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From Canyon To Cove: Hollywood discovers documentary filmmaker

After nearly 50 years of toiling in relative obscurity, Laguna Beach documentary filmmaker Greg MacGillivray has finally gotten Hollywood's attention — big time.

After MacGillivray Freeman Films announced it had crossed the $1 billion mark in terms of box office ticket sales, Daily Variety published a special section devoted entirely to the firm.

Money talks, but in Tinseltown it screams, especially in a recession.

"These giant screen labors of love may not have made MacGillivray a household name, but over the past four decades, they've entertained and educated millions around the globe, and recently — in a hare-and-tortoise scenario Hollywood should envy — quietly passed $1 billion in box office," writes Variety's Iain Blair.

The six-page congratulatory section, in the Aug. 26 issue, has full-age ads from IMAX and other partners in its big-screen format films that take viewers on thrilling, real-life journeys from the top of Mt. Everest to the bottom of the sea, and places in between. MacGillivray even took an IMAX camera sky-diving for "Adventures in Wild California" (2000).

In Variety, IMAX congratulates the "Billion Dollar Filmmaker," whose films have to date grossed a whopping $1.04 billion in ticket sales — evidently the first documentary filmmaker to achieve that dizzying box office success.

Variety is lavish in its praise of the filmmaker, even by Hollywood standards. MacGillivray is lauded for his attention to factual details, aesthetic prowess in weaving together beautiful images and compelling sound tracks, and for his longtime commitment to preserving the natural wonders that he explores. And it's all true.

Along the way, he is also apparently keeping a lot of museums in the black, since many of his films are cash cows for the nonprofit institutions that keep them showing as part of their educational mission, and sell tickets as well, keeping most of the proceeds. That's the way to do well and do good.

Working from his Laguna Beach home, MacGillivray plans and executes excursions to exotic locales. Having just gotten back from a grueling trip to the Arctic, the 65-year-old MacGillivray is resting for several weeks and wasn't available for interviews about his latest achievement, according to his staff.

For all his astounding success as an info-tainer, MacGillivray may be just a tad shy. He said in a press statement that he's "a little embarrassed" by his billion-dollar benchmark, and is quick to note that film is a group endeavor and that dozens of hardworking folks are involved in his films — and he lists them all by name. Tellingly, while the billion-dollar "breakthrough" was reached in January, according to spokeswoman Lori Rick, he waited until Sept. 2 to trumpet his success in the press.

In lieu of a sitdown, I perused the materials posted on his site, and what a story they tell of a "local boy done good." The filmmaker started out as a Corona del Mar teenager in the 1960s making 16mm films about surfing, during the early and heady days of longboarding and the swinging innocence of California surf culture.

At UC Santa Barbara, he was studying physics and planning to become a teacher when his first film, "A Cool Wave of Color," (1964) became a hit on the surf film circuit. He soon joined with fellow surf filmmaker Jim Freeman in a series of films that were noted for their ability to sweep the viewer up into the action with stunning photography and rock music.

The height of their achievement was the classic "Five Summer Stories," their last surf film, released in the early 1970s, which featured music by the Beach Boys. MacGillivray has kept this formula intact throughout his career, using rock bands such as Queen ("The Alps," 2007) to keep viewers enchanted.

With Freeman, MacGillivray began to scale the heights not only of surf filmmaking but of documentary film and the two were tapped for major Hollywood movies. They worked on aerial photography for the blockbuster "Towering Inferno" (1973) and "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" (1974).

Their first IMAX film, "To Fly!" (1976) is still showing today at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. But Freeman's life was cut short tragically when he died in a helicopter accident the week of the "To Fly!" debut. "To Fly!" became the top-grossing documentary of all time until it was eclipsed by another MacGillivray Freeman film, "Everest" (1988).

MacGillivray has kept Freeman's name on the firm ever since in a tribute to the contributions he made to the art and science of aerial photography and film. Now that's a nice guy.

Now, MacGillivray has fully embraced 3D technology (which Freeman used as far back as the '60s) with nearly all his upcoming projects. His next film, "To the Arctic," will be released in 2011 and promises to envelop the viewer in the austere beauty of the frozen north, both above ground and under the frigid sea, in riveting 3D.

He is now preparing to embark on his most ambitious project yet, "One World Ocean," an environmental-themed series set to be released in 2015 that explores the world's five oceans and the effects of human pollution on them. The $35-million multi-platform series includes an eight-part 3D TV series, a 40-minute IMAX 3D film, a 90-minute 3D theatrical documentary and an online series.

Proving you can't take the surf out of a California beach kid, MacGillivray returned to his roots this year with "Hollywood Don't Surf!," which premiered in a rough cut version at the Cannes Film Festival this spring and is hoped to be released next summer in theaters, according to Rick.

The film documents 50 years of American surfing movies, and features rare surfing footage, including some 1906 footage shot by Thomas Edison in Hawaii, as well as interviews with surf film stars such as Jan Michael Vincent (star of the iconic film "Big Wednesday," 1977) and "beach blanket" star Frankie Avalon. There are also conversations with major filmmakers such as Stephen Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino about Hollywood and surf culture.

As the title implies, the filmmakers have come to the conclusion that Tinseltown and surf wax don't mix. But don't tell that to the Variety editors. By all accounts, Hollywood is enraptured by — and envying — this ride.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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