Big screen, big money

The Baltimore Sun

Staid scientist by day, big-time entertainer by night.

That may sound like a set-up for the next comic book superhero and his requisite secret identity. But these days, it's increasingly the story of IMAX theaters like the one at the Maryland Science Center, where daytime programming restricted to movies documenting the natural world gives way at night to Hollywood fare celebrating the fanciful and the make-believe.

At the Science Center, it's Kung Fu Panda and U2 3D. At Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington and Northern Virginia, as well as the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, it's Earth's reigning box-office champion, The Dark Knight.

Science and Batman may seem like strange bedfellows, but museum administrators aren't unhappy with the coupling at all. It's bringing in more money, at a time when museums need every dollar they can get. It's increasing the institutions' visibility, bringing people through the doors who might otherwise never set foot in a museum. And it's giving the people what they want.

"It's a trend we were seeing many science centers across the country do," says Christopher S. Cropper, senior director of marketing at the Inner Harbor's Maryland Science Center. "We've been getting more and more calls, as more and more [Hollywood] films are getting released in the IMAX format, and we've always tried to react to what our audiences are looking for."

Museum officials are quick to emphasize that Hollywood films are not replacing the more traditional educational fare, carefully researched documentaries with titles like Dinosaurs Alive! and The Human Body. Those films continue to play the giant-screen IMAX theaters during the day, while the museums are open for business.

But with audiences clamoring for the IMAX experience, for the chance to see the Joker and Batman do battle on a screen five stories high, who are museum purists to argue with popular demand? Especially when those audiences are eager to pay for the privilege.

"We wrestled with the decision, sure we have," says Cropper. "We know that people come here to see those mission-based films, the classic travelogue films that are high in science content. Those films are increasingly expensive to make." The money audiences pay to see the Hollywood films, he says, "helps us keep the legacy alive with these mission films."

Just under 19,000 people saw U2 3D during its initial run at the Science Center, making it one of the top five theaters nationally to show the film. At the Smithsonian's 400-seat Udvar-Hazy Center IMAX Theater, near Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia, every one of the three nightly screenings of The Dark Knight has sold out since its July 18 opening.

At the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where U2 3D is now playing and The Dark Knight opens next Friday, revenue from after-hours IMAX screenings is helping to pay for a $42 million expansion undertaken in the late 1990s, says spokesman Randell Kremer. "We had a multimillion-dollar bond that we used to pay for that project," he says. "We have to pay that money back."

It's not hard to see why audiences are keen to see their favorite films on giant IMAX screens, where the sound, picture clarity and sheer magnitude of the image combine for a moviegoing experience no conventional screen can match. Because the process uses film stock nearly twice the normal size, special equipment is required, which explains why IMAX theaters are still a relative rarity, one that audiences relish.

"People demand to see these movies in the IMAX format," says Gretchen Jaspering, president of the 300-member Giant Screen Cinema Association. "The quality is higher, and it's a much more immersive experience."

The Science Center has been showing Hollywood films in its IMAX theater at least since 1992, when the Rolling Stones' concert film, At the Max, enjoyed a 10-week run there. A handful of other mainstream films have played there over the years, including Disney's Fantasia 2000 and, not surprisingly, 2006's Night at the Museum, in which Ben Stiller plays a night watchman at New York's American Museum of Natural History who is chagrined to discover that the exhibits there literally come to life after dark.

Earlier this year, the Science Center spent $150,000 to update its IMAX projection equipment. Whereas the old equipment kept the museum from showing any movie that ran longer than 90 minutes, the improvements will allow it to play almost any film. The center has plans to show Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when it opens in November, and none of the five previous Potter movies has run less than two hours.

Hollywood's love affair with IMAX shows every sign of continuing. Already this year, The Dark Knight, Kung-Fu Panda and Speed Racer have been released in IMAX, as well as U2 3D. In addition to Potter, future films include Dreamworks' animated Monsters vs. Aliens, which will be released in 3-D. And whereas most movies are shot using traditional film stock, then digitally remastered into the larger IMAX format, about 20 minutes of The Dark Knight was actually shot using the much larger and more cumbersome IMAX cameras.

IMAX, the company, plans to increase the number of screens using its format by 80 percent by the end of 2009.

That includes updating some theaters, including the AMC Columbia 14, to accept IMAX digitally, which would eliminate some of the need for special projection equipment. Museums like the Science Center will retain an advantage, however, since few multiplexes include screens that are five stories high.

But there are limits to what museums can, and will, show. In most cases, for instance, museums will begin their runs of a mainstream film several weeks after it has opened, since the movie industry practice known as clearance gives major chains the ability to block first-run films from playing at nearby competitors.

"If there's a major multiplex within a few miles" of a museum IMAX, says James Hyder, editor and publisher of the LF (for large format) Examiner, "that chain may have the right to prevent a film from showing, at least on the opening day."

In addition, museum officials are anxious to stick with family-friendly films. At the Smithsonian, that means nothing rated above PG-13.

At the Maryland Science Center, officials are even more cautious. Not only did they resist calls to show the R-rated 300 when it was released in 2006, but they've also declined to book The Dark Knight, which some critics have said pushes the PG-13 rating to its limit.

"We have continued to have a lot of calls about The Dark Knight," says Cropper, "but the decision here was that we wanted to try and stay with the films that relate to our core audience. The film's rating didn't match what we were trying to do here."

Even if they weren't willing to break precedent with Knight, however, Science Center officials hope to try something new in November with Potter.

"We are hoping to have a midnight screening on the day it opens," Cropper says. "We have a lot of high hopes here for that film."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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