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Size Still Matters: Nature Films Most at Home on Giant Screen

By Valentina Valentini

One can choose from a myriad of entertainment experiences these days, ranging from online computer games to outdoor theme parks. But with all this entertainment noise, one player has remained strong: Giant-screen cinemas have been around for decades longer than video games, and they are still a viable option for theatergoers of all ages.

Giant-screen films, and in particular--nature and wildlife documentaries--have attracted millions of viewers for over 40 years as venues for this unique cinematic experience have proliferated by the hundreds. One of the earliest nature documentaries produced with IMAX technology was Graeme Ferguson's North of Superior, an 18-minute tribute to the beauty of Ontario's northland, made in 1971 for the first permanent IMAX theater--in Toronto.

Two of the industry heavyweights, National Geographic Films and IMAX, see their roles in the wildlife documentary realm as both educators and entertainers. "While our network of films and theaters have grown because of the folding-in of traditional Hollywood content, we see it as a mandate to keep producing these original documentary titles," says Phil Groves, senior vice president of distribution for IMAX. "We cherish our role in producing and distributing nature and wildlife documentaries, and we're going to be very protective in making sure these films are always part of our slate. They have a value that goes beyond pure entertainment."

National Geographic, as its tagline goes, has been "inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888." As one of the largest nonprofit science and education institutions in the world, "This is precisely what NatGeo Films has accomplished," says Mark Katz, president of distribution for National Geographic Cinema Ventures. "In film, we've covered historic, cultural, musical and prehistoric topics with CGI. And wildlife is always dear to NatGeo as part of its mission to produce content that inspires, entertains and enlightens."

NatGeo's first giant-screen wildlife documentary was Tim Liversedge's ROAR: Lions of the Kalahari in 2003, which has grossed $15 million. Sean MacLeod Phillips' Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure, an animated wildlife giant-screen documentary that premiered in 2007, has a current box-office total of $46 million. Both of these films are still in release today and will continue to make money, just as IMAX's Deep Sea 3-D (Dir.: Howard Hall; 2006) has, with box-office grosses at $43 million.

Compared to the thousands of production and distribution companies out there for traditional content, there are only a handful of competitors in the giant-screen world. In addition to IMAX and National Geographic, some of the main ones are MacGillivray Freeman Films, the Stephen Low Company, Graphic Films Corporation, 3-D Entertainment Distribution, Giant Screen Films, K2 Communications, nWave Pictures, SK Films and Sony Pictures Classics Large Format.

Challenges Among Beasts

From a filmmaker's perspective, being the biggest appears to be the biggest challenge. "You've got the biggest screen in the world with the biggest canvas in the world and you have to shoot in a resolution that's going to look fantastic on these screens," explains David Lickley, veteran nature and wildlife documentary director. "The original IMAX cameras weighed 100-plus pounds; the 3-D camera weighed 300 pounds, and you only got a three-minute load for it. Imagine shooting wildlife with those conditions." Lickley, who directed the IMAX and Warner Bros. co-production Born to be Wild (released in April 2011), believes the digital world we're moving into with IMAX is much improved and will lend itself to in-the-field challenges.

From the production and distribution side of the camera, the challenges giant-screen cinema faces today are not dissimilar to those of traditional theatrical releases. "Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, there are a lot more technological entertainment distractions for people," explains Katz. "In the late ‘80s to early 2000s, the experience of a giant-screen film was truly unique and really nothing could come close to it. While today it's still unique, there are so many other options potential audience members have with their leisure time or their entertainment dollar." Another challenge, more specific to giant-screen films, lies in attracting visitors to the museums or cultural centers where most of these films are screened--then luring them to the theaters to see the films.

The cost of giant-screen and IMAX films is a beast in and of itself; an IMAX print, especially when shot in 3-D, hovers in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. "We're in the process of changing that in a big way, though, by going to a digital IMAX system," offers Groves.

Lickley estimates IMAX film's day-to-day production expenses at probably ten times those of a traditional documentary. "Because of the people needed to run the equipment and the time it can take in the field, the production costs add up so quickly," he says.

Distribution and Marketing Strategies

Giant-screen films have a very distinct distribution strategy, and wildlife documentaries are no exception. IMAX only releases its films in IMAX cinemas, so from the beginning, marketing strategies are unique. "A traditional Hollywood release will spend upwards of $50 million to market a film," states Groves. "Whereas an original IMAX release will spend a few million dollars and will also rely on its exhibition partners to do some grassroots marketing to compliment the newspaper buy and overarching marketing adverts we put out." Groves believes that grassroots marketing is a very effective model for IMAX and giant-screen documentaries. These exhibiting partners--museums, cultural organizations, etc.--have huge e-mail databases and the mechanisms in place to plan long-range marketing strategies.

Wildlife documentaries, which are typically 40 minutes in length, tend to have their best performances in giant-screen theaters affiliated with museums or other cultural institutions. They play these locations for much longer than conventional films play in theaters--usually six months or more. Some giant-screen documentaries can play for decades, though, like the second-highest-grossing IMAX title ($150 million), The Dream Is Alive, about the Columbia shuttle. It was released in 1985 and is still in theaters today.

"What you see in a revenue return for a successful giant-screen film is going to be quite impressive," explains Katz, "but on far fewer screens over its lifetime--which means its strategy is aimed at running in the best theaters under the best conditions in order to have the longest run possible." Katz stresses the need to get in the game early. "For giant-screen films, you need to feed the giant-screen marketplace cycle of documentaries up to a year or even two years out--first with information, then clips, then a trailer and eventually the finished film," he says. "It's very important and critical to our distribution strategy to get into the queue."

Lickley has become used to the lengthy time investment necessary for a wildlife and nature documentary, having worked in the genre for over 20 years. "We're in development for up to four years," he explains. "Usually, about $4 to $6 million is needed to finance the project and there is generally a period of two years in production. The exception to that rule was Born to be Wild--production was only 15 months, because there had been a release date in mind when the project began. We compressed things and only took on a manageable amount of shooting to be able to make that date. There have been documentaries where I've been in the field for up to 20 weeks, but we were able to get the footage in 11 weeks for that."

The post-production schedule is generally budgeted at six to eight months to get the film done, and about two to three months of that is spent on getting a final print from various shooting formats, including digital, film and 3-D.

Wildlife in 3-D

Since the 1980s, giant-screen documentaries have been screening in the 3-D format. Some may even say that they opened the door to the current wave of 3-D and lent themselves to the immense technological strides traditional Hollywood content has made in the field. "The giant-screen has really been the pioneer of 3-D," Lickley maintains. "Because the IMAX theaters are high-end and have more control in the projection booth, they've done it right. The 3-D you get in an IMAX is probably going to be better than anywhere else."

"IMAX has been involved in 3-D more consistently and has a longer record than anyone else of utilizing 3-D," Groves asserts. "We do believe that 2-D is a viable dimension and does well in IMAX, but because of our size, the clarity of the image and the incredible sound, we do put an emphasis on creating native 3-D content and firmly believe that it adds to the overall experience a moviegoer has in an IMAX 3-D film."

For National Geographic Films, 3-D is now technically at a quality and standard that it is no longer a gimmick; it's a viable asset to giant-screen wildlife documentaries. "Audiences want whatever the newest thing is," admits Katz. "And now that 3-D is omnipresent for giant-screen films, being able to go into the world of land or sea or space in 3-D is going to be that much more immersive--and hopefully impactful."

Lickley feels 3-D is the future of the giant-screen format. "When people venture out of their house to be entertained, they're going to want to see something that's different. IMAX won't match home entertainment in our lifetime, so that's what will keep driving theatergoers.

"People really want to live vicariously through others, and wildlife documentaries can help to fulfill that desire," Lickley continues. "As we move into the future, nature is shrinking and a lot of the animals I'm working with are disappearing. We filmmakers get privileged access and, as a result, we're going to put something on that screen that is beyond anything audiences would see in any other format."


Valentina I. Valentini is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her writing focuses on the motion picture industry, specializing in cinematographers, independent filmmaking, features, documentaries, commercials, 3D, emerging technology and talent, and industry trends and events. She has been published in ICG Magazine, British Cinematographer, HDVideoPro, Moving Pictures Magazine, and she is the West Coast Correspondent for