Museum theaters account for approximately 50% of the venues available to large format films, so it’s not surprising that a number of these institutions have taken an interest in the types of films being produced. The Museum Film Network is a consortium of 15 science museums from around the world (including the Canadian Museum of Civilization; the Singapore Science Center; the National Museum of Natural Science in Taichung, Tawain; Ominversum of The Hague in the Netherlands, and 11 throughout the U.S.) whose purpose, explains Seddon Bennington, chairman of the MFN and director of the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, ‘is to ensure that there are good, scientifically oriented films in our theaters.’
Approximately once every three years, the MFN formally invites producers of large format films to submit project proposals. These are screened by the MFN’s production committee and narrowed to those that best fit the Network’s mandate. Explains Bennington, ‘[The films should] show a scientific method and show scientific research in a way that is interesting and understandable to people. It doesn’t matter what topic that research is on, as long as it’s a topic the public is going to be sufficiently interested in and will go to see a film on.’ The chosen film is granted a significant portion of the budget with the understanding that the MFN will take an advisory role.
The first film to benefit from this funding process was the documentary Dolphins, produced by Laguna Beach-based MacGillivray Freeman Films, which received US$1 million from the MFN and was nominated for an Academy Award earlier this year.
According to Greg MacGillivray, the MFN’s contribution not only represented approximately 17% of the total budget, it also guaranteed the film preferred status in 13 of its theaters, as well as a few marketing advantages. ‘This provided their theaters with a good opportunity and provided us with the opportunity to utilize them as advisors…not so much as dolphin experts, but as experts from the perspective of operating a museum theater. They gave us advice at the scripting level and the post-production level that was general, but very helpful.’
Dolphins is the third collaboration between the MFN and MacGillivray, although it’s their first coproduction. The MFN formed in 1985 when museum theaters had trouble finding films with a scientific focus. Recalls Bennington, ‘Basically, this group of museums decided to pool their resources and produce a film.’ The result was To the Limit, a $2.8 million film that studies the physiology of individuals who place their bodies in extreme conditions. A super-slow-motion camera was developed for the project, while endoscopic photography took viewers inside the body. Limit was fully funded by the MFN and commissioned to MacGillivray, who owns 90% of the film. The MFN holds the remaining 10%. According to MacGillivray, Limit is the highest grossing large format film, earning about $65 million to date. Using revenue from Limit, the MFN commissioned a second film to MacGillivray in the early ’90s titled Storm Chasers, a $2.7 million effort that looks at severe weather conditions.
Shortly after Storm Chasers, the market for large format films gained momentum and the MFN decided it no longer needed to produce films itself. ‘The Network decided its way of operating should change, but not its purpose,’ says Bennington. It was at this time that the idea to formally invite submissions surfaced. A few months ago, the MFN issued a second invitation to large format producers to submit project ideas, and the proposals received are currently under review.
But, in a market that MacGillivray says will see 23 films released this year alone, the Network’s raison d’être is being called into question. ‘It was a great idea in the mid-to-late ’80s, but became less critical in the ’90s because of the number of films [being released],’ says MacGillivray. However, he goes on to point out that the Network will likely find renewed importance in the near future: ‘I can really see the MFN being needed three or four years from now. What’s going to happen in the 15/70 film industry, in my estimation, is that because very few films are actually turning a profit – 96% of the films produced in the last five years have lost money – because of the losses, there’s bound to be a declining number of films produced. That’s just supply and demand.’
Jeffrey Kirsh, executive director of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego and a former president of the MFN, acknowledges the current large format film market affords more choice than it did in 1985, but he feels museum theaters have a responsibility to do more than merely purchase the films that are available on the market. ‘If the market is producing films the museum community likes, the network might phase out. [But] I think the network has another role to play, and that is to push the format and push the medium. Giant screens need big ideas and innovations in the way those ideas are brought to people’s attention. I think we need to worry about the films … We have to be careful to be players as well as mere consumers.’