Harkins Camelview 5: An Obituary
When I was 16, a movie called Bend it Like Beckham somehow ended up on my radar. The film was getting positive buzz and so my friend and I decided to seek it out. In doing so, we discovered only one theatre anywhere near us playing it: Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Even though I hadn't spent much time in Scottsdale to that point, I had actually heard of the theatre as I recalled they were also the only ones showing Bowling for Columbine when I was interested in seeing that (though I wasn't old enough yet since it was rated R). Soon I would learn that Camelview was what many referred to as an "arthouse," playing smaller, independent and foreign films. Having really only been familiar with the mainstream blockbusters that populated the local cinema, it had never even really occurred to me that independent films would be a thing.
By this point, I actually worked at a "regular" movie theatre owned by the same company and had employee passes allowing me to see films for free. With the in mind, my friend Mic and I ventured up to Scottsdale one afternoon after school to see Bend it Like Beckham as well as Lawless Heart — another film playing there that we chose pretty much at random. Incidentally, while Beckham was playing in the large, 450 seat theatre, Lawless Heart was in the smallest movie auditorium I had ever been in, seating just over 50 people. On top of that, the decor of the theatre was undeniably 70's, from the reflective, sloped ceiling to the now-famous "mushrooms" that provided shade out front. While some might say this made the theatre look outdated, I thought it gave it charm and alerted guests that they were in for a different kind of movie-going experience.
Looking back, it's funny to think that my jump into independent cinema started with a film as primed for mainstream as Bend it Like Beckham, but it actually speaks to growth indie film has experienced over the past 10+ years that I observed first hand. After several more trips up to Camelview where we were met with near-empty auditoriums, we finally got to see how busy the theatre could get when we went to see the Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Suddenly that massive 450 seater didn't feel as big.
The more I fell in love with Camelview and the product it showed, the more I started to despise the films that I regularly sold tickets to. However, sometimes the films I saw at Camelview on opening weekend would eventually make their way down to my theatre... which only managed to upset me more. I vividly remember excitedly synopsizing American Splendor to a couple who, in turn, looked at me befuddled before purchasing tickets to Scary Movie 3 instead. In fact, many of the great indie films that went wide floundered with single digit sales down at my home theatre.
Eventually, I quit my job at the theatre in hopes of doing something different. Instead, I ended up applying to Camelview less than four months later. During my interview, the manager questioned why I'd want to drive all the way up from Chandler just to work at another theatre, but I assured her it was worth it.
My first week working at Camelview was one of the slowest I've ever experienced. They even brought over two mainstream films (The Ladykillers and Godsend) presumably to try to bring in some business. It was so dead that the one concessionist running the stand spent most of the night reading a book.
That's when I learned that Camelview is either the deadest house in town or the busiest — it all had to do with the films they were showing and the reviews those films received. I did find it somewhat funny that the critic for The Arizona Republic could make or break a movie's run in the market, but that seemed to be how it went. However, over the years, more and more independent films would hit (and, eventually, take over the Oscars) making the theatre a destination for many and a complaint for others ("why do all these films only show in Scottsdale?!")
To make a long story slightly shorter, I worked as a Team Member, Team Leader, Assistant Manager, and finally a Senior Manager at Camelview. As a Team Member, I'd take delight in decorating the box office mylars — something that only a handful of theatres still had, most replacing theirs with digital signs — and as a manager I got to build the films up from their individual reels onto a platter for easier projecting. The latter task meant I also got to screen the films that would grow to be some of my favorites: Me and You and Everyone We Know, In Bruges, Garden State, Once, The Squid and the Whale, etc.
One of the more trying times of each year was building over 20 films for the Scottsdale International Film Festival that was being held at Camelview at the time. While most of the studio film came in nice, metal cans and on standard reels, many of the festival prints arrived in boxes and on different, European-style reels. Worse still, some would have no cores at all — just film wrapped around film. Still, I have to admit it was fun watching two movies at a time in our wide-glassed projection booth and inventing new ways to facilitate getting the films together.
What was also interesting was seeing how the staff took to the unique films that Camelview showed. When I was first hired there, the theatre shared a General Manager with the mainstream multiplex inside the mall (literally) across the street. While doing interviews, the managers could often tell whether an employee should be at Camelview or Fashion Square based on their sensibility. Eventually, the two theatres were split, with a each getting a (usually green) General Manager.
Most of the time, those hired on — including the new GMs — would have little to no familiarity with the films that played at Camelview. However, within a few weeks, they would learn to love the quirky and strange pictures that came through the door. After all, chatting with the patrons about film was practically part of the job description there.
My knowledge and passion for the Camelview product is mostly the reason the I was able to stay at the theatre for as long as I did. In most cases, Assistant Managers being promoted to Senior Manager would transfer to another location. However, an exception was made in my case thanks to my District Manager who knew how I felt about the place.
With only five concession registers, two box office lines, and one dumpster, there were times that Camelview (and I) got slammed with business. Brokeback Mountain. Little Miss Sunshine. Juno. All were massive hits and all played exclusively at our tiny theatre for a minimum of two weeks before expanding anywhere else in the Valley. Many times it was a struggle placing the films in the correct-sized auditoriums as nearly all of them were nominated for awards. Plus you could almost guarantee you'd hear complaints about #5 (the 55 seat theatre) no matter what you played in there.
I don't think anyone at the corporate office ever believed I'd ever want to leave Camelview, but I eventually did in 2008. As much as I loved it, I decided I wanted to try to work my way up in the company, which eventually brought me all the way out to California. The last time I got to visit the theatre was almost exactly two years ago when I was invited out to the company holiday party to celebrate my 10 years of service (when you subtract a couple of breaks). I was delighted to show my coworkers and my wife all the cool secrets I knew about the place, including some even the manager on duty had no idea about.
Next month I'll be turning 30 and so, naturally, I've been thinking a lot about my teenage years and the events that made me who I am today. I can honestly say that a lot of my path can be attributed to Harkins Camelview 5. Not only was it my occupation for many years, but it was also an education. In addition to helping define my taste in film and humor, the films I saw at Camelview inspired me to think creatively and tell stories in a way I didn't know they could be told. I love the theatre more than I think many people can probably realize or understand and it breaks my heart that I can't be there to say "goodbye."
R.I.P. Camelview (AKA 'Cinema 7')
Thanks for everything.