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The making of the Jet Blue Sky Theater Planetarium

“Now what?” said our executive director, flabbergasted. I replied, “Let’s look into a digital planetarium.”

Author Gary Monti is director of museum operations at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, NY, USA, where he has worked since 2000. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This article was first published in LF Examiner, September 2013 under the title "O Dome is Me!" (C) 2013 by Cinergetics, LLC.

It’s been a trial. Dome operators have not had an easy time of it: there have been many problems and difficulties thrown our way for which we were not responsible. We did not sign up for what has transpired over the past fifteen years.

The IMAX Dome theater at the Cradle of Aviation Museum, on New York’s Long Island, was built to offer an exciting venue that would enhance visitors’ overall experience at the museum. Much has changed since those halcyon days of museum planning. This article is being written with a disillusioned and embittered hand; it is not the usual polite professional piece...

CradleofAviation booth 3In the mid-1990s, Imax Corporation began putting IMAX theaters in multiplexes and standalone commercial theaters. The first few multiplex IMAX theaters — in New York City, greater Los Angeles, and elsewhere — were purpose-built auditoriums with huge screens and the newly-developed 3D GT projector, and cost more than $5 million to construct and equip. Imax and the exhibitors hoped that the novelty of the new IMAX 3D format would make up for the fact that no Hollywood films were available in the 15/70 format.

But it did not take long before multiplex operators realized that their audiences were not very interested in the traditional 45-minute documentary films, like "T-Docs" (I just made that up), that had comprised “the IMAX Experience” up to then. Whether they were in 3D or not, the films’ shorter running times and topics were just not attractive to the multiplex crowd.

In 1998, Imax responded to the theater chains’ request for a less expensive solution with the two-projector 3D SR system, intended for smaller theaters, which could also be retrofitted into existing 35mm auditoriums. But IMAX theaters in multiplexes would not really take off until the company developed its DMR technology to convert 35mm Hollywood features to 15/70 film in 2002, at which point multiplexes virtually stopped showing T-Docs-type films. And for the first few years of DMR movies, 3D titles were rare.

So the real beneficiaries of IMAX 3D film technology were the institutional theaters that upgraded their 10- to 20-year old projectors to play 3D. Institutional 3D theaters had the luxury of playing both 3D and 2D films, and there were many more T-Docs films in 3D than Hollywood titles. This was the situation when the Leroy R. and Rose W. Grumman IMAX Theater opened within the new Cradle of Aviation Museum in May 2002.

Our first challenge had come two years earlier, while the facility was under construction. A representative from Imax stopped in and informed me that they were planning to build a new standalone commercial 3D theater in a mall less than a mile away. Fortunately for us, the market for large commercial IMAX theaters evaporated around that time, and it was never built. To say that it would have doomed the museum, with its million-dollar-plus investment in theater equipment (we own our IMAX projector), is not an overstatement.

The 3D challenge

After we opened, the next difficulty we had to deal with was the proliferation of 3D titles. Most 3D films work very well on our dome. In fact, some actually play better on the dome. Many 3D films were in the pipeline, titles that I wanted to show. While a 2D dome can play a 3D title, marketing was a problem. Initially, we thought that a good practice would be to book films that were also playing at the Loews Lincoln Square IMAX Theatre in Manhattan, a 45-minute drive from us. It was (and still is) a major theater with powerful advertising dollars. We piggybacked our advertising on its: Loews created regional awareness for the films, and we did local advertising.

We soon found that this was a very bad practice when the film in question was 3D. I learned to avoid opening a 3D film day-and-date, especially if it was a Hollywood heavyweight. This strategy may sound counterintuitive until you consider how this advertising caused brand confusion in my audience.

When a 3D film is released, the producer emphasizes the fact that it is 3D in all of its advertising. While Imax and other LF producers provided 2D clients with format-appropriate marketing materials that didn’t mention 3D, it’s hard to avoid a major Hollywood movie’s 3D advertising campaign. Even when we showed a 3D film nine months or more after its release, the effect of the original 3D marketing would carry over. Many people who came to our theater remembered that these films had been released in 3D and that is what they expected to see. We took the time to explain to these patrons the different types of IMAX experiences and the immersive nature of the dome. Most of them bought tickets and enjoyed the films. Some even bought museum memberships and become avid IMAX fans. However, many were disappointed and took away a negative view of our theater, feeling that it was not a “real” IMAX. This is when we became aware of brand confusion.

Our worst situation with 3D brand confusion was with Imax’s 2004 documentary, NASCAR. Even though we launched the film long after its original release date, NASCAR fans on Long Island remembered the 3D marketing from the film’s run in Manhattan. Add to this the fact that the Tribune newspapers first listed our screenings as NASCAR 3D. As soon as we saw the listing, I called the Tribune to get them to drop the 3D reference. They refused, because the producer prohibited the title from being listed any other way. I appealed to the editor’s journalistic ethics, pointing out that he was knowingly publishing incorrect information, but to no avail. To make matters worse, the film opened on a long holiday weekend. Frustrated, I told the Tribune to remove that title and our other films completely, and just print “Call for films and show times.”

Needless to say, many angry NASCAR fans got a bad impression of our theater. Many turned and left. The film listing matter was remedied days later when Imax’s marketing department intervened on our behalf. In the end, I found it ironic that this film played better on the dome than it did in 3D.

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The problem with DMR

While 3D film marketing caused brand confusion, it pales in comparison with what happened with DMR.

Disney’s "Fantasia/2000" was the first Hollywood feature released to IMAX theaters. Although it preceded the first IMAX DMR title by more than two years, its overwhelming success in IMAX theaters (and near failure in 35mm) demonstrated that multiplex audiences wanted to see Hollywood films on giant screens.

However, the lukewarm response to the first true DMR title in September 2002, Ron Howard’s 1995 hit, "Apollo 13," proved that they wanted to see new product, not merely steroid-enhanced versions of older films. Imax realized that DMR films had to open day-and-date to be successful. It partnered with the film studios and reworked its business model in the studios’ image.

This meant that an institutional theater that wanted to play a DMR film day-and-date would have to give its entire schedule to the film run, abandoning the daytime T-Docs screenings for school groups that form the core of its mission.

Then there was the clearance issue. Many institutional theaters were not allowed to open Hollywood films day-and-date because the distributors gave nearby multiplex operators the right to block or delay museum IMAX bookings. By engaging in film partnerships with Hollywood producers, Imax allowed these partners to redefine its relations with museum affiliates. This practice has further diluted the IMAX brand and caused profound confusion among theater customers.

Thus, DMR films caused a serious problem for institutional theaters. Imax, which for 25 years had treated its brand as if it were the Holy Grail, and which sternly instructed its affiliates on how not to cause brand confusion, threw it all away in favor of its commercial film interests. The result of all this is “brand redefinition.”

In January 2007, the Cradle of Aviation Museum was on its heels. There were many reasons for this, one of which was the astronomical annual fees we had to pay for IMAX maintenance and licensing the IMAX brand. This did not include film royalties. In effect, we were paying lease fees on equipment that we owned outright. Our financial situation forced us to petition the municipal government, which owns the museum, for assistance. It appointed an excellent interim director, formerly with the Smithsonian; provided much-needed funding; and, of course, provided ideas and suggestions.

The executive of the municipality wanted to know why we weren’t playing “real” IMAX films (by which he meant DMR movies) and specifically why weren’t we playing Harry Potter, because he was sure that would solve all our problems. This is a testament to the marketing acumen of Imax Corporation. So we found a way around clearance, we found funding to upgrade our film platter system, and in 2007 we played "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," the fifth Harry Potter film. (It did well.)

A new challenge with DMR films was the design of our building, created by a famous designer who placed the theater smack dab in the middle of everything because it looked great there. But functionally, its placement caused a problem. The museum has a very successful evening catering business. We were faced with the challenge of trying to play films at night (because that’s when most people go to see Hollywood films) while simultaneously hosting weddings, corporate events, and bar mitzvahs. The solution required tripling the staff on these evenings (and there were many of them), to ensure that theater customers did not come in contact with event attendees. While I’m proud to say that there was not one instance of this ever happening, the extra staffing put a serious dent in our profit margins.

In the 23-month period that we played DMR films, we were consistently in the top third of institutional theaters playing these titles. But in the same period, our museum attendance dropped noticeably. Why? Before DMR, when we were playing T-Docs, an average of 82% of our museum patrons purchased IMAX/museum combo tickets. After switching to DMR films, that number plummeted to around 3%! The studios would not allow the schedule to be broken up by institutional films that would be of interest to museum visitors. Museum attendance dropped because the attractiveness of spending a day at the museum with a mission-related IMAX film had been lost.

We naively believed that the influx of new DMR customers would result in an increased awareness of the museum, and therefore more visitors. We went all-out with a video montage of the museum, played between DMR presentations, but to no avail. Patrons of DMR films are only interested in seeing those films, that’s it. Their greatest concern is their place in line.

The last straw

We all remember Imax CEO Richard Gelfond’s announcement at the 2008 GSCA conference in New Jersey, that “we don’t think of [IMAX] as the giant screen.” Brand redefinition took on an entirely new meaning that day. Even now, our receptionists still spend time explaining that we no longer play Hollywood films and struggle to sort out for callers the difference between us and the three IMAX digital theaters that have sprung up on Long Island since. It has been my life experience that when one thinks that things can’t get any worse, they invariably do.

In August 2009 I received a phone call from Imax Corp. announcing the slate of ten films for the coming year. Nine of the ten would be 3D and oh, by the way, the new policy (which was blamed on the studios) was that if you’re not a 3D theater you can’t play a 3D film. I put down the phone and called our new executive director (who had taken over from the interim director in mid-2007). He was flabbergasted. He said, “Now what?” I replied, “Let’s look into a digital planetarium.”

Our municipal partner helped us obtain a restricted New York State hotel/motel tax appropriation for the planetarium. The hotel/motel tax is mandated to be used for cultural activities within a designated county. We installed Global Immersion’s [editor's note: Global Immersion is now part of Electrosonic] Fidelity Bright system with six projectors system and a new sound system. Also included is SCISS’s Uniview Planetarium Suite, which gives us flexible programming access to the known universe. We found a corporate sponsor and our planetarium component is now called the Jet Blue Sky Theater Planetarium.

In 2010, with the loss of DMR, we realized that Imax was no longer a viable partner and that its branding and ruinous fees were hurting us more than helping, so we broke the ties. We removed the IMAX name from all signage and marketing, although since we bought the IMAX projector outright, we still use it, without referring to the IMAX brand. (Several other theaters around the world have done the same.)

We tried the GSCA’s “Bigger. Bolder. Better.” branding campaign for a while, but it lacked panache. So when National Geographic announced its theater branding program, we jumped at it. As a National Geographic theater, we have access to a wealth of marketing, photo collections, museum store items, and of course the NatGeo film library. It has been an excellent relationship that I recommend to others, a true partnership.

All large-format dome theaters depend on using the dome’s unique qualities to their full potential. The planetarium system presents fulldome digital sky shows that enhance the museum’s space programming for school groups and the general public alike. Planetarium shows play side-by-side with T-Docs, still projected in 15/70 film by our unbranded, ex-IMAX projector. As I mentioned before, playing 3D T-Docs in 2D on our dome poses no problems. With the change in Imax’s business model, and since it now rarely releases its own T-Docs, the public had nothing to be confused about. As far as they know they’re not “real” IMAX films.

A new hope

This new flexible approach did more than enhance visitation. It helped us focus on who we were and what we wanted to become. We found that we no longer wanted to be a theater that played superhero films in a proprietary format that made people vomit. We decided to take the museum where it was intended to go, and in the process we invented some novel applications.

The museum entered into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) partnerships with academically challenged local school districts. STEM provides students and teachers with new ways of learning. Each school partner is afforded tools that are focused entirely on STEM, including museum visits, NASA lessons, outreach, professional development, artifact sharing, teacher forums, and invitations to exclusive events. These partnerships bridge the gap between formal classroom instruction and informal museum education, creating an innovative support system designed to help students master the multi-dimensional abilities that are required of them today and to insure their success for the future. This exciting arrangement allows students to use all resources of the museum, including the theater and planetarium. We are in the process of changing the name of the institution to the Cradle of Aviation Museum and Education Center.

Looking towards the future, we plan to expand the digital planetarium and replace the 15/70 film projector with an additional single- or multiple-projector digital system. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. While the digital planetarium shows are spectacular, the system is not yet robust enough to handle all large-format productions.

We are all waiting to see what comes of laser projection. An Imax representative recently told me that its next-gen laser system for the dome is about four years away. We are also waiting to see what other manufacturers come up with. Early on, any laser solution will be prohibitively expensive. There are only about 100 giant-screen domes now, so the economies of scale are not encouraging. Perhaps if multiplexes convert to laser, as they have done with digital, and if other applications for laser projection arise, the prices may drop.

So what of the T-Docs? Imax has recently given them renewed attention and is actively courting institutional theaters with its next-gen system. Is this because the North American audience is rejecting 3D movies? Imax’s hiring of Mike Lutz, a highly respected professional from the institutional field, is an indication that it is serious, and that’s a good thing.

However, the approach is a little disturbing. Imax’s new partnership with McGillivray Freeman Films includes the condition that only IMAX-branded theaters can play their new films. MFF can’t offer the new co-productions to many of the theaters to which they used to distribute. I’m reminded of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1948 antitrust case, the United States v. Paramount Pictures.

T-Docs on 15/70 film have become just one element in our overall museum offerings. They’re now add-ons, not the special attractions that they once were. We’re pleased that our capture rate has climbed back up to 55% since the DMR debacle, and that many new T-Docs are being produced. But will they continue to be produced in significant numbers? Can the market support that?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the narrator, Nick Caraway, protests to Gatsby that “You can’t repeat the past!” to which Gatsby famously answers, “Of course you can!” I would like to believe, with Gatsby, that we can return to a rose-colored past, but as readers, we know that Nick is right.

So where does that leave us? Do we “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?” Do we sit back and let others control our destinies? Or do we create a new future?

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