Film Systems Offer Visions to the Max : San Diego Prototype Helped Put Omnimax on Route to Success

When the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater opened in Balboa Park in 1973, the first permanent theater to feature the revolutionary "Omnimax" film system, Newsweek magazine hailed it as "the forerunner of mass entertainment centers of the future."

Fifteen years later, 53 theaters in 14 countries use Omnimax and its sister system, Imax, including the Omnimax theater in Tijuana. The list is growing. Omnimax theaters in Boston and Chicago were just two of 10 theaters built within the last year.

Museum and science centers such as the Fleet Space Theater are the big users of Omnimax, and science and nature subjects have become the main fodder for Imax and Omnimax films. The success of the San Diego theater and others like it have proven the film system's ability to compete for the public's entertainment dollars and to attract people to science-oriented complexes.

San Diego One of First

"San Diego was very much the prototype," said Graeme Ferguson, president of the Toronto-based Imax Systems Corp., developer of the Imax and Omnimax systems.

Omnimax and Imax use extremely wide film, the largest film frame in the business, which allows for exceptional clarity when projected on a large screen. The film is run horizontally through a projector designed to firmly hold the film steady, frame by frame, with the help of a patented "rolling loop" system. The steadiness and the amount of light the system allows to illuminate the frame produces an incomparably large and clear image.

With the help of a fish-eye lens, the Omnimax system displays the picture on a dome, such as the 76-foot dome in the Fleet Theater; the Imax system projects on a flat, but very large, vertical screen.

Larger Than Life

The result is something people can't get from their video cassette recorders or neighborhood eight-in-one movie house. The clarity of the image--and its sheer size--tends to overwhelm viewers.

The films are usually designed to take advantage of this effect. There are always wide, panoramic shots with plenty of camera movement, designed to make the viewer part of the action. One film made viewers feel as if they were riding along on the space shuttle, another put them in the seat of a helicopter sweeping through the Grand Canyon.

None of this was part of the original concept of the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater. Building a traditional planetarium was the first and foremost goal of the group of influential San Diegans who incorporated as the San Diego Hall of Science in 1957.

The first indication something different was in the works came in 1965, when Dr. Edward Creutz, a nuclear physicist, and James Crooks Jr., an electronics engineer, developed a model for the proposed planetarium with a dome tilted at a 25-degree angle in front of spectators sitting in tiered seats--a radical new concept. Traditionally, planetarium domes were horizontal above people seated on the floor.

Imax, meanwhile, had been experimenting with its new film system, a departure from the multiprojector systems commonly used for large screen shows. Early versions of the one-projector Imax system premiered at world fairs in 1964 and 1968. The first Imax theater was built in Toronto in 1971.

Preston (Sandy) Fleet, son of military aviator and Convair founder Reuben H. Fleet, a Hall of Science member, is given much of the credit for approaching Imax about using its new film system in their new tilted dome.

"Some of the board members were a little more conservative, hesitant to spend money (an estimated $1 million) on something that hadn't been proven," recalled San Diego attorney Joel Estes, a member since 1968 of the Hall of Science, now called the San Diego Space and Science Foundation.

$1-Million Donation

The Reuben H. Fleet Foundation and members of the Fleet family donated $1 million for special equipment for the space theater and exhibits for the science center, to supplement $3 million in revenue bonds designated for the center. Ferguson of Imax Corp. credits Sandy Fleet with thinking of the name "Omnimax" for the new fish-eye version of Imax. "I think Sandy gave it to us as a present," Ferguson said.

The space theater was built on city land in Balboa Park, with the San Diego Planetarium Authority--an appointed body, similar to the San Diego Stadium Authority, created through a joint powers agreement of the city and county in 1971--overseeing the issuance of the revenue bonds. The Hall of Science (the San Diego Space and Science Foundation) was designated to operate the facility. The city guaranteed the repayment of the revenue bonds--approximately $235,000 a year until 1997.

Under the terms of an agreement reached eight years ago, the Space and Science Foundation gives 8% of the gross revenues from the center to the city.

After a few shaky years, the 8% annually almost matches the bond payments, according to Martin Breslauer, the assistant property director for the city. "It was a slight difference last year, maybe $20,000," said Breslauer. "It is operating with little or no subsidy--and I haven't heard anyone complain."

A Dip in Attendance

Attendance at the Fleet Space Theater has risen steadily from the time of its opening through 1981, when 550,000 people went through the doors, except for 1983 when it dipped to 480,000.

To counter the slide--attributed to the general state of the economy and boring films--the space theater began offering night programs, laser shows set to rock music and expanded Omnimax showings.

By 1986 the annual total attendance was above 700,000. The figure includes visits to the science center, which stays open for the evening shows (admission to the center's exhibits is free with $4.50 admission to the theater).

"The main ingredient was attracting the group under 30," said Dr. Jeffrey Kirsch, who became executive director of the space theater in 1983. "This was an audience that wasn't coming to the space theater (before 1983)."

But the proverbial bottom line for the space theater, Kirsch said, is the ability to present interesting, lively Omnimax films--particularly those dealing with the science and nature subjects fitting to the nonprofit theater's educational goals. Omnimax and Imax films, especially those of the nature and science variety, are expensive to produce--a minimum of $2 million per film, by some estimates.

Originally Imax Systems was heavily involved in producing films, but it has gradually slowed its film-production activities. Still, Imax Systems has made, or helped make, 21 of the 54 Imax and Omnimax films in existence, including the successful "The Dream is Alive," which was actually filmed during space shuttle flights in space.

With an extremely limited market of theaters, producers have been understandably reluctant to fund Omnimax projects that may never return a profit. While production costs have soared, lease fees for Omnimax films have remained relatively constant, averaging close to $100,000 for six months.

"Most Omnimax films don't make money," said part-time San Diego resident George Casey, president of the Hollywood-based Graphic Films Corp. He is also producer of the theater's current movie, "Seasons" and "Voyage to the Outer Planets," one of the San Diego theater's first movies. Graphic Films has produced nine Omnimax films, but only rarely, such as in the case of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, has it filmed without prior sponsorship.

Renting the Omnimax film equipment is comparable to Panavision film equipment, about $5,000 a week, said Imax's Ferguson, but film and processing are far more expensive. Corporations have been willing to sponsor Omnimax pavilions at expos and films produced by the Smithsonian Institution, but they have been reluctant to help finance independent Omnimax projects.

"It's not that places like San Diego and St. Paul are less important, but they don't have the extra clout that the Smithsonian has," Ferguson said.

Forced to Produce

Museums and space centers have been forced to get into the film production business. "Museums are not used to playing that role," said San Diego's Kirsch, who has helped place San Diego's Fleet Theater at the forefront of the Omnimax film production industry. The Fleet Foundation and the San Diego Hall of Science provided $800,000 to finance the making of "Chronos," a popular 40-minute film about the progress of western civilization. It has become standard practice for theaters to collaborate and put up the front money for the films they desperately need to attract filmgoers.

"When you lease a film you're going to pay $90,000 to $100,000 for six months, so when you make an investment of $250,000 you're not risking a significant amount in the long term," Kirsch said. "Plus there is the added satisfaction of making a film."

To help with the production of its current offering, "Seasons," the Fleet was among a group of theaters in the Museum Film Network that pre-leased the film. In addition the Science Museum of Minnesota sponsored the project in return for it being shot in Minnesota so it can be used to promote the state.

The San Diego theater, along with five others, formed the Museum Film Network in 1985 to guarantee a "flow of films" that are educational, said Kirsch, the new president of the group, which he expects to expand to 10 members by the middle of 1988. The Film Network's first movie, "To the Limit," a look at the human body budgetted at $2.6 million, is not expected out until 1989. Kirsch is overseeing the project with an independent producer in an attempt to give the film a focus lacking in many past collaborative efforts.

"The film network has been tried over and over again," said one industry source, who asked not to be named. "You get too many cooks."

A Major Step

Many in the business believe the addition of theaters in Boston and Chicago was a major step for the Omnimax industry. In the past, Omnimax was in few major markets. Theaters in Los Angeles and New York both encountered problems. "There was always the fear that competition was too keen (in the major markets)," Kirsch said.

Casey, among others, believes the move into major markets will help the production of films. "The only chance is when we reach the point where there are a number of theaters in a city," Casey said.

Imax predicts there will be more than 100 Omnimax and Imax theaters worldwide by 1992. However, with projectors costing in the $1-million range, Omnimax and Imax may never be big money-makers.

"The cost of the projectors precludes any for-profit use of the medium, accept maybe in amusement parks," said Richard Gray, president of R.A. Gray Inc., which builds control systems for multimedia shows.

In addition, audiences are becoming more sophisticated.

"We can't rely on Omnimax alone to (thrill audiences)," said Kirsch. "You can only see so many canyon sweeps or people falling off buildings."

The Fleet Theater is already processing plans to expand the facility to include a visual ride similar to Disneyland's "Star Tours" ride. The $17.5-million expansion plan also calls for an expanded Omnimax theater and a greatly expanded science park. The center is expected to hire a director of development to help finance the plans.

"One of our goals is to maintain the organization as a leader in this kind of technology," said board member Estes.

The centerpiece, though, will still be the Omnimax theater. Even with all types of high technology entertainment available, the Omnimax and Imax films still manage to grip audiences.

"All evidence says Imax and Omnimax is going to proliferate," Ferguson said. "Conventional movies may have peaked out, the art form is mature, while ours is still a baby."

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