IMAX to get upgrade for 3-D movies

Science center hopes improvements boost attendance by 20%

Education mission is first

Equipment will cost more than $1 million

glasses are high-tech

Entertainment

February 06, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Science Center will upgrade the 12-year-old IMAX theater this fall in a move expected to boost the number of visitors by as much as 20 percent.

"IMAX is one of our brands. It's probably our dolphin tank," said Gregory P. Andorfer, executive director of the science center, referring to a popular exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. "We figure it's about time to make the jump to 3-D."

It's an addition that the museum has been considering for three years, and coincides with a broader expansion plan.

"3-D gives us another trick in our bag," said Jim O'Leary, director of the IMAX theater at the science center. "It allows us to take someone underwater or to the Galapagos or to outer space and make that experience that much more impressive. You almost feel like you're part of the picture."

Technological limitations have prevented 3-D from wide success in the past. But color capability and the large size of IMAX screens open up new possibilities, said Brian Weisfeld, senior vice president of operations for Imax Corp. in New York.

It is now possible, for instance, to take computer-animated movies like "Toy Story" or "A Bug's Life" and make them over in 3-D, Weisfeld said.

"There's always been a fascination with 3-D," he said. "We've all worn the cardboard glasses with the red cellophane and the blue cellophane. But it didn't create a great entertainment environment. I think people still think of it as not very high-tech and a little gimmicky."

A long way from the cardboard versions of yesteryear, 3-D glasses for movie viewing have evolved into sleek, polarized affairs that cost about $55 a pair and contain a computer chip for security. And the movies they enable viewers to see are more life-like than ever.

"The promise of taking you where you can't go was delivered by the Imax screen," Andorfer said. "With 3-D, the reality is even more uncanny."

Installation of the more than $1 million in equipment required to convert to 3-D will be completed in September. The new 50-foot screen may require cutting a hole in the roof of the museum so that it can be lowered in by helicopter or crane, museum officials said.

The renovations also will include an advanced sound system and new seats and carpeting in the theater, which holds 400 people.

Even with the new capabilities, the IMAX theater will continue to screen its regular films.

More than 85 percent of visitors to the Maryland Science Center take in an IMAX movie. In fact, when the IMAX first opened in June 1987, the science center saw an immediate increase in attendance of about 33 percent.

"One of the things we're looking at is not only giving people a greater immersive experience, but expanding our business," Andorfer said. "We think it's going to be a new attraction. We hope to grow our audience by 10 or 20 percent."

The museum had revenue of $6.5 million and 650,000 visitors last year. The anticipated increase in business could boost revenue by $1 million, Andorfer said.

Achieving a 20 percent increase doesn't sound unrealistic, said Diane Carlson, director of public programs at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. That museum opened a new IMAX theater with 3-D capability in October 1998, and in the first 12 months attendance rose from to 630,000 from 454,000, she said.

"We would not have gotten the visibility without 3-D," Carlson said. "3-D was a key component of our success."

In Baltimore, science center officials hope to increase business by also adding nightly movie showings. Currently, the museum offers two evening showings of "Fantasia 2000" Thursday through Sunday.

"The performance of `Fantasia' has been telling us that we can run a little more commercial operation in the evenings," Andorfer said.

But the science center also does not want to lose sight of its educational mission. It currently reaches more than 30 percent of the school children in the state, who either visit or take part in programs as vans from the museum travel the state.

In order to ensure that there will be appropriate films for educational viewing, the museum has joined with other museums across the country, the Discovery Channel and the British Broadcasting Corp. to create movies. Children are a tough audience these days, because of their sophistication when it comes to entertainment, Andorfer said.

"Part of our challenge is to stay ahead of them," he said. "We're looking for this to be way out ahead of anything they have in their basement. We're trying to give them a special experience that they don't get at home or at school."

The science center's offering of "Fantasia" is part of a larger experiment, Weisfeld said.

The Walt Disney Co. released "Fantasia 2000" to IMAX theaters only, giving the public its first glimpse of a Hollywood film in IMAX format.

The response has been impressive, with some theaters doubling their attendance and others already sold out for the entire four-month run of the film, Weisfeld said.

He believes more studios will choose IMAX theaters as another way to distribute films and increase revenue.

The museum hopes to recoup some money from the 3-D conversion and renovation by securing a corporate sponsorship in exchange for naming rights.

Andorfer declined to specify an amount for the sponsorship, and said the search would begin in earnest this month. The museum is using a professional firm to help identify potential local and national corporate sponsors.

"The 3-D conversion is a clear indication that we will not be left behind in providing and using technology to reinforce our educational objectives," said Tom Bozzuto, chairman of the board of trustees of the Maryland Science Center.

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