A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible vs. the Volcano
The number of theaters rejecting such films is small, people in the industry say - perhaps a dozen or fewer, most in the South. But because only a few dozen Imax theaters routinely show science documentaries, the decisions of a few can have a big impact on a film's bottom line - or a producer's decision to make a documentary in the first place.
People who follow trends at commercial and institutional Imax theaters say that in recent years, religious controversy has adversely affected the distribution of a number of films, including "Cosmic Voyage," which depicts the universe in dimensions running from the scale of subatomic particles to clusters of galaxies; "Galلpagos," about the islands where Darwin theorized about evolution; and "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish in the hot, sulfurous emanations from vents in the ocean floor.
"Volcanoes," released in 2003 and sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University, has been turned down at about a dozen science centers, mostly in the South, said Dr. Richard Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer who was chief scientist for the film. He said theater officials rejected the film because of its brief references to evolution, in particular to the possibility that life on Earth originated at the undersea vents.
Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, said the museum decided not to offer the movie after showing it to a sample audience, a practice often followed by managers of Imax theaters. Ms. Murray said 137 people participated in the survey, and while some thought it was well done, "some people said it was blasphemous."
In their written comments, she explained, they made statements like "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact," or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence."
On other criteria, like narration and music, the film did not score as well as other films, Ms. Murray said, and over all, it did not receive high marks, so she recommended that the museum pass.
"If it's not going to draw a crowd and it is going to create controversy," she said, "from a marketing standpoint I cannot make a recommendation" to show it.
In interviews, officials at other Imax theaters said they had similarly decided against the film for fear of offending some audiences.
"We have definitely a lot more creation public than evolution public," said Lisa Buzzelli, who directs the Charleston Imax Theater in South Carolina, a commercial theater next to the Charleston Aquarium. Her theater had not ruled out ever showing "Volcanoes," Ms. Buzzelli said, "but being in the Bible Belt, the movie does have a lot to do with evolution, and we weigh that carefully."
Pietro Serapiglia, who handles distribution for the producer Stephen Low of Montreal, whose company made the film, said officials at other theaters told him they could not book the movie "for religious reasons," because it had "evolutionary overtones" or "would not go well with the Christian community" or because "the evolution stuff is a problem."
Hyman Field, who as a science foundation official had a role in the financing of "Volcanoes," said he understood that theaters must be responsive to their audiences. But Dr. Field he said he was "furious" that a science museum would decide not to show a scientifically accurate documentary like "Volcanoes" because it mentioned evolution.
"It's very alarming," he said, "all of this pressure being put on a lot of the public institutions by the fundamentalists."