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Projecting into the Future: The Dynamism of Museum Cinema

Last month luminaries from the world of museums and science centres gathered at the 25th Anniversary edition of the ECSITE conference at the The Hague in the Netherlands, the theme of which was People, Planet, Peace. 

ecsiteECSITE is the European network of science centres and museums, linking science communication professionals in more than 400 institutions in 50 countries, connecting member institutions through projects and activities and facilitating the exchange of ideas on current issues. One of the items on the agenda was a session on Museum Cinema.     

Blooloop spoke to three industry experts,  Mark Katz, President of Distribution, National Geographic Cinema Ventures; Paul Fraser of Blaze Digital Cinema Works, an independent consultant with over 25 years of industry experience; and Jonathan Barker, CEO of SK Films,  about the inception, evolution and changing role of museum cinema.

In the Beginning: IMAX

Museums and science centres the world over face the perennial questions: How do we engage our audiences? How do Mark Katz President of Distribution National Geographic Cinema Ventureswe grow those audiences? How do we secure the government and other foundation funding we need to survive since we’re not as glamorous as the Opera House or other charismatic cultural institutions?

Mark Katz (right): “Many of us in the industry believe museum cinema can be a part of the answer. This is art. This is entertainment, but it’s all mission-related.”

Museum cinema really began in its modern form with the introduction of IMAX film theatres.

The first to be built in association with a museum was in the dome format: the Reuben H Fleet  Science Centre in San Diego, California, which opened in 1973.

It was the world’s second permanent IMAX theatre; the first IMAX dome theatre, and the first IMAX theatre of any kind associated with a museum.

It set off an inexorable development which built slowly, only really gaining momentum in the 1990s. It was a new medium, Paul Fraser,  Blaze Digital Cinemarequiring new hardware, new theatre design, a new way to capture and produce for it. 

“It was very brave of those first museums to buy – there wasn’t a library of films to choose from, " points out Paul Fraser (left).  "The average museum would say: ‘This is a great idea, but where are the films going to come from?’ And the film-makers would say: ‘I love this new medium, but how many theatres is my film going to play in?’ So it was a real chicken-egg thing, and it kind of boot-strapped its way along.”

When Fraser joined IMAX in 1986 there were 70 IMAX theatres around the world. Now there are 800 or more, 150 or so in science centres.

Fraser says, “IMAX was always the dominant brand. By the mid 90s, most of the cities in the developed world with large museums had a giant screen of some kind, and if it wasn’t IMAX it was something similar. IMAX had invented the new medium and had a lot of the propriety Starball Planetariumtechnology and a very robust technology that lasted really well. The brand got more and more valuable over time. IMAX is probably to be credited with setting off what is now a 40-year history of theatres being paired with museums.”

Many of the dome theatres that ended up being IMAX equipped were not of new construction, but were retro-fits of planetariums. (The very first museum cinema screen equipped by IMAX in San Diego was actually a former planetarium, and it was the museum who approached IMAX with the idea of using the dome. IMAX listened, thought the idea would work, and tilted the dome to 30% for optimal viewing.)

Some people would say that museum cinema actually started with the old starball projectors in old-fashioned planetariums.

The Digital Revolution

Jonathan Barker,  SK FilmsThe most transformative factor in the evolution of museum cinema has been the developments in digital technology, opening up an affordable option to all.

Jonathan Barker (left),   explains, “It used to be that to put an IMAX theatre into a museum cinema was a multi-million dollar undertaking; something that required major fundraising.

"Now, in the digital era, you have a vast array of museums of all different shapes and sizes around the world, many of which already have space to accommodate a digital cinema or with the capability to build one at a reasonable cost….

"Suddenly there is the potential for many hundreds of museums and cinemas all round the world to become part of this global network of museum cinemas with mission-based content… Those of us who have been in the business of supplying product to these museum cinemas see the advent of digital as being a tremendous growth opportunity to the museum market.”

SK Films Filming butterflies

“The digital era really began in late 2006, " says Fraser, "By this time Hollywood had completed their investigation and study of digital  and they published the DCI or Digital Cinemas Initiative spec, a worldwide standard that would protect against piracy and provide a quality motion-picture experience that would be at least as good as 35mm film. Theatres needed to know that the equipment was inter-operable.” 

The standard, made for Hollywood, benefitted cinema of any kind. It meant customers weren’t tied to a single propriety manufacturer, and could get content relatively easily. 

It took museums a while to pick up on this. Many felt they didn’t need to: the IMAX and large-format systems in which they’d previously invested were doing fine. 

“But here we are in 2014,  eight years later, and what people realised gradually was that the cost of those large-format film prints is practically prohibitive now." says Fraser.  "Compare a 20 thousand dollar 2-D print with the cost of a hard drive, which is about 250 dollars. It’s 40 thousand dollars for a 3-D, large format show. The math is just really obvious.”

SK Films butterflies

Film is a physical material that degrades, and even a pristine new IMAX 15-70 film print will suffer from scratches whereas digital is perfect every time.

The large format film theatres in museums have been relatively slow to take up the digital option, but they’re getting there slowly. Something like 75% of the installed base of cinemas around the world that play museum documentary oriented cinema have not converted. And yet the percentage is the other way round in commercial cinema: at least 75% of screens – maybe more by now – have converted to digital.

national geographic cinema ventures pandas“When the industry started, it started out as a giant screen business synonymous with IMAX. Over the past ten years several things have changed dramatically, " says Katz.

"Firstly, Imax made a choice to go completely Hollywood with their business. Suddenly numerous Imax screens were popping up all over many markets, but they weren't all  giant screens, and they were playing only Hollywood content. That changed the meaning of IMAX.

"Secondly, digital projection technology came into being in a meaningful way six or seven years ago, and so when film – and very expensive film technology at that – wasn’t the only option, many museums decided they wanted to install digital technology for the sake of economics, return on investment and versatility.

"The other things that happened were a boom in non-fiction programming on TV, much of which was HD, at that. Blue-chip TV documentaries were suddenly much more accessible than they had been in the 90s: you could see beautiful imagery – a movie about the world’s oceans or whales or wildlife – in the home.

"The last thing that occurred was the explosion of entertainment technology. When IMAX and the museum cinema business was at its peak which was really throughout the 90s – it started to take off in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, and until the early 2000s it was still incredibly unique – but then suddenly it wasn’t.”

Many cinemas began to choose non-IMAX digital technology. From having an effective monopoly of the market, IMAX became just one of a number of options. 

Digital technology is so much more affordable than the old IMAX projection technology – in many cases around 10% of the cost. Suddenly smaller museums with lower attendances can afford a museum cinema. 

National Geographic Cinema Ventures JerusalemKatz says,  “Slowly, around the world, there have been adopters who have said: Hey, I want to be in this business. The one unique thing that helps the standard is that there’s a lot of content they can play – they may have a smaller screen but in every other way they’re just like the science museum: they programme educational content; they market to family; they market to schools; they have educational outreach materials for the teachers and so on. This business can afford to grow – and, quite frankly, survive.”

Survival is key, as there have been casualties along the way; cinemas that have closed rather than converting, particularly in Europe, which was probably over-screened with IMAX cinemas during the boom-time, something that proved to be ultimately unsustainable.

The industry contracted, yet still there was a demand for high-end nature, science, historical and cultural film documentaries.

Katz, explains,  “Throughout the 90s it was possible to make a film for 5 or 6 million dollars and the marketplace could actually return your investment. You can’t do that now. The risk dollar now is considerably less than it was ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. So the only place to go on the theatrical side is more screens.

"There are a handful of us in the industry, myself included, who are trying to grow back the marketplace. An example: there used to be a theatre in Berlin that brought in, at its peak, 1.2 million people per year to its one screen, and at its low ebb it was still bringing in half a million people per year. Now, you’re not going to find that a giant installation will duplicate that success, but three or four smaller installations could do it, in a place like Germany.”

Fraser adds,  “The analytical facts of life are: the era of building the giant screen box or dome for the giant screen theatre (regardless of the brand) – is over.

"In the last ten years the number of theatres showing museum grade content either in museums or in cultural attractions that might have more commercial components, has been basically flat. No growth; no decline: flat.”

Future Potential

national geographic cinema ventures sea monsters 4d

The museum cinema business has, Katz believes, the potential to grow again, albeit in a different way – a way which reflects modern technology; modern expectations and changing appetites; the fact that, when it’s done well 3D is still viable.

He touches on the versatility of the content, explaining that many films were made for theme parks then adapted for distribution around the world, and vice versa: films made for museums in 40 minutes have been adapted to play shorter versions in theme parks.

“We know – and our competitors know – where the overlap is, and how at minimum it can be part of a business model and at maximum part of a creative thinking process as well as part of a business model.”

The overlap is exemplified by the fact that many in the museum cinema business (including Katz) and many museum professionals attend IAAPA (The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions).

“Museum professionals go to IAAPA saying: ‘What’s cool and hip and theme-parky (if I may use the word) and appropriate that I can bring to my museum?’" says Katz.

One ten million dollar film produced by National Geographic Cinema Ventures with underwriting from the US  National Science Foundation, ‘Sea Monsters’, about underwater dinosaurs, 3D and CGI is shown in domes, on giant screens and digital screens. They have created a 20-minute version and, for theme parks, a 10-minute version. They have done a deal with SimEx-Iwerks Entertainment, the installers of 4-D in aquariums, zoos and so forth to distribute a special 10-minute version and have even done a planetarium version which is, as Katz puts it, “a whole other aspect of the broader museum cinema business. These films, ” he adds, “and this industry does ‘do’ cross-over.”

Fraser expands on the way forward for museum cinema: “The biggest growth that I see in museum cinema is in two areas: firstly, the small and medium sized auditoriums worldwide that are for the most part pre-existing, but never had a proper movie system. Now, thanks to digital, they can. That is one significant growth area.

The second area, and it is an area of significant growth, is the digital full-dome space.

Digital Full Dome

‘Digital full-dome’ is the 21st century phrase used to describe the modern planetarium.

digital full dome theater projection

Digital video projectors began to appear in the early 2000s. Some enterprising innovators in the planetarium vendor arena decided that their customer base was ready for a full motion picture video to augment the star shows that were being shown in planetariums.

Unfortunately, at no point did the vendors come together to establish a common standard similar to Hollywood’s DCI specifications, with the result that each vendor acted independently, creating something propriety to their platform and ultimately working against the efficiency and smooth running of the marketplace. Nevertheless, the market functioned. There is a consensus of sorts around the basic full-dome frame, and a general agreement on the formats used for source material, but in order to play it at any one digital full-dome screen it has to be customised for that screen. 

Despite this, Fraser describes the numbers as “stunning”.

Fraser expounds on the history of the trend: “In late 1999 the first two digital full-dome theatres appeared at roughly the same time, and each one claims bragging rights to be the first, but call it a tie for late ’99.

"Flip ahead: it took a little while but it’s amazing how fast it grew. Now there are well over 1400 screens worldwide. It’s growing at 10%-15% per year. In fact, many screens are not even counted because they’re portable.”

Paul Fraser Dome Screen Universe

The production has also become more sophisticated.

The vendors of the equipment did something unparalleled in any form of cinema: as well as providing the customer with a way to play back pre-rendered content, they gave them the tools to produce their own content.  Some planetariums turned this into an art form – the Hayden in New York, for example, is one of the most sophisticated and successful individual planetariums to do this, and there are others that have acquired the skills, notably Sudekum in Nashville, Tennessee;  Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City; Morehead Planetarium in North Carolina.

Eventually, as the installed base grew, individual producers began to appear; small, then larger companies. One of the independents, Robin Sip was, according to Fraser “a real trailblazer.”

Sip runs a company called Mirage 3-D out of the Netherlands and is a very successful independent producer for full-dome shows.

“And then, ” adds Fraser, “- and this is one of the things I helped National Geographic with – we got people like National Geographic who produce high quality content for museum and cultural screens and at National Geographic we had the discussion: ‘In some cases there’s an overlap. In some cases the same place that has an IMAX screen has a planetarium. Why can’t we produce for the planetarium as well?’ So you’ve got those kinds of players.”

Is Museum Cinema Essential?

So is museum cinema now an essential pre-requisite for all museum and science centres?

SK Films Jonathan Barker Mike Slee Jamie looking at shot in action

Barker says, “When people come to a museum with a family there are interesting things to look at – and then you need a break. 

"The cinema in a sense becomes a combination of interchangeable exhibiting, in museum terms: each film is like a new exhibit, its content related to the mission of the museum, and a 20-40 minute break for your visitors where they can sit and take a rest without having to worry their kids are going to run up a wall, or whatever.

"…I can only speak from a film producer and film distributor point of view, but these have been my customers for twenty years. I think museum cinema really is a very useful part of the mix. One of the reasons it’s so useful is the revenue it generates. It’s perfectly acceptable to charge something on top of the entrance ticket. And in the case of the Smithsonian or the UK’s free National Museums, it’s a valuable addition to their revenue. For any operator, whether it’s a free museum or a museum that charges, you can up-sell… And now that the capital costs have been lowered sufficiently, it should be a very attractive revenue possibility.”

Images and video: National Geographic Cinema Ventures, SK Films and Paul Fraser's presentation at GCSA 2012.

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