What's IMAX's biggest hit?

How popular culture gets popular.
Aug. 25 2006 1:31 PM

The Little Documentary That Could

What's IMAX's biggest hit? A schlocky NASA film.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The Dream Is Alive, a vintage IMAX documentary about the space-shuttle program, plays like the love child of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and a filmstrip on the meaning of Thanksgiving. The movie's gorgeous money shots depict astronauts spacewalking above the Earth, the islands of the Mediterranean shimmering in the background. But these sublime moments are sandwiched between scenes of shuttle crews learning how to don their spacesuits and tedious footage of mission-control geeks with their endless rows of buttons. Every so often, narrator Walter Cronkite checks in with a corny declaration like, "Now that we know how to live and work in space, we stand at the threshold of a new age of discovery."

Edutainment funded by Lockheed Martin doesn't sound like box-office gold, but The Dream Is Alive is the top-grossing movie in IMAX history. It has earned more than $150 million since its 1985 debut, putting it several million dollars ahead of such competitors as 1998's Everest and 1991's Antarctica. Yet for all its success with such films, the IMAX Corp. dislikes being thought of as a purveyor of mega-sized documentaries. It now wants to show Hollywood blockbusters on its trademark six-story screens—a strategic shift that seems to have caused the company considerable trouble.

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The Dream Is Alive became an IMAX evergreen in large part because its subject matter has always been topical, especially for grade-schoolers on field trips. The consistent news coverage afforded the space shuttle program has doubled as free publicity for the movie. Although a rival IMAX presentation like Everest might enjoy an uptick in interest during an unusually lethal year for mountain climbers, such stories tend to come and go.

The 1986 Challenger disaster only bolstered The Dream Is Alive's appeal. Cronkite's awed narration, layered atop scenes of stalwart astronauts repairing a satellite, makes the shuttle program seem like too much of a triumph to lose confidence in. Science classes constructed entire curriculums around the movie and used it to reassure frightened students that a failed O-ring would not derail mankind's foray into the cosmos.

The Dream Is Alive also benefited from the fact that many of the most heavily trafficked IMAX theaters are attached to aerospace-themed attractions. Year after year, for school group after school group, the theaters at the Kennedy Space Center and the National Air and Space Museum keep trotting out The Dream Is Alive and always find an audience keen on the film's arresting visuals, patriotic tone, and didactic content.

Though pleased with the box-office performance of The Dream Is Alive and its other high-grossing documentaries, the IMAX Corp. has long itched to rebrand itself as a Hollywood player. The company doesn't want its theaters and movies to be stuck at museum complexes. It dreams of IMAX theaters anchoring shopping malls and city-walks, and of audiences that include couples on dates as well as field-trippers and tourists. That means replacing some of the edutainment with more adult movies, ones featuring such celluloid staples as plots, protagonists, and happy endings.

In 1995, the year after being purchased by a pair of former Drexel Burnham Lambert bankers, the company experimented with an IMAX-only drama, Wings of Courage, starring Val Kilmer. The movie flopped, and it quickly became apparent that IMAX's specialized cameras and equipment were too pricey for Hollywood-style filmmaking: The 40-minute Wings of Courage cost as much as $20 million, a princely sum given that only 120 IMAX theaters existed worldwide at the time. Barring night-in, night-out sellouts on every single screen, there was no way the production costs could be recouped.

So, IMAX developed a technique that could be used to convert conventional 35mm films into Imax's 70mm format. That technique, digital remastering (known as DMR), was perfected in 2002, and the following year Matrix: Revolutions became the first-ever "event film" to be released simultaneously at IMAX and conventional theaters. DMR has now developed to the point that three-dimensional sequences can be added to movies; Superman Returns, for example, was given about 20 minutes' worth of 3-D effects during the remastering process.

IMAX's swing toward Hollywood makes intuitive sense. The number of museums worldwide is dwarfed by the number of shopping malls, which can use IMAX theaters to turn themselves into "destinations," rather than just places with Pottery Barns. It's also easier to recoup money off a DMR film, since the remastering process costs only $2 million to $2.5 million; a new documentary of The Dream Is Alive's quality would cost $8 million to $10 million to make. Even taking just 15 percent of every ticket sold, IMAX can make a profit on a DMR release like Superman Returns or The Polar Express (which grossed $45 million for IMAX in 2004) after just a few strong weeks.

But the strategy has risks. If a movie flops in conventional theaters, it can be even more disastrous for IMAX, which releases a very small slate of films each year. When the company announced a first-quarter loss this past May, for example, it blamed the poor performance of V for Vendetta. And though IMAX was excited about its DMR version of The Ant Bully, which came out in late July, the movie's box office has been disappointing.

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