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Green is Turning Gold for Environmental Films

By Greg MacGillivray

Greg MacGillivray is a two-time Academy Award-nominated producer/director whose giant screen credits include To Fly, The Living Sea and Everest

As a filmmaker who has specialized in IMAX® Theatre documentaries for the past 30 years, I have seen dramatic changes in the nature documentary art form and its popularity over the last two decades. The genre was first pioneered in the 1950s and 1960s by filmmakers such as Marlin Perkins, whose Wild Kingdom series ran for nearly 20 years,  from 1963 to 1982, and Jacques-Yves Cousteau, whose The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau premiered on ABC in 1966. These popular television series took us to exotic natural realms to observe animals "in the wild," creating a new appetite for cinematic adventures in the great outdoors.  

The 1960s also saw the birth of the IMAX Theatre industry, which took the nature/science documentary to a whole new level. The powerful new IMAX Theatre film technology, with its 1570 perf film (10 times larger than 35mm frames), 80-foot-tall screens and six-channel surround sound systems made the early IMAX Theatre films truly revolutionary. What other entertainment medium could show a whale life-size on screen? Classic IMAX Theatre films like Grand Canyon, To Fly!, Beavers and Blue Planet gave people an immersive, visceral, "you are-there" experience unlike anything they had ever had before. Viewers got hooked immediately and took their families in droves. For nearly two decades, the IMAX Theatre was pretty much the only place in town where you could find a nature documentary in a theatrical setting. 

Then came the 1990s, which proved to be the decade when traditional nature documentaries reached their peak. Cable television was exploding, and new cable channels specializing in nature shows--like Discovery Channel--came online. Scores of new films and programs were created, some good and some not so good. As the market became saturated and as nature show ratings began to lag in the face of competition from newer forms of entertainment--like the Internet--nature filmmakers began looking for ways to make their films compete. Taking a cue from the explosion of reality television programs like Survivor and Amazing Race--programs that were not only new and exciting but cheaper to produce--nature film producers began to move away from the traditional nature documentary (where filmmakers observed their animal subjects through the objective lens of science) to films overtaken by risk-taking hosts and gladiator-types who wrestled alligators and anacondas in the name of conservation. No longer were we content to watch animals through a telephoto lens; we wanted to touch them, swim with them, put ourselves in their world to interact with them--often to thrilling but sometimes disastrous effect.

IMAX Theatres, too, felt the effects of market saturation. Attendance levels dipped by as much as 20 percent in the early years after the new millennium, principally because museum attendance contracted after 9/11, and the IMAX Theatres located in museums account for more than 70 percent of the total large format attendance. To stimulate business, I personally advocated moving away from the traditional IMAX Theatre nature documentary to create films with more compelling characters and emotional storylines. Our film about dolphins became a story centered around a young female scientist working to decipher dolphin communication. Coral Reef Adventure was the story of two underwater filmmakers, Howard and Michele Hall, on a mission to document the endangered coral reefs of the South Pacific. We had notable success with this approach. Dolphins and Coral Reef Adventure grossed a combined $135 million worldwide, and Dolphins was nominated for an Academy Award. But for our industry, too, it became more difficult, by the year 2000, to garner funding to produce wildlife-themed films. More than 50 percent of the $10 million Coral Reef Adventure budget had to be funded by our company.

Then, just at the moment when many serious wildlife filmmakers thought they were witnessing the demise of the genre, along came a film called March of the Penguins in 2005, an exquisitely photographed motion picture that grossed $76 million at America's box office. Winged Migration, a beautiful film about bird migration released just two years earlier, also defied conventional wisdom and did very well in theaters after receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore followed in 2006 and grossed $24 million in the US. Suddenly, green was gold. Theatrical nature documentaries were the new blockbusters. People were leaving the comfort of their home theaters to see wildlife films in conventional cinemas, sticky floors and all. 

What's interesting about the Gore doc is what it says about today's audience. Prior to 2006, it was pretty much considered common wisdom that if you released a film preaching environmental doom and gloom, or that made harsh environmental judgments, you might as well kiss your ticket sales goodbye. People go to the movies for escape, the theory goes; they don't want to hear painful truths--especially about the environment. But Gore's film disproves that theory to a degree. Released at just the perfect moment, when our collective consciousness was primed for a strong message about global warming from probably the only guy who could truly dish it to us, An Inconvenient Truth became a phenomenon. Gore made it cool to be green again.   

The public response to Hurricane on the Bayou--an IMAX Theatre film we released last year warning of the disappearance of Louisiana's wetlands--has been similar. Audiences and film critics have embraced the film's strong environmental message. The film has played in 65 cities and so far has grossed just under $15 million.  Louisiana's Senator Mary Landrieu screened it to members of Congress and has since said, "This film has been an invaluable tool for telling my colleagues and the nation the story of our vanishing wetlands and the devastation wrought by the hurricanes." A week after viewing our film at the Smithsonian, Congress voted to fund wetlands restoration. Similarly, after viewing Coral Reef Adventure, which revealed the harm that deforestation and erosion inflicts on coral, the King of Ghana was moved to change his country's timber policies. IMAX Theatre films paint a vivid, clear picture that no other medium can match. Because these films inspire such positive awareness and change, my personal mission is to produce another 10 conservation films over the next two decades.

Those of us who create these films share a love for the natural world, an understanding that we are a part of nature, not separate from it, and a desire to promote a conservationist ethic among our audiences. Our motivation has not changed over the decades, but now, many of us in this industry feel a great urgency to tell the environmental stories we need to tell. The public finally seems ready to listen.     


Greg MacGillivray is a two-time Academy Award-nominated producer/director whose giant screen credits include To Fly, The Living Sea and Everest. He is also president of MacGillivray Freeman Films.