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Fulldome: Marketing and Branding Part 2

A digital dome (fulldome) theater can give the audience a sense of being in space without boundaries. Likewise, facilities with fulldome theaters are finding the presentation medium opens up their own boundaries—extending the possibilities of what a planetarium can do and perhaps even what it calls itself. The inherent versatility of fulldome paired with the resourcefulness of an institution’s educators and marketers equals a powerful combination able to create, recognize and make the most of opportunities.

Burke Baker Planetarium: the fulldome “tail” of HMNS


For Dr. Carolyn Sumners(below left),vice president of Astronomy and Physics at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, necessity is as much a factor as the inherent versatility of the Sky-Skan fulldome projection system that’s filled her dome theater since 1998. With a shoestring marketing budget and keen observation of her audience, she drives the planetarium to make a profit, selecting and editing licensed content to complement other programs at the museum, and creating in-house productions that are as frugal as they are ingenious.

“We are the tail that never will wag the dog,” she frankly observes. “We compete every day with the largest butterfly center in the US (Cockrell Butterfly Center), an Imax 3D theater (the Wortham Imax), permanent exhibit halls and from two to four traveling exhibits—all with advertising budgets. You just get over it.” Sumners’ way of getting over it is to piggyback and to cultivate sponsors. “Everything I do, I’ve got to find a sponsor for. I’m always doing outreach and teaming up with others. With one exhibit a year at least, we have a co-marketed fulldome show that ties in.” She reports having had good success showing The Body Code, an educational trip through the human body at the cellular level (and a derivative of Evans &Sutherland’s Microcosm), as an adjunct to the blockbuster exhibition Body Worlds. “The show feeds the exhibit, and the package is very good value for school groups.” Traveling exhibits that carry a high ticket price can be challenging, however. “People will not spend more than $25 per person.”

The Burke Baker runs 12 shows a day on the half-hour, and the mix of astronomy and non-astronomy programming works, from elementary-level interactive astronomy labs in the mornings, to family-friendly afternoon shows (Zula Patrol, Secret of the Cardboard Rocket, Earth’s Wild Ride) to special evening shows (U2 Concert, Dark Side of the Moon). “Had we not provided a more diverse experience, we would have died,” states Sumners. “One third of our shows are pure astronomy and most of the rest have some mixture, or some earth science.”

Non-astronomy shows include Body Code, Secrets of the Dead Sea, and Lucy’s Cradle, the Birth of Wonder, documenting archaeological finds of early human life in East Africa, and tied in with the exhibit of the Lucy hominid fossil from Ethiopia. Night of the Titanic still has a targeted audience, drawing well for one show each day after opening three years ago. “A fulldome planetarium is not exclusively a place to see stars, it’s an immersive learning environment,” says Sumners. “It’s a great experience you can’t get with a projection or flat screen TV at home. You also achieve the 3D sensation without having to do stereoscopic projection and it’s not competing directly with the home theater or the cineplex. What we need most is branding and repositioning in the marketso that we can take over some of the natural science audience no longer served by the Hollywood IMAX products.” Carolyn Sumners

An additional revenue generator for the Burke Baker is the traveling dome program, which reaches another 40,000 people a year, mostly schoolchildren. Sumners keeps two domes out in the field on a regular basis. “It costs half the price of a field trip and no bus,” she explains. “We call it the Discovery Dome—the planetarium brand isn’t there at all.”

Necessity has obliged Sumners to stay keenly in tune with a changing audience and make the most of available resources. “We just have to be market-driven,” she says. “If the market wanted only live star shows, we’d do live star shows all day. No matter what you want to show, your audience will always define you at the box office.”

Rebranding and the holodeck

As director of show production/marketing for Evans & Sutherland, Michael Daut (below right)has overseen his share of fulldome installations. Since its military simulation division was acquired in 2006 by Rockwell Collins Corp., E&S has focused exclusively on the planetarium sector (however, it has just begun to expand its product line in a new direction, introducing a flatscreen version of its digital laser system at InfoComm in June). Like Sumners, he sees fulldome shifting the boundaries, and redefining planetariums as dome theaters through sheer versatility and the appeal of diverse content to modern audiences. He points to the success of non-astronomy fulldome shows such as Ice Worlds (about climate change, it has been licensed to a dozen venues in its first six months of release), the ability of systems to stream unique material from sources such as NASA, and fulldome venues, such as Planetarium Hamburg (E&S Digistar 3 system), that have embraced a wide spectrum of material.

“Fulldome changes the flavor of the theater and every operator has a different way to position it,” says Daut. “Some never run a canned show, and others would never run a music entertainment show. It can be a multimedia theater in one context, and a planetarium in the other. Planetarium Hamburg is a phenomenal innovator, with a very full slate of shows on any given day: kid’s shows, music shows, live astronomy shows, laser light shows. They’re really pushing what can be done in this immersive space.”

Facilities should do some form of rebranding when they convert a theater to fulldome, in order to get the attention of the community and let them know something new and different is available, advised Daut. “Theaters that have not made the effort to distinguish have all but hidden their great new potential. If you’ve been around for a while as a planetarium, and don’t intentionally try to rename or rebrand, I think you’re making a mistake. There needs to be some other noun or phrase that makes clear the theater is special or unique. Fulldome digital theaters have the potential to provide a nearly unlimited variety of immersive content. Of course they also provide an amazing canvas that allows audiences to explore the universe as never before.”

Likewise, theater owners and operators should make the most of the system’s unique features, such as streaming and Internet connectivity, to help differentiate the experience. “You can project onto the dome instant updates of the latest news and scientific discoveries within minutes of their being posted on a website—such as images from NASA, or the latest Hubble photo or wherever you’re linking to,” he explains.

And they should experiment. “This is a business like anything else, and it is driven by the customer’s appetite. If you can create a varied palette, you can get more demographic variety and repeat business, and people will begin asking what’s coming up in the fulldome theater next. It’s the same thing that drives people to the movies—only the experience is more fresh and surprising than movies. There are tools inherent in the systems that allow you to do things that a movie theater can’t do. It’s a cool discriminator—a reason to pile the family into the car so you can experience something you could never do at home.”

Daut continued to name possibilities. “You can have events where school groups come in, take pictures of birthday kids in the lobby and then put them on the screen inside the dome. I’ve heard of weddings in domes, and even funerals. Some theaters have movable seats so you can things up for a special event inside the dome, and with the simple ability to capture fisheye photography these days, you can grace such an event with beautiful scenes slowly changing overhead. It’s not out of character for a science museum or planetarium to consider these things. Corporate events can use the dome as a huge, immersive PowerPoint canvas to get a big message across. These can be sources of ancillary revenue that should be considered by operators who are well located to take advantage of it. Often it makes most sense to plan for a dome environment that can do multiple things.” Michael Daut

There’s no doubt in Daut’s mind that fulldome still has vast, untapped potential to go where no audience has gone before. “I think we’ve only scratched the surface of an extraordinary new visual and sound medium. I think the boundaries will continue to expand as more and more people are showing interest in licensing alternative content. “Over time we’ll see the genres expand and the types of material covered in the dome grow beyond what they are today. Theater operators will have multiple options for their visitors, and the ability to keep them in the facility that much longer. It’s very exciting to be on the ground floor of something that has limitless potential to define and redefine educational and entertaining experiences – it’s one more step towards realizing the Star Trek holodeck.”

This article was first published in The Planetarian, published by theInternational Planetarium Society. Reprinted here with kind permission.

Images Courtsy of E&S & Burke Baker Planetarium:From top
An encounter with a whale in Evans & Sutherland's "Ice Worlds."
"Impact Earth" was produced as a companion program to the HMNS 2006 asteroid discovery.
Dr Carolyn Sumners
Michael Daut
Schoolchildren enjoy "Earth's Wild Ride" in one of the Burke Baker Planetarium's traveling domes.

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