Greg MacGillivray, a director, is chairman of MacGillivray Freeman, the leading producer and distributor of giant-screen movies.
In an increasingly noisy and distracted world, it is often hard to capture people’s attention for more than a few minutes. A casualty of our distracted age is our broken connection with the natural world and all its wonders.
And yet, it is technology that helps bridge that gap through the power of film. Not just any film — Imax film, in all its sweeping 70-millimeter grandeur. One Imax screen in particular now needs to be protected from demolition.
Unless something changes, on Oct. 1, the iconic Samuel C. Johnson Imax Theater at the National Museum of Natural History will go dark. The Smithsonian Institution is tearing it down to make way for an expanded cafeteria. I have tremendous respect for the Smithsonian, but this decision of fast food over documentary nature films is a disservice to the public and to the educational mission of this 171-year-old institution.
This theater is the country’s premier venue for those without the luxury and means to travel the world to experience the grandeur of nature. It is the only theater in the nation’s capital dedicated to showing Imax films about nature, from the depths of the oceans to the harshest deserts, from the top of Mount Everest to the lush Amazon rain forests.
I know a bit about the power of Imax films. I had the honor of producing “To Fly,” the 1976 Imax film that introduced an entire generation of moviegoers to the six-story screens of this incredible, large-as-life format. Since then, I’ve produced some three dozen documentary nature films in Imax, including “The Living Sea,” “Everest” and “National Parks Adventure.” My company’s body of work has grossed more than $1 billion in box-office sales around the world, about 80 percent of which goes to the museums and science centers where these films play. I have shot more Imax 70-millimeter film than any cinematographer in history.
Before the wrecking balls start swinging, I urge the museum and its supporters to think about what we are about to lose.
The Johnson Imax Theater sees hundreds of thousands of people through its doors every year, tens of thousands of them schoolchildren with discounted tickets. They come to the museum, run past the massive elephant in the foyer on their way to other exhibits, stop by the giant squid for a brief moment to gasp in wonder and walk through the skeletons of dinosaurs. These are memorable but brief experiences.
And then they go to the Imax theater. Here, for 45 minutes, they are immersed in a single topic. They fly above Yellowstone, explore the singular beauty of our world, and meet scientists and explorers who are driven by the need to explain it. Do we really think cheeseburgers and fries are more important to the mission of one of the most iconic museums in the United States?
I don’t. Our world has so many challenges facing it right now. Climate change that will force populations to move in record numbers. Dwindling natural resources for the 7.5 billion people on our planet, double the population when I picked up my first camera to shoot black-and-white surfing films in California 50 years ago.
Our children are the ones who will be faced with solving the most complex problems in human history. If they are to do that, they need to be inspired by what they are fighting to save.
The Smithsonian is the standard by which other museums are measured. The educational and behavioral power of Smithsonian exhibits is magnified by the Imax experience. These films evoke change in those who see them. Food court revenue may be attractive on paper, but the true cost appears to be lost in the equation. Are the exhibits valued for the revenue generated or for the value they bring to the public? The Imax experience creates value and revenue. These films inspire change, create wonder and encourage children to pursue science careers, care for our world and expand their minds.
The Smithsonian should open the discussion to a public dialogue. There has to be a better way to increase space for concessions at the museum without losing this powerful tool for learning and moving hearts and minds.