The Blog: Shake It Up

In just over a week, giant screen cinema professionals from all over the world will converge on Chattanooga, Tennessee. They will hold seminars, book films, and party until the wee hours of the morning. One of the most important things they’ll be discussing over the three days of the GSCA conference will be what defines “giant screen cinema.”
Giant screen technology is getting mired in confusion. IMAX continues to produce smaller screens with smaller images, while the lead commercial exhibitors increase their screen size and resolution to match these new digital IMAX’s. Full immersion digital dome projection has allowed an increasing number of planetariums to now be able to show programming that a decade ago was only available on their film-based dome theater counterparts while many institutions are converting existing auditoriums into digital 3D theaters.

To differentiate itself and reinvigorate business, the film producing segment of the giant screen industry continues to move further and further into stereoscopic production, both originally sourced in 3D and converted in post production. lfexaminer.com lists 23 giant screen 3D films either currently in or planned for distribution this year. That’s 12 more than last year. But will 3D make a difference when the format is fairly played out at theme parks and oversaturated on the commercial front?

There are two key components to making good 3D. First is understanding the parallax between eyes. Giant screen filmmakers are at an advantage over their 35mm counterparts as they are lensing an image for a screen where the border typically is not seen, creating a more realistic and natural stereoscopic environment.

Second is emotion. For a 3D film, or any film for that matter, to succeed, the audience must feel an emotional connection. Whether this be via story or action, it is this emotion that pulls us into the film as much as the imagery and technology behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, filmmakers have fallen into a cookie cutter formula when producing their films. After countless focus groups and surveys, they have determined the storytelling process which is most likely to be profitable. This has resulted in countless films feeling the same and even competing filmmakers are saturating the market with film products that are similar in tone.

I say SHAKE IT UP.

While the industry strives to define and differentiate itself on a technology basis, I propose that it also begin to differentiate itself with films that are unique in content, that tell their story by taking advantage of the attributes of the giant screen and its accompanying sound system, and that pull us in emotionally in a way we couldn’t anticipate.

Many attempts have been made, some have been profitable, most have not, due to their lack of commercial appeal. “CHRONOS” and “Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey” took us on an anthropological study of the world without use of any narration. “Michael Jordan to the MAX” reinvigorated the format with an energy that was lacking. Today, MacGillivray Freeman Films, Big & Digital, and others are leading the way with films that take new approaches to the image and sound of the giant screen, films such as “Van Gogh: Brush with Genius,” and the upcoming “Sound 3D: Just Listen.”

Perhaps the best giant screen film I’ve seen in the last year, “The Wildest Dream” had me mesmerized from the start. Although I’ve been very vocal about how some of the digital material appeared on screen, its story, its emotion, and its adult approach to dealing with death (akin to “Everest,” but handled much differently) kept me affixed to the screen for the entire feature-length duration.

SHAKE IT UP

Shake up the message. As the predominant home of non-commercial IMAX theaters, museums have a mission to educate as well as to entertain. Because of the nature of the business, most giant screen films avoid controversial issues, with the exception of the environment. Films also tend to be toned down for younger eyes and ears. At the theaters I’ve worked at, it was very common for 60% of the revenue during the school year to be garnered from school groups.

I am currently developing a documentary film about NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and its impacts, both positive and negative, on the three signature nations. We will look at the economic benefits of the agreement, but will also view its socio-economic and environmental impacts.

I would love to film portions of this project in a giant screen format and exhibit it in museum theaters. The giant warehouses in Mexico filled with corn from the US and Canada on a giant screen would intensify the impact of how these imports into Mexico are causing the foreclosure of family farms. The detail the giant screen could bring to the oil sands of Alberta would act as an introduction to the contamination caused by runoff and the health problems First Nation tribes upstream are enduring.

I doubt this will ever happen. When I opened the IMAX theater a year ago at the National Infantry Museum in Georgia, I discovered that it is, like a number of museums, one that has a message and does not deviate from that message. The mission of the museum is to “honor soldiers.” The stellar exhibits are all from the soldiers’ points of view and provide homage to the glory of the American combat soldier. I don’t recall seeing any exhibits on combat errors or friendly fire. In fact, almost a year after the museum opened, signage on Pat Tillman still stated he was killed by enemy fire.

One of the toughest battles I had was trying to bring in “RESTREPO,” National Geographic’s you-are-there tour-de-force on the Afghan frontlines. In a museum whose galleries you enter by passing through columns exemplifying the core Army values, it was deemed somewhat inappropriate to bring in a real life portrayal of soldiers on the frontlines, especially as they might be violating some of those values.

As I went through this ordeal, it dawned on me that not every museum wants to showcase the other side of the coin. Some, like houses of worship, are there to laud, exult, and glorify their chosen subject matter. I began to think back to when the National Air & Space Museum put the Enola Gay on exhibit and the controversy surrounding their decision to show the Japanese side of the issue as well. I wondered if this would have even come to the table had the plane been in the collection of the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton.

At the time of my departure from the Infantry Museum, I was in preliminary talks with the Chief of Staff of Fort Benning to book either “Arabia” or “Journey to Mecca” so that either film could be included in sensitivity training for new recruits before they shipped to Iraq or Afghanistan. Why bring this up now?

Today is September 11.

We are living in a very frightening time. Anti-Semitism against Muslims is at an all time high. The controversies surrounding the Islamic Centers in Manhattan, Tennessee, and elsewhere have overtaken the Gulf oil spill as the debate de jour. The Arizona immigration fiasco has us rethinking what it means to be an American. We are so bombarded by news, gossip, and sound bites that we jump to conclusions the first word we hear. Based on an edited clip from a video, the NAACP publicly lambasted a federal employee based on her speech – one that turned out to be about overcoming intolerance to become a better person – and this was a speech she gave to a local chapter of the NAACP, no less. Then she was fired by the Department of Agriculture.

With all the miscommunication and overabundance of partisan media, there should be places where we can objectively learn about the world around us. There are. They are, among others, schools, libraries, and museums. A museum, by its very definition, is a building dedicated to learning. In this day and age, we can no longer tolerate showing one side of the issue, but keeping the other hidden. Museums have been successful showing both sides when scientific theories have come into question or where environmental issues are at hand. Now, we have to look at the greater picture.

Both “Arabia” and “Journey to Mecca” are wonderful films, but they’re also a bit candy coated and there’s a lot not included. Of course, when one looks at the financiers for both films, they come across more as bits of public relations and less as unbiased documentaries. Would these films be sufficient for teaching tolerance to soldiers or the fundamentals of Islam to the Christian Right? They might provide a good entertaining introduction but nothing more, unless supplemented with lessons, lectures, etc.. They might sell a lot of popcorn.

Would you book an IMAX film on NAFTA? Would your audience come to see an episode of Frontline if it was filmed with IMAX cameras? Would you show a film that contained subject matter that went against your museum’s message? How about one that might upset some of your big corporate donors?

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