Director Greg MacGillivray thinks big

Greg MacGillivray doesn't mince words when it comes to the Newport Beach Film Festival.

"It's A+," he said.

The producer-director co-founded MacGillivray Freeman Films with Jim Freeman in the mid-1960s. Although the duo started out producing surfing documentaries and TV commercials and filming for Hollywood features, they quickly moved into the distribution of IMAX films.

Since 1972, the Laguna Beach-based studio has distributed more than 30 giant-screen movies and in excess of 7 million feet of 70-millimeter film and earned two Academy Awards. Meanwhile, MacGillivray, who took over the business after Freeman's death in a helicopter crash in 1976, became the first documentary filmmaker to surpass the $1-billion mark in gross box office earnings.

Next week, MacGillivray will participate in two festival events. The first, on Tuesday, features the surfing classic "Five Summer Stories" and a panel discussion including Laird Hamilton, Herbie Fletcher, Gerry Lopez, Steve Pezman and MacGillivray himself.

The studio's latest film, "Journey to the South Pacific," will screen on Wednesday, accompanied by a program titled "A Retrospective Evening with MacGillivray Freeman Films." The program includes a 40-minute multimedia question-and-answer session with MacGillivray and the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award to the 68-year-old.

The man of the hour discussed his illustrious 50-year career in an email interview with the Coastline Pilot. The following are excerpts from the conversation:


You are considered a pioneer when it comes to IMAX movies. How do you respond to this?

I love being a pioneer in a leading-edge artistic community. Still, even 40 years after its invention, IMAX 15/70 film projection is the best in the world — at least 40% better than the best currently used digital projection. Ask Christopher Nolan. He agrees.

When and where did you first meet Jim Freeman? What encouraged you to strike up a friendship and partnership with him?

When I was in college at UC Santa Barbara, he was showing a 3D film about surfing — the only 3D surfing film ever made! I met him after the screening, and we became good friends over the next year. He was a technical genius, and he helped me complete my second film, "The Performers," with music and sound mixing, and making beautiful prints at the best film laboratories — something I knew nothing about. He lived in Santa Ana and was in college pre-med at Loma Linda.

What inspired the two of you to go the giant-screen route 50 years ago?

We always tried new, interesting ways to amaze an audience, like Cinerama, 3D, super-stereo sound, and nothing came close to IMAX.

Could you tell me about "Journey to the South Pacific"?

We began filming in West Papua, Indonesia, early in February 2013 and finished six weeks later. The 42-minute film had its first release Nov. 27, 2013, in Boston at the New England Aquarium. We chose the island area of Raja Ampat in West Papua because it is renowned as the global epicenter of marine biodiversity and, as such, is under threat from over-fishing and destructive fishing practices, even more so than many other areas in the ocean.

Due to the passionate dedication of locals, assisted by scientists working with major ocean conservation NGOs, the area is now seeing a comeback in both diversity and numbers of fish due to the creation of Marine Protected Areas and no-take zones. We hope the stories of that work, all seen from the perspective of a 13-year-old Papuan boy, will empower others to protect their precious marine resources.

When did you first encounter Jawi Mayor? What prompted you to feature him in the film?

We had our Indonesian production manager send us video interviews with two dozen young Papuans, knowing that we wanted to have the film feature a young local child, since children make up such an important part of our IMAX audience. When we saw young Jawi on video, playing his ukulele, we knew immediately that he was the one to carry the film. We were not disappointed. His charisma, courage, stoicism and musical gifts were wonderful in person and on film.

What do you want people to take away from "Journey to the South Pacific"?

I want them to understand the importance of preserving the health of the ocean — for all of us on land. Communities in West Papua are doing it. So can we.

What's been your primary priority during your time as a filmmaker?

Make the very best film artistically and photographically — visually blow the audience away!

What's one challenge of making films at the scale that you do — something that viewers might never realize?

The films look like they should be easy to make — but in reality, it's the toughest filmmaking job in all of film!

Why do your movies have an environmental slant? Why are positive environmental messages important to you?

I'm a surfer and diver. I've seen the oceans change in just 40 years, and people can help the oceans become more abundant and healthy.

Could you tell me about "Five Summer Stories"?

It's an important film to me because it was Jim and my final surfing film — a parting gift to the surfing world, which had allowed us to learn how to make films.

How has the film business changed/evolved between then and now?

Now there are 100 times more ways for your beautiful films to be seen. We say: "From iPhone to IMAX." It's a wonderful time for artists.

What can guests look forward to on April 29, and later, on April 30?

An inventive, educational, and entertaining time — plus you get to experience the amazing Laird Hamilton and Gerry Lopez, two of my favorite creative thinkers. On the 30th, I think it will be fun to look back at some of our more iconic films and explore why they were so successful. We've put together a show that will be entertaining for the audience, plus we give a sneak peek at our upcoming film on humpback whales.

What will your Q&A; and presentation touch upon?

How creativity and art can bring joy to the world.

You are the first documentary filmmaker to have earned more than $1 billion in ticket sales at the worldwide box office, and MacGillivray Freeman Films has been nominated for two Academy Awards. What do these achievements mean to you?

On a practical level, they help us sell our company's work more easily. But to me, they're just a pat on the back for past work — and 100% of my focus is always on the work/creation of today and the future. I focus my mind on what's ahead.

If You Go

What: "Five Summer Stories," followed by a panel discussion

Where: Regency South Coast Village, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday

Cost: $14

Information: (949) 253-2880 or


If You Go

What: "A Retrospective Evening with MacGillivray Freeman Films" and Lifetime Achievement Award presentation, plus the screening of "Journey to the South Pacific"; program includes a multimedia Q&A; with producer-director Greg MacGillivray

Where: Regency Lido Theatre, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Cost: $20

Information: (949) 253-2880 or

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