A New Screen Test for Imax: It's the Bible vs. the Volcano
By CORNELIA DEAN
Published: March 19, 2005
The fight over evolution has reached the big, big screen.
Several Imax theaters, including some in science museums, are refusing to show movies that mention the subject - or the Big Bang or the geology of the earth - fearing protests from people who object to films that contradict biblical descriptions of the origin of Earth and its creatures.
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; "Galápagos," 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."
People who follow the issue say it is more likely to arise at science centers and other public institutions than at commercial theaters. The filmmaker James Cameron, who was a producer on "Volcanoes," said the commercial film he made on the same topic, "Aliens of the Deep," had not encountered opposition, except during post-production, when "it was requested from some theaters that we change a line of dialogue" relating to sun worship by ancient Egyptians. The line remained, he said.
Mr. Cameron said he was "surprised and somewhat offended" that people were sensitive to the references to evolution in "Volcanoes."
"It seems to be a new phenomenon," he said, "obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science."
Some in the industry say they fear that documentary filmmakers will steer clear of science topics likely to offend religious fundamentalists.
Large-format science documentaries "are generally not big moneymakers," said Joe DeAmicis, vice president for marketing at the California Science Center in Los Angeles and formerly the director of its Imax theater. "It's going to be hard for our filmmakers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know going in that 10 percent of the market" will reject them.
Others who follow the issue say many institutions are not able to resist such pressure.
"They have to be extremely careful as to how they present anything relating to evolution," said Bayley Silleck, who wrote and directed "Cosmic Voyage." Mr. Silleck said he confronted religious objections to that film and predicted he would face them again with a project he is working on now, about dinosaurs.
Of course, a number of factors affect a theater manager's decision about a movie. Mr. Silleck said an Imax documentary about oil fires in Kuwait "never reached its distribution potential" because it had shots of the first Persian Gulf war. "The theaters decided their patrons would be upset at seeing the bodies," he said.
"We all have to make films for an audience that is a family audience," he went on, "when you are talking about Imax, because they are in science centers and museums."
He added, however, "there are a number of us who are concerned that there is a kind of tacit overcaution, overprotectedness of the audience on the part of theater operators."
In any event, censoring films like "Volcanoes" is not an option, said Dr. Field, who said Mr. Low, the film's producer, got in touch with him when the evolution issue arose to ask whether the film should be altered.
"I said absolutely not," recalled Dr. Field, who retired from the National Science Foundation last year.
Mr. Low said that arguments over religion and science disturbed him because of his own religious faith. In his view, he said, science is "a celebration of what nature or God has done. So for me, there's no conflict."
Dr. Lutz, the Rutgers oceanographer, recalled a showing of "Volcanoes" he and Mr. Low attended at the New England Aquarium. When the movie ended, a little girl stood in the audience to challenge Mr. Low on the film's suggestion that Earth might have formed billions of years ago in the explosion of a star. "I thought God created the Earth," she said.
He replied, "Maybe that's how God did it."