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Giant Screen - Giant Choices: Big Movies' Future

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Written by: Chris Palmer
Date: September 14, 2000

Giant Screen Theater Association Annual Conference in Frankfurt, Germany Response to Presentations from Commercial Giant Screen Theaters

  

Category: Columns

One of the unique characteristics of the giant screen industry is that it produces films that are not only highly immersive, but are also a safe haven for families. Virtually all giant screen films to date have reflected values and experiences that parents want their families to be exposed to, including adventure, learning, science, beauty, art, wildlife, exploration, nature, sport, geography, and human achievement. That claim cannot be made for all movies, television, the Internet, and video games.

Giant screen films, up until now, have not entered the domains of horror, sexual innuendo, or violence. One reason for this is obvious. They haven't needed to. Until recently, the prime market for giant screen films was institutional theaters, and those theaters are driven not only by revenue goals but also by an educational mission. Thus the films tended to be high quality, non-fiction, science-based, wholesome, enlightening, and family-safe.

This afternoon, our panelists have made it clear that it is extremely important to them that they increase revenue and profits from their commercial giant screen theaters. The importance of that goal is undeniable and needs no justification. But what is beginning to trouble me is the fear that in the pursuit of this goal, commercial theaters might push for the production of giant screen films that unintentionally damage our industry's identity and reputation. We need to remain a family friendly industry, and this means remaining true to the GSTA mission with its emphasis on lifelong learning - term which regrettably stills lacks a rigorous definition. As market pressures increase, the temptation for producers and theaters to stray from the GSTA mission will increase.

This year, for the first time, the commercial theaters may start to outnumber the institutional theaters, and the latter will become a minority. Commercial giant screen theaters will consequently gain more power in the marketplace to demand the films they need to succeed. Moreover, these commercial theaters want to distinguish themselves from the institutional theaters.

At the same time, as our speakers have made clear, the pressures on commercial giant screen theaters to do better financially are increasing. Rumors are circulating - fed in part by the problems of Cinema Plus in Australia and Edwards Theaters in California - that the performance of some of the commercial giant screen theaters has been disappointing. And several high profile commercial theaters have closed lately (e.g., London Trocadero and Caesar's Palace), and more may follow.

I believe the rigors of the marketplace will bring pressure to bear on commercial giant screen theaters to show films that are purely entertainment in order to attract larger audiences. As audiences become less enthralled with the format itself (what we might call "IMAX® ennui") and less thrilled with traditional giant screen films, producers, distributors and exhibitors will be tempted to move away from lifelong learning in their search for box office hits. The challenge for this industry is to encourage films that break new boundaries while still embracing the values -- excitement, inspiration, education -- that have historically characterized giant screen films.

There is a good chance, especially with the ties between Hollywood and the giant screen industry becoming closer, that certain segments of the Hollywood community will try to replicate what they have done in the movies and on television i.e., push into areas not only away from lifelong learning, but also into areas which are not family-friendly.

We may see in the next few years the production of giant screen films that take pleasure in thumbing their nose at conventional moral values. I believe this potential development could have serious consequences for the long-term health of our industry.

Roy Disney, in his address last May in Los Angeles to the Large Format Cinema Association (LFCA), said that the two industries (Hollywood and giant screen) "have been moving in each other's directions for years." I wonder if that is an unalloyed blessing? To the extent that giant screen films contain more narrative, better story telling, and richer characters, then moving in the direction of Hollywood is a good thing. But to the extent that moving in the direction of Hollywood produces giant screen films that are considered by parents as not being family friendly (perhaps because they glamorize violence or sex), then our association with Hollywood may do irreparable damage to the identity of the giant screen industry.

What will a "Hollywood-type" giant screen film look like? This is a good question to ask because IMAX is heading in this direction and, even though many Hollywood movies are highly inspiring and educational, we should all be apprehensive. We need to remain as distinctive as possible from the 35mm film industry. IMAX and Disney are moving in the direction of making them indistinct. This is a recipe for long term disappointment.

More and more we are seeing giant screen films offered in the marketplace that (according to the January 2000 issue of MaxImage!) are purely entertaining and claim no educational value (for example, Haunted Castle and Mountain Magic). Is it possible that giant screen films could move even further in that direction, and that this industry could produce films that are antithetical to lifelong learning? Movies, television, the Internet, and video games have gone in that direction. Fifteen years ago, no one would have forecast the lengths to which popular culture has now gone to rouse people to spend their time and money by employing excessive sex and violence. If it has happened in other entertainment industries, then why not in giant screen films, which are coming under incredible pressure to make money?

One recent popular feature film was Scary Movie. Daily Variety began its review on June 30, 2000 as follows:

The outer limits of R-rated respectability are stretched, if not shredded, by this gleefully gross and exuberantly smutty movie, a zany scattershot spoof of teen horror pics, high-school sex comedies and assorted pop culture phenomena. Unbounded by taste, inhibition or political correctness, this potential summer sleeper boldly goes where no one has gone before with mainstream megaplex fare. Many critics, social commentators and op-ed writers may express outrage, which should only make the pic even more attractive to the under-30 target audience. It has the makings of a breakout smash.

I have never seen Scary Movie (which grossed $150 million this summer) but apparently one of the gags is of a huge erect penis piercing a man's head - in one ear, out the other. Imagine that in 15/70. It is unlikely ever to happen but it is worth remembering that the threshold of what is socially acceptable seems to sink lower everyday.

Many of you may know that my organization, the National Wildlife Federation, has an education-based mission, and all our films, whether they be large format, for television, or for main street commercial theaters, reflect our science-based educational mission. Others will produce purely entertaining films that may not have any overt educational value. Such films can be a great escape for people, and if a family enjoys this activity together, there is little for GSTA to complain about as long as we do not lose sight of family values.

However, if one or two giant screen films appear that parents are uncomfortable having their children see, then giant screen films will begin to lose their identity as a safe haven, and they will be associated with all the other things most parents fear about Hollywood. A unique market advantage enjoyed by the entire giant screen industry - that it produces films which are wholesome and entertaining - will have been lost. We must keep that market advantage alive.

Please understand that I am not saying that our distinguished panelists want to lease films in their theaters which they would not want their children to see. But it is their job to run successful theaters, and the pressures on them to lease more popular films may well force them to show more daring, edgier, and taboo-smashing films.

It is worth looking back to last year's GSTA Preconference Symposium, "Giant Screen Films and Lifelong Learning" for some fundamental features of today's giant screen audience. In her summary of giant screen audience research, Barbara Flagg noted that about 75% of the viewers in a typical giant screen audience have seen more than one giant screen film and a large proportion have seen many . These viewers, according to Flagg's research, value the thrilling aspects of the giant screen experience, but also look to giant screen films for their educational values and inspirational qualities. Thus, education and inspiration are fundamental qualities that giant screen audiences seek - at least in institutional theaters. But not all is well, even in the institutional market. In reviewing a draft of this paper, Hy Field from the National Science Foundation said to me:

Museum theaters say they want educational films that address the missions of their institutions, but then they lease films and push producers toward the single goal of making money - sometimes even at the expense of substantive content in films. Obviously, films have to attract audiences but considerably more thought and commitment needs to be given to films that do both. Well produced science films can be interesting and exciting while conveying solid content - and they can attract audiences.

Ralph Adler, a researcher at RMC Research Corporation who evaluates giant screen films, has found that one compelling science idea can be the dramatic core, or "star", of a giant screen film. He says, "When viewers sense that there is nothing new for them in terms of bringing them along in their understanding, they are disappointed at the lost opportunity. The experience of the film is then simply a "ride," which has some value, but not enough for the typical large format theater visitor."

Perhaps there is more damage done by an institutional theater showing a plainly non-mission film like Siegfried & Roy (especially in its daytime schedule) than by a commercial theater showing a large format soft pornographic film (if such existed). Audiences expect museums to educate and not to pander, whereas the expectations for commercial theaters are different.

I believe GSTA has a duty to ensure that this industry continues to produce quality family entertainment. If the GSTA sees giant screen films being produced which violate GSTA's mission, there isn't a whole lot the organization can do retroactively. But proactively, it can expand the excellent work being done by Emlyn Koster and the GSTA Education and Research Committee to define what is meant by lifelong learning, and explore innovative ways for films to be both highly entertaining and richly educational.

The GSTA has taken the following steps so far to encourage the giant screen community to wrestle with the issue of how can we produce hugely successful films without destroying the very thing which sets us apart from other entertainment industries: (1) The one day preconference symposium on lifelong learning held at GSTA last year (a copy of the complete symposium proceedings is in every delegate kit); (2) Last February's public feedback session at GSTA's mid-winter meeting; and (3) The plan to have awards for lifelong learning.

In passing, I want to acknowledge the debt the giant screen industry owes to Hy Field and the National Science Foundation for helping to finance so many (17 to date) top quality, educational large format films.

At past GSTA Annual Conferences, I have attempted to articulate ten standards by which we can judge whether a film can be considered educational or not . It is time for us to take that preliminary thinking to a deeper level, so the standards can become operational and so that we all share an understanding of what it takes to make a film which contributes to lifelong learning.

It is worth initiating a debate in our community on whether or not all giant screen films should be rated by their educational content (or lack of it). This debate will be more useful if we know what we are talking about, and so we must launch an aggressive research program. I recommend that GSTA undertake the following research:

1.  Audience: We need to better understand our audiences in two ways: who currently attends, who doesn't attend, and why. Museums have done very interesting research on the demographics of visitors and non-visitors to better understand how to better serve their current visitors and how to expand their markets . What do our viewers want that we aren't giving them (that is still in keeping with GSTA's mission)? For example, Flagg's research indicates that viewers, in fact, want better stories and more educational value than we are currently delivering. Are there other qualities that viewers seek that we are not delivering? This information must then be conveyed to large format film makers.

2.  Marketing: Let us say we have a sophisticated understanding of who does and doesn't go to giant screen films. We still have little direct research, available industry-wide, on how to attract existing and new giant screen film viewers to our films. What marketing approaches work? How can we more effectively market individual films? Does it make sense to consider any "generic" advertising for the industry (along the lines of "We got milk.")?

3.  The film experience: We have only begun to research how viewers experience and learn from giant screen films. What are the most compelling moments of giant screen films? How do these moments contribute to learning? What kinds of narrative structures are most effective in attracting audiences and educating? Are there relatively untested approaches, such as fictional storylines, that can provide new incentives to attract audiences and still deliver on our educational mission?

4.  Lifelong learning: As you all know (and as I have already mentioned), GSTA sponsored (and NSF partially funded) a one-day preconference symposium in September 1999 entitled "Giant Screen Films and Lifelong Learning." It is a fact that published research on giant screen films and learning is virtually non-existent. If supporting lifelong learning is our mission, we need to understand how our films affect lifelong learning. And we need a deeper understanding of what the term "lifelong learning" means. Beyond immediate learning, how do our films help viewers develop and sustain interest in science, nature, history, or the arts? We can look to a recently published book, Learning from Museums, by John Falk (one of the speakers at last year's symposium) and his colleague Lynn Dierking, for some general guidance on how to approach the issue.

5.  Educational resources: In addition to producing better films, what else can we do to support lifelong learning? In last year's preconference symposium, Jon Miller made the rather straightforward suggestion of providing viewers with CD-ROMs filled with educational resources related to the film's topic. What kinds of resources like this can we provide, what will viewers really use, and what kinds of educational impacts do different types of resources have?

I understand from Hy Field that NSF is willing to consider proposals for research in some of the areas suggested above, including how audiences learn from large format films, better understandings of the demographics of the audience, lifelong learning, etc.

The path we must avoid is allowing the commercial giant screen theaters, in their natural and commendable desire to succeed financially, to encourage Hollywood to produce giant screen films that while popular and profit-producing, damage the unique market advantage currently enjoyed by this industry. Films that are hostile to lifelong learning and which are not family-friendly have no place in our industry. GSTA should campaign against them.

There are four additional actions GSTA can consider, beyond supporting the kinds of research I have suggested, that can strengthen the market for educational giant screen films:

1.  GSTA can encourage the development of giant screen films on new topics or new genres as a means of keeping the medium fresh and attractive to existing and new audiences.

2.  GSTA can consider adopting some kind of rating system that will inform families about the nature of the content of specific films, without censoring or dictating film content.

3.  GSTA can support the development of broad marketing initiatives by institutional and commercial theaters that are designed to build attendance for educational giant screen films.

4.  GSTA can proactively stimulate the development of strong film topics by bringing together film makers with scientists, artists, historians, and others for the purpose of developing and refining film content.

In a free society, GSTA cannot physically stop someone from making a commercially successful yet tawdry film that coarsens society. But GSTA can assert forcefully its own views and encourage theaters to establish their own standards consistent with GSTA's mission.

A word of caution: In reviewing an early draft of this paper, film maker Kieth Merrill wrote:

I think efforts to control what goes on the big screen is ultimately not in the best interest on the industry. The typical lackluster "educational" movies that keep getting made, that seem to set us back rather than move us forward, do not contribute to the health of the industry...Who is qualified to govern and define "films that contribute to lifelong learning"? Are you really willing to assign a committee of people to be the gatekeepers of creativity and judges of values and morality? Hopefully not.

Frankly, I am very discouraged with the state of our industry - with the limited inspiration and restraint on creativity resulting from the narrow mindedness of the "old school" institutional theaters with their constricted view of what is "educational" and "appropriate". I hope the shift to commercial theaters will break the log jam.

Watching the films at LFCA was for the most part disheartening to me. The mark of the gatekeepers already in place is far too evident. The idea of adding more or giving these vigilantes more power in not a pleasant thought to me.

While bearing in mind Kieth Merrill's concern, we need to continue to affirm that giant screen films that are truly educational can also be entertaining at the same time - education and entertainment are not antithetical . Films such as Everest, Dolphins, Mysteries of Egypt, Into the Deep, and our own Whales have drawn large audiences, who have sought thrilling experiences that have substantial educational value. In my view, Michael Jordan to the Max is an educational film because of its emphasis on the importance of hard work, determination and tenacity.

As a film producer (and distributor too, now that Ed Capelle, until recently the President of Film & Distribution for Destination Cinema Inc., has joined the National Wildlife Federation to head our new large format film distribution arm), I want to acknowledge that the real responsibility for making sure giant screen films remain wholesome family entertainment lies with producers and distributors like the National Wildlife Federation.

The commercial theaters can only work with what is offered to them in the marketplace. If film producers and distributors do not produce giant screen films which are commercially successful, then what choice do commercial theaters have?

The fundamental answer to the challenge of a debased pop culture is for all of us to produce better giant screen films. We need to produce films that raise the bar on creativity and innovation, and which seamlessly blend entertainment and lifelong learning. In this way, our audiences in both institutional as well as commercial theaters will be inspired and enraptured. Watching a giant screen film can continue to be an event in people's lives that they never forget, even though the film contains no material that they would be embarrassed for their kids to see. That is the way to satisfy the commercial theaters while simultaneously fulfilling the inspiring vision embodied in GSTA's mission statement.

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