The Big Picture 

It's a Friday night at the Orlando Science Center, and there's not a school group in sight. Instead, the line is queued up for tickets to "Everest," the exhilarating 44-minute true tale of a climb and human crisis that is the record-breaker for all large-format films, having recently cracked the top 10 in weekly box office receipts despite playing on fewer than 50 screens across the country. Opened at the science center in March and booked at least through November, "Everest" is the feature that confirms big films' wide appeal -- and the simultaneous threat to educational institutions that have sponsored many such films and been their main outlet.

When Muvico Theaters opens its six-and-a-half story IMAX screen on International Drive this week, it will place Orlando among a handful of cities with more than one large-format film theater. But more to the point, the big screen is part of a 22-screen multiplex, highlighting the push into commercial venues by an industry that is quickly gearing up for the leap.

Traditionally financed by consortiums of museums and various scientific and educational foundations, IMAX-type films have long had a mandate to educate. If those films also happened to fall through the door of entertainment, well, from the institutional view, that's secondary.

But the industry is changing. And though the Toronto-based IMAX Corporation has had a virtual monopoly on the market it created starting with "Tiger Child," a National Film Board of Canada production for the Fuji Group's pavilion at the 1970 World's Fair in Osaka, others are entering the game with commercial profits in mind. Among these are traditional Hollywood-type exhibitors including Sony, Cinemark and Regal. Muvico's screen at Pointe Orlando represents the Fort Lauderdale-based company's first marriage of monster screen and megaplex. But more are on the way.

And now, more players are coming into the game. Filmmakers, long put off by the high production expense and slow return on investments largely due to a limited number of theaters worldwide capable of showing films shot in the revered 15-perf/70mm format, are finding new ears and new sources of funding.

But until more commercial theaters are built, it is still the institutions that fund the majority of 15/70 films. Hence the focus on edutainment, with typical subject matter of geography, science, animals and human achievement. Sure, a few oddball entries such as the 90-minute concert film "Rolling Stones at the MAX" have managed to find their way onto the big screen. But money talks.

The industry relies on just 160 IMAX theatres worldwide, with only 75 of those in this country (based on the IMAX Corporations' report for first quarter '98). That's peanuts compared to the usual thousand-screen rollouts that await each new Hollywood flick-of-the-week.

This relative lack of screens is creating a tug-of-war between the institutions' call for education and commercial theaters' demand for entertainment. Once a subtle topic, vocal industry leaders are now pushing it into the open.

Representing the institutional market, Jeffrey Kirsch, president of the industry's professional association, the International Space Theater Consortium (ISTC), lays it on the line in the Spring '98 edition of the ISTC quarterly: ". . . [I]t is clear that the surge of commercial theaters is perturbing the relatively serene waters upon which the cultural institutions' theaters have floated . . . In this type of milieu, the [ISTC] has an important role to play, and that is . . . to foster the success of film projects being developed for the educational market."

A splinter group, the Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA), is more aligned with the entertainment side of the industry, where commercial exhibitors feel the future of the industry lies. But because the industry is in its infancy, both share many of the same members and sponsors.

To encourage the growth of commercial theaters -- and boost film production to expand the small inventory of existing large-format films -- the LFCA asserts that IMAX and 15/70 need not be the only way to go. The association is just as eager to work with the competing IWERKS Entertainment's systems, whose antitrust allegations against IMAX were dismissed in federal district court this year just weeks after the company's founder, Don Iwerks, received a technical Oscar for lifetime achievement. Iwerks is recognized for his role in creating visual and technical specialties for Disney, including "Star Tours" and the "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" attractions. (The Orlando Science Centers uses an IWERKS projector, although it can show both IMAX and IWERKS films.)

At the mercy of both camps are the filmmakers who, following the record-breaking "Everest," have reason to be optimistic. Two-time Emmy Award winner Steve Judson of MacGillivray Freeman Films, who co-wrote, co-produced, and edited "Everest," thinks the whole question is "more than an either/or thing. You can have a film that is doing both educating and entertaining simultaneously. That's the kind of math I try to apply.

"Also, the type of education that theaters are looking for has changed. Six or eight years ago there was more emphasis on making information-driven films. Now, we are increasingly realizing that what the large-format films do well is to inspire people and fire the imagination. Get them enthused about a subject. Then after the lights go up, teachers can (build on) that spark."

Goulam Amarsy, executive producer for the Montreal-based Stephen Low Company, agrees that balance is the key. "Let's not forget our mandate. There is no way out of it. IMAX films need to be very educational with a story, because children want to be educated. Our film ‘Super Speedway' (which takes the viewer onto the track with champion driver Mario Andretti) is a good example," he says. "You can't covey education in the old 1970s documentary form anymore. That is finished. Gone."

Interestingly, "Super Speedway" is one of two films that will open Muvico's IMAX screen; the other, "Into the Deep," is an underwater experience that is essentially a 3D version of "The Living Sea," which already has played the science center (and which does not have the ability to show 3D films). Might Muvico and the science center show the same features? "That's not out of the question," says Randi Emerman, Muvico's director of marketing.

But its educational goal means that there are films the science center won't show. "What we're looking at doing is bringing the best films in for our audience that will both meet the community needs and the needs of our science center mission, and also the school system," says Scott Niskach, the center's vice president of CineDome, its large-screen theater. A team of three teachers typically work with the center to shape educational packages that will turn IMAX film experiences into classroom lessons.

Given the nature of their institutional funding, the films often arrive with those lesson plans intact. Muvico will have access to the same material, and will to use it to attract student groups as well, says Emerman. But the science center is going a step further to help underwrite new films, and through the Museum Film Network currently is partnered with MacGillivray Freemen Films for an upcoming project on dolphins.

"We integrate the film with all aspects of our operation," from workshops to youth camp-ins to merit-badge lessons, says the science center's Mary Sellers; the goal with the films is "to make people learn science without really knowing they're learning."

Judson says one of the best ways for filmmakers to achieve both goals is through visual storytelling, as evidenced in director Ben Stassen's "Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun," a documentary from Sony Pictures Classics that traces the history and technology of rollercoasters. "There is a wonderful little scene in ‘Thrill Ride' that deconstructs the use of CGI [computer-generated imagery] with a chrome model. You are just sitting there being entertained and suddenly you get a sense of, ‘gee, this is how rollercoasters work.' It's a small joy that doesn't need narration. . . .

"This approach brings a good blend of education and entertainment," he says. "We don't want the audience saying, ‘Oh, this is the fun part.' And, ‘Oooops. Here's the lesson.'"

But "Thrill Ride" producer Charlotte Huggins makes no attempt to disguise motives. "We set out to make ‘Thrill Ride' as a crossover film," she says.

Freda Nicholson, C.E.O. of Discovery Place Omnimax Dome in Charlotte, N.C., who also chairs the ISTC, is, however, careful to point out that "Thrill Ride" would not be appropriate for a school audience. "It's not easy for institutional theaters to use these crossover films. We have an educational mission, and to show a film in our daily time slot, it has to have a strong educational base."

But she agrees that building theatres in non-traditional facilities may be the wave of the future. And she and others welcome the demand that such a boom would create.

"What we need is more product," says Richard Van Zandt, director of the Omni Theatre at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and head of the ISTC's new films committee. "I'm sure as soon as there are more theatres, then the filmmakers can get a decent return on their films. That's been the problem; when you have only 75 theatres [in this country] ,you end up running films for six months at a time. We ran ‘The Living Sea' by itself for a year."

The new commercial phase began in December 1996 with a 3D IMAX theater in Las Vegas. Currently, Sony Theaters, whose Manhattan location was the first 3D IMAX theater in this country, is set to open new theaters in San Francisco this year and in Berlin by 2000. Regal Cinemas has signed with IMAX for 10 screens. California-based Edwards Theatres has committed to at least a dozen IMAX at its megaplexes. Dallas' Cinemark will build 12. The Canadian cinema circuit Famous Players is in for another 12. And a host of European exhibitors are launching a similar attack.

Those theaters mean increased competition on an increasingly narrower turf. In Fort Worth the Omni Theater is feeling the pinch of a new dome theater just 30 miles away in Dallas. And Orlando now joins cities including Vancouver and Las Vegas that are each home to two large-format screens. (In everyone's assessment, the two screens at Kennedy Space Center have their own narrow niche and don't affect the shifting market in town.)

Neither side will admit to concerns about competition. "Their audiences are going to be there for one reason, and our audiences are going to be here for another reason," Ken Larson, the chief IMAX projectionist for Muvico's Pointe 21 Theatres, says of the science center.

Whatever happens, film production clearly is on the rise. The one film that exhibitors in both the institutional and commercial worlds are excited about is "T-Rex," from "Lawnmover Man" and "Virtuosity" director Bret Leonard. Starring "thirtysomething's" Peter Horton, "T-Rex" follows a 16-year-old girl as she is whisked back to the Cretaceous Period. The odds-on bet to burn up the box office "Everest"-style, "T-Rex" opens in New York and Los Angeles in the fall.

Right behind, in various stages of production, are a host of other large-format films that will take viewers from gold fever in the Yukon, to a search for treasure sunk in the deep sea, from the adventures of an animated dinosaur named Stanley D, to stories of super trains and the legacy of Mark Twain. The most hush-hush project is Paramount Pictures' "Star Trek," on which no information is available.

The science center won exclusive rights to "Everest," which it is marketing at the same time as a hands-on "Star Trek" exhibit. Should a large-format "Star Trek" become available, would they try the same? "I don't think we would want to get into a bidding war," says Niskach. "A film with that popularity could be supported by two theaters."

Picking the Hits: A Preview of Large Format Films

by Randy Matin

Thought Godzilla was big? Ha! Something much much bigger is coming to an IMAX theater near you soon. Watch out! Here comes T-Rex in 3D.

Right behind Rex, in various stages of production, are a host of other large format films, some with the music Moody Blues or "Star Wars" composer John Williams, and others with the participation of oceanic explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau or Frank Marshall the Academy Award nominated producer of "Jurassic Park."

Along with new films from established directors of the genre: Stephen Low, Kieth Merrill, Greg Mac Gillivary and Ben Stassen, are films that will take viewers from gold fever in the Yukon, to a search for treasure sunk in the deep sea, from the adventures of an animated Dinosaur named Stanley D, to stories of super trains and the legacy of Mark Twain. Here's a look at what's to come.

Now playing

"Africa's Elephant Kingdom": Discovery Channel Pictures kicked off its first large format endeavor with "Elephants" in May. The film wins viewers sympathies by showing the intelligence and human like community values these kings of the tundra possess. Cute animals amuse while subwoofer rattling charges scenes are as exciting as a good old Hollywood car chase. Discovery will follow with "Wildfire."

"The Greatest Places": From the Science Museum of Minnesota ("Ring of Fire"/"Topical Rainforest") comes a large-format film that attempts to capture the diversity of our planet with a look at seven landscapes from tundra to tropic. The film had its world premier Feb 14 in St. Paul.

Due soon

"Supertrain/ Mark Twain": From the genre's most accomplished storyteller, Stephen Low ("Titanica"/'Super Speedway") comes "Mark Twain's America" in 3D, due for release July 2 through Sony Pictures Classics. The Ken Burns-style production uses archival photos, period music and battle scenes to review Twain's life. Also in the works is "Supertrain," a 3D. The project profiles the human story behind the ways that trains have shaped daily life. A Feb. '99 completion date is hoped for.

"T-Rex": The one film that exhibitors in both the institutional and commercial worlds are excited about is 'T-Rex' from Lawnmower Man/Virtuosity director Bret Leonard. Starring "Thirtysomething's" Peter Horton, T-Rex follows a 16-year-old girl as she is whisked back to the Cretaceous Period. The odds on bet to burn up the box office "Everest" style, "T-Rex" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 9.

"Mysteries of Egypt": In brief preview clips this film looked among the most promising. From Destination Cinema/National Geographic Films and directed by the Emmy award-winning Bruce Neibaur, "Mysteries of Egypt" follows scientists studying ancient culture. The film includes a journey down the Nile and explores the construction of the pyramids. Omar Sharif and Kate Maberly star. Look for a release in the fall.

"Encounter in 3rd Dimension": From Ben Stassen ("Thrill Ride"), the most promising new large-format director, comes a new film featuring Elvira and some mind boggling CGI. Look for release later this year from N Wave. Meanwhile Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video has just announced the release of "Thrill Ride" on video.

"Wolves": Three films are on the books for "Whales" producer Chris Palmer. First up is "Wolves," presented by the National Wildlife Foundation. Expected in December, Palmer says the film "shows the amazing complexity of the family life of a pack of wolves. A film called "Water" is fully funded with its premier scheduled for fall of '99 followed by an IMAX film on bears. Palmer will also be involved with the MacGillivray Freeman project "Dolphins."

Due in 1999

"Olympic Gold/ Truk Lagoon": Coming in January '99 is the latest from "Amazon" director Kieth Merrill. Shot in Nagano the film is now in the editing stages. With Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy producing, "Olympic Glory" is the first large-format film devoted exclusively to the Olympics. Also from Mega Systems and due in early 2000 is "Truk Lagoon." The film follows famed diver/oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau into Truk Lagoon where the United States sunk over 60 submarines, battleships and aircraft carriers in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. Now a diving Mecca, an amazing array of marine life has formed on top of the wreckage. Also involved in the exhibition end of the business, Mega Systems is shooting for a spring '99 debut of its 8/70 theater in the barrel room of the 128-year-old Grossinger Winery in Yountville, Calif., with partner Magnum Cinema. A signature destination film "Vintage California" is about to go into production, for that theater, focusing on California history from 1830-1880. The company expects completion in the Y2K.

"Gold Fever": Expecting an early '99 release, this film produced by Science North in Sudbury, Ontario, and, shot in the Yukon, tells the story of gold through the eyes of a prospector. Includes mining, the work of goldsmiths and hi-tech uses of gold in computers, avionics and the space program.

"Yosemite": Look for a fall '99 release of "Yosemite" from director Soames Summerhays. The audience will experience the joy the changing of seasons seen through the eyes of the early explorers and Yosemite wildlife," says Summerhays. "It's a film of adventure that soars on the wings of eagles between Yosemite's magnificent granite domes, it will cross the entertainment/educational barrier." Summerhays, who releases his own work through Summerhays Films, Inc. is also working on "Realm of the Desert Whales," a film about Baja California and the Sea of Cortez. Due in spring 2000. The film explores the diversity and richness of life that spans the peninsula.

"Migrations": This third film from Houston Museum of Natural Science ("Africa The Serengeti" and "Alaska) is a 2D-project. Set for release in summer 1999, it will attempt to capture the journey of survival as elephants, zebras, wildebeests, butterflies and whales cross challenging terrain. Five time Academy Award nominee George Casey ("Alaska: Spirit of the Wild") will direct.

"Caves/Dolphins": From MacGillivray Freeman films who brought you "Everest" comes a new spelunking adventure, "Caves," set for release in October '99. Also in the works are "Dolphins," directed by Greg MacGillivray and Steve Judson, for February 2000, and "Caribbean," "Dinosaurs," "Australia" and "Space Journey," all spread over the next several years.

"Going For The Gold": Producer Hans Kummer of Wild Child Entertainment whose background is in underwater photography, is working on a project that pairs the U.S. Bobsledding team with NASCAR drivers Geoff and Todd Bodine. With the help of the drivers, and IBM, and others, a new, high-tech bobsled is designed and built. The film explores the similarities between bobsledding and NASCAR racing, considering technology, training and the personalities of the athletes. Included, too, is a look at the Women's Bobsled Team, a sport that will likely be added for the 2002 Olympic. Wild Child also has a bobsled simulator ride called "R.O.C.K." (racing on the cutting edge). And the company is readying another IMAX film, "Deep," with music by the Moody Blues.

Coming in the Y 2K

"Volcano Lost City of Pompeii": From the producers of "Special Effects" (NOVA/WGB) comes three new projects: "Volcano Lost City of Pompeii" described as "a detective story about the science of volcanology and archeology and the history of Pompeii." Also, principal photography has begun on "Cocoa: Island of the Shark," filmed at a remote island with a unique ecco system and the highest number of shark species anywhere on Earth. Another project here is "Invisible Worlds," which is all about bugs. With all three projects due in 2K, NOVA/WGB's Kelley Tyler says, "It's a millennium kind of a thing."

"I-52": Investors and adventurers are still being sought by Cape Verde Explorations to go join the crew on mission to salvage two tons of gold from a sunken Japanese spy sub: I-52, lying in deep water off the coast of the Barbados, since WWII. Kieth Merrill will direct as diving crews bring the treasure on board.

On the drawing board

"The Adventures of Stanley 'D'": A unique animation project, this film is planned as the first of a trilogy that follows the coming-of-age story of a young sauropad named Stan. A proposed part two would detail romance and mating and, according to producer Daniel White of Big Films Inc., "the third story is of self-actualizations done with 3D soft-image computer animation." White has six minutes completed and is looking for an additional $200,000 in completion funds."

"L'Arte Vetraria"/The Art of Glassmaking": Carlo Secchiaroli keygrip on "Titanica" and "Super Speedway" steps up to the producer's seat for a passionate and artsy documentary on Italian glassblowing. His Montreal-based One Nation Entertainment is pursuing funds to begin shooting this Christmas. "Watching the craftsmen work at L'Arte Vetraria," Secchiaroli says, "is like watching a ballet.

"Fireworks": Still on the drawing board is L.T. B. (Love the Business) Productions "Fireworks." A 3-5 minute version will be shot first on video with hopes of raising funds to complete the proposed 40-minute IMAX project. The company is also putting a proposal for "Romancing The Train" back on the table.

"Children of the Glacier: a Great Lakes Odyssey": A chronologically told tale will include the expected topics of wildlife, industry and the region's 3,700 shipwrecks. Overeager sales reps were promising everything from pie-in-the-sky effects to stuffed animals.

"Goin' Sonic": "Special Effects" director Ben Burtt's next effort, "Goin' Sonic," from producer Laurel Ladevich's Silverlining Productions, is looking for additional funding. In the film, "Star Wars" composer John Williams will demonstrate how sound affects daily life and will examine the origins of modern symphonic instruments. The company is also preparing the 3D title "Racing The Dream" and "Women With Wings" about women in aviation.

"Power of the Planet: the Story of Energy": From "Cosmic Voyage" director, Bailey Sellick comes the story of energy. The film will detail fossil fuels and wind and solar research. With a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the producers promise "Computer graphics where you are an electron. You are fired around, transformed, rectified and go through a trolley car. If you saw the (Disney film starring Kurt Russell) 'Tron' this is like 'Tron' a generation later." Completion of the film, with a hoped for release in December '99 is, of course, based on funding.


More by Randy Matin


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