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Belle Of the Mall

Payday? Museum Might Look Like a Million Bucks

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

When "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" opens today, some of the artifacts that come to life will be very familiar (Oscar the Grouch, the giant squid), while other landmarks and props (Rodin's "The Thinker," which technically resides in Paris and doesn't speak with the voice of Hank Azaria) are entirely Hollywood fantasy.

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And that's all right with the Smithsonian, which has its name on the marquee -- and on a few large checks.

The Smithsonian's deal with Twentieth Century Fox includes a licensing fee, location fees for four days of filming and payments if the film reaches certain benchmarks at the box office, according to museum officials. If the film makes as much as 2006's "Night at the Museum," the deal could add up to $1.25 million before any merchandising.

The movie marks the first time a commercial studio has been allowed to film inside the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall, or any of the Smithsonian's museums.

The PG-rated action comedy stars Ben Stiller, Azaria, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson and Robin Williams and follows a former security guard trying to rescue his museum "friends" after a transfer from New York to Washington.

"Battle of the Smithsonian's" journey to the Smithsonian began in September 2007, when Shawn Levy, director-producer of both "Museum" films, toured Air and Space and sat down with the communications staff to talk about the idea. In October 2007, the communications team read the script -- working title then: "Escape From the Smithsonian" -- signed a confidentiality agreement and sent a proposal to then-acting Smithsonian Secretary Cristián Samper.

The Smithsonian tested the idea with its congressional chairmen, the governing board of regents and several curators. Smithsonian leadership talked to officials at the National Archives, which received more visitors after its exterior was featured in the 2004 Nicolas Cage movie "National Treasure," and also the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the setting for the first "Night at the Museum."

The Smithsonian powers were aware of the first Ben Stiller adventure's success; the New York museum hosted 20 percent more visitors after the movie's release. "We didn't do any formal analysis but we estimated 50,000 visitors came, prompted by seeing the movie," said Steve Reichl, the senior director of media relations for the museum. The company was allowed to film the exterior of the museum; the interior work was re-created on a sound stage in Vancouver.

The first film took in $574.5 million worldwide and $250.9 million domestically. Seeing that as a valuable lesson in economics in the current dismal fundraising climate, the Smithsonian didn't hang up when it got the call from the Fox operatives last year. "We thought it was a good idea, even though there was some resistance," said Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, the National Air and Space Museum's director. "There was concern because this was the first time the Smithsonian was ever used in a movie. The name is our most important possession."

Levy said the Smithsonian's questions were understandable. "They wanted to see the script. They wanted us to treat the Smithsonian with respect. But they also wanted it done with wit and humor. They had an instinct not to want the treatment to be overly reverential."

Both organizations say the negotiations were smooth.

"We are babes in the woods when it comes to negotiations in that environment. They treated us fairly and it came out where we will all benefit," Dailey said.


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