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L.A. Imax Says No, So Disney Builds Its Own Huge Screen

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rebuffed by operators of the only Imax theater in central Los Angeles, Disney is taking the extraordinary step of building a temporary theater to showcase its first Imax feature, “Fantasia/2000.”

The new theater, a steel and fiberglass tent constructed at a cost approaching $4 million, will open New Year’s Day in West Los Angeles, off the 405 Freeway near Howard Hughes Parkway. The theater will include 622 stadium-style seats, a 12,000-watt digital sound system and a 56-foot-tall, 80-foot-wide screen that builders say is as large as any Imax screen in Southern California. But the theater’s most impressive feature is its short life span: The entire facility will be broken down and cleared away just four months after it opens.

“Fantasia/2000" is an update and reworking of the 1940 classic, featuring seven new animated sequences set to classical music. Disney executives have booked the 75-minute film at 76 Imax screens worldwide, including engagements at Edwards Cinemas in Valencia, Ontario and Irvine. But when Disney executives went searching for an Imax in L.A., they hit a roadblock.

Directors of the California Science Center--which includes a 480-seat Imax theater as part of the nonprofit science and technology museum--say negotiations with Disney broke down over the educational merits of “Fantasia/2000" and the studio’s demand for an exclusive engagement.

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“We tried to be flexible, but we couldn’t turn over our entire schedule to Disney,” says Joe DeAmicis, vice president of marketing for the California Science Center. “We’re an educational institution, and we had real questions about whether this would meet the mandate of the school groups we serve.”

The center schedules four early weekday show times for groups of schoolchildren on field trips to the museum. Flashier Imax features like the current “Siegfried & Roy: The Magic Box” are shown only in the afternoons, after most school groups have left. DeAmicis says Disney would not budge on scheduling: They wanted the entire day for “Fantasia/2000.”

“It was a very painful decision for us,” says DeAmicis. “Disney is a donor to the museum, and we wanted very much to make this work. But we just couldn’t live with their conditions.”

Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, says he doesn’t understand the museum’s objections because the company feels that “Fantasia/2000" met the educational requirements. The film is showing at 20 other museums and science centers, along with Disney-designed exhibits exploring the art, music and technology showcased in the film. In addition, Cook says Disney is providing study guides and sponsoring teacher conferences to encourage students to learn more about computer animation and classical music.

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“The argument that this isn’t educational is just bogus,” Cook says. “This is a tremendous learning opportunity--that’s why it’s been embraced by 20 other museums and science centers.”

After nearly six months of negotiations, Disney made the decision to go it alone, Cook says. “Luckily, we have the technologies and capabilities to do something very unusual and build a theater from scratch,” he said.

Disney’s special-events division was called in the last week of November to build the theater--including four layers of soundproof tenting material, digital sound equipment, and heating and cooling systems--in just four weeks. Lyle Breier, vice president of Disney special events, says the project was suited to a staff that has previously erected a temporary theater on Alcatraz Island for the premiere of “The Rock” and another at Kennedy Space Center for the premiere of “Armageddon.”

Cook says he and his colleagues understand that some people might consider a tad outlandish the idea of building a deluxe theater for a four-month engagement.

“That crossed our minds, but only fleetingly,” he says. “This movie is very special to the studio, and it speaks right to the heart of our company. We felt we couldn’t not do it.”


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