the cinema/movie industry.”
Neil Campbell, chief operating officer of Calgary-based Landmark Cinemas of Canada, is not only bullish about the theatrical exhibition business, his enthusiasm is contagious. “I think we are in as good a shape as we’ve ever been in,” he says about the popularity of today’s deluxe and premium auditoriums, “and probably have a better future than we’ve ever had.”
Since we last checked in with Campbell two years ago, his circuit has undergone a dramatic transformation, acquiring 20 locations with 179 screens in Western Canada and Ontario from Empire Theatres in the summer of 2013. And he’s just now catching his breath.
“We spent months getting ready for the transition date,” Campbell recalls. “We hired a transition expert from PwC. We worked closely with Empire and had a strategic Empire team from all major departments come to our head office and review every detail as to how they ran the circuit. All the planning in the world is never 100 percent; however, we were live a day early. I am comfortable in saying we were 97 percent accurate in our takeover.”
The public’s interest in the newly expanded circuit surprised him, though. “The thing we underestimated was the expansion of our webpage traffic. We had expanded it to handle three times the traffic, but that turned into nine times the traffic. So we had a week of scrambling to expand capacity and keep the webpage up. To assist in the transition and to expand our bench strength, we hired ten key Empire personnel to bring that expertise into Landmark. The cultural integration is still underway, but we were very familiar with each other as we were in a joint venture with Empire for a number of years. They had been a regional circuit in Atlantic Canada before their expansion and we were a Western Canadian circuit now doing the same expansion. We had more in common than differences. Our core values were the same. We hired Executive Business Solutions, a group of executive coaches who helped us up our game, because what we knew got us to where we were, not where we were going. All in all, we have developed a very dynamic team with a core value of being a unit, doing our best to give our guests great experiences and create great movie memories.”
Interestingly, both circuits had entirely converted to digital before the deal, but with different providers. “Landmark via our King Cinema Services was 100% done by April 2012,” Campbell recalls. “We are part of the Christie Integrator VPF program and the theatres are 100% Christie and GDC. Empire was through CDCP [Canadian Digital Cinema Partnership] integration and has Barco projectors and Doremi servers. Empire was 100% converted by March 2012.”
Campbell is an unqualified champion of d-cinema. “Being digital has opened new business opportunities across the industry,” he declares. “Firstly is the success of 3D, specifically in Canada. We were almost 100% satellite-equipped by Deluxe in the existing Landmark and are busy getting the whole circuit converted. Canada is a big geographic country and satellite offers us substantial savings over ground delivery. We are also expanding our conversion to the Broadsign [Cineplex Media] preshow program that runs over the Internet, allowing for advertisements to be sold and onscreen in the same day. This offers more flexibility and revenue possibilities. Another great opportunity is the additional income from alternative product. We all know that the Met Opera has been a real bonus.”
Landmark and Empire had also both joined the trend toward their own branded large-format screens before the acquisition. As Campbell explains, “The Empire-labeled big-screen alternative is called ‘Extra.’ They are equipped with bigger screens, leather seats, reserved seating, 7.1 digital sound, an all-round step up from a regular theatre experience. ‘Xtreme’ is Landmark’s branding for our own in-house large-screen experience. We have reserved seating, large leather seating, a 60-by-30-foot screen, Christie 4K projection, and the Barco Auro 11.1 sound system with over 50 speakers around the auditorium offering 13.1 distinct channels. Going forward, we will use both brands as we examine which will reflect the upgrades we do in the future, whether a new build or an upgrade.”
Calling himself a “strong believer” in the large-screen experience, Campbell enthuses, “Customers of all ages enjoy the comfort of the big armchair seats, the big screen and big, clear picture, which is beautiful in 3D. And they truly love the sound. The auditorium with this immersive sound system can be so quiet you can hear a pin drop in the exact right spot, along with the explosive sounds of an all-out clash of the Transformers. The sound is beside you, across the room, or circling overhead. Xtreme delivers a very unique, immersive moviegoing experience. When we say it is Xtreme, we mean it.”
Although his current 3D sound installations are Barco’s Auro 11.1, Campbell says he is open to using either Auro or rival Dolby Atmos. “We did not choose one over the other. When we were building, Barco’s Auro was ready to install on our schedule and they have an excellent product. As we move forward, we will be exploring all options to move our theatre chain into the new world of immersive sound. Both Barco and Dolby are strong competitors and choices.”
Along with a great presentation, Campbell knows that cultivating customer loyalty is a big part of the ongoing success of a theatre brand. He outlines some of Landmark’s initiatives: “We have a circuit-wide Facebook program, plus a Facebook page for each theatre to tell their local stories. We have established a guest-services position so that our customers can speak directly to us with bricks and bouquets. We are in the process of launching a mystery shopper program and a guest page to again allow our guests to voice their experiences in our locations.
“One of our core values is loyalty, from and to our employees and our guests. We are committed to building our programs around this key value. In the near future we will be launching a loyalty program. Canadians love loyalty programs and we do know how successful our competition has been in this field. It would be a mistake not to take advantage of this great marketing program.
“We also work very closely with the studios and our suppliers to have circuit-wide promotions of movies in our theatres. So far this year, we have run two major contests giving away trips to the New York premieres of major summer releases. We have given away trips to New Zealand for the last two Hobbit releases and will do so again this Christmas.”
Campbell emphasizes, “We are very committed to local promotion and showmanship. We strongly encourage our managers to get involved in their communities. At ShowCanada 2014, we will be presented with nine awards for being the best in the business.”
Beyond promotional savvy, Campbell believes the key to growth is giving the audience new amenities and enhancing the moviegoing experience. “When I’ve got guys my age telling me that they’re going to X number of movies a year, I say, ‘Really?’ ‘Oh yeah, we love it. My wife would drag me out. Now I pay attention to what’s going on and I’ll take her out.’ That’s music to my ears. The 12 to 40-year-olds are coming no matter what, that’s our audience. But we want to make sure we have growth happening all the way up to the far end.”
On top of Landmark’s own recent growth spurt, Campbell says the circuit is still “looking for key locations to build in and also opportunities to buy existing locations.”
Campbell scoffs at pundits who always forecast the end of moviegoing whenever a competing technology appears. “The business has been going out of business since I got into it,” he jokes. He cites Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara’s recent assessment that “theatrical can be a growth engine” as a positive sign for the future. “With the biggest studio growing its production schedule and being focused on the theatrical experience, we feel very confident that the industry will continue to grow, in attendance and box office.”
Neil Campbell entered the entertainment industry in 1974, working at Landmark’s Soo Theatre in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. He moved to Medicine Hat and then to Landmark's Edmonton head office to become an operations supervisor. In 1986, he left exhibition to join Cineplex's startup company in distribution, Cineplex Odeon Films in Calgary, Alberta. He was general manager for Western Canada until 1998, when he moved to Sony Releasing in Toronto. In 2001, Campbell returned to Calgary to take the position of COO with Landmark Cinemas. He and his partners bought the circuit in 2007.
“I’ve spent half my career in exhibition and half in distribution,” Campbell notes. “I can’t imagine being in any other business. We change what we do every seven days! A good friend of mine said, ‘I really don’t like you.’ I said, ‘Where did that come from?’ And he said, ‘Every day you go to work, you’re excited and you’re happy. You ought to try being an engineer!’
“When you think of how many people we entertain a year [at Landmark], ten million, that’s a big number” he enthuses. “We’re about making movie memories. Everybody can measure their life, and the mileposts are movies. Everybody knows where they were when they saw Jaws or Star Wars or Avatar or Titanic. If you have a spouse, you know the first movie you ever went to, or the first time you kissed—all those things are usually tied back to movies. To me, movies are the universal language, because the whole world watches the same movies. You can be sitting in Turkey and you start talking about Titanic or Avatar and you can have a conversation. Everybody knows them. And it’s our job to make sure we build as many great movie memories as we possibly can, because those are your touch points."