The Imax theatre at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History appears to be, well, history. The Washington-based Smithsonian has decided to trim its fat by replacing its impressive facility with a restaurant. To little surprise, the decision to give priority to hot dogs over hot docs has not been popular in the educational-film world.
"Those of us who make natural history films, we do it out of passion," says Jonathan Barker, a leading figure in giant-screen movie production. "Making Imax films is not much of a business, but it's something that reaches people and it's something that can have an impact on young lives. To take that experience away from people in one of the world's great natural history museums just seems wrong."
Barker is CEO of SK Films, a Toronto-based world leader in the production of 3-D and 2-D content for multiple platforms, including Imax cinemas. Prior to his run with SK Films, Barker had a long tenure overseeing worldwide film business at Imax Corporation. He has production credits on such big-screen blockbusters as 2012's Flight of the Butterflies 3D.
Barker is one of the instigators of Save Our Imax, a self-explanatory movement involving prominent producers and directors, 11 of whom (including Barker) sent an open letter to Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
The letter requests that the museum's leaders delay the planned Sept. 30 closing and eventual demolition of its Samuel C. Johnson Imax Theater and to be much more open and transparent about the process that led to the wrecking-ball rationale.
The museum's reasoning was made public in a statement from Johnson, who explained that attendance at the museum's 18-year-old Imax theatre had recently dropped off "dramatically," with "most showings at barely 20-per-cent capacity."
In response to that statement, Barker says the theatre is profitable. "The 20-per-cent average occupancy is actually very good – better than commercial multiplexes."
As for the falling attendance figures, the numbers don't back up that claim: In 2014, the theatre sold 265,000 tickets. In 2016, it sold 310,000.
On board against the museum's decision is the Washington Post which, on Aug. 19, published an editorial with a headline of blunt advice: "The Smithsonian is closing down an Imax theater. It shouldn't."
The Post piece noted that the Smithsonian could not provide a projection to show that a revamped dining area would net more profits than the theatre does. "In short," the piece stated, "it seems the Museum of Natural History just isn't that interested in Imax."
To that point, Graeme Ferguson, a filmmaker who (with fellow Canadians Roman Kroitor, Robert Kerr and William C. Shaw) co-invented the Imax process, agrees. "Ideas on the importance of Imax vary from museum director to museum director," Ferguson told The Globe and Mail this week. "Some of them get what the filmmakers are trying to convey, but clearly that's not happening here with the Smithsonian."
Ferguson recalls working in the early 1970s with Mike Collins, an Apollo astronaut and first director of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, which sits across the mall from the Museum of Natural History. "We showed what Imax could do," Ferguson said. "He said to me that the only way the public can experience what I as an astronaut experienced was through Imax."
(The National Air and Space Museum has its own Imax theatre, but its screens are not dedicated to the nature films typically shown at the Museum of Natural History.)
In the same month in which the Smithsonian shuts down its six-storey screen, another Imax showplace will reopen. It was announced recently that the shuttered Cinesphere at Ontario Place will host three Toronto International Film Festival screenings of North of Superior, Ferguson's 18-minute masterwork, which premiered at the Cinesphere in 1971.
"I saw the film recently," Ferguson said. "It stands up pretty well."
As does the Cinesphere, which Ferguson visited recently. "It's still in good shape," he said of the world's first permanent Imax cinema.
The Ontario government has yet to announce whether or not the Cinesphere will reopen at some point after TIFF, but both Barker and Ferguson are optimistic about the possibility. The Smithsonian closes, the Cinesphere may be revived. If nature abhors a vacuum, apparently so does the nature film business.