August 18, 2017
Members of the Board of Regents
1000 Jefferson Drive SW
Washington, DC 20560
Dear Esteemed Members of the Smithsonian Board of Regents,
I trust you have read recent statements by the Director of the National Museum of Natural History and the museum’s spokespeople regarding the Johnson IMAX Theater. I trust you have also read the intense coverage of this ill-conceived plan in the media, a packet of which I enclose.
I am compelled to make several further points on behalf of “Save Our IMAX,” a group of the world’s leading giant screen documentary filmmakers, on how the museum continues to mislead you and the public in its plan to tear down a perfectly viable and profitable theater.
In an Aug. 8 statement, Director Johnson stated that in the fall of 2017, the museum will begin a “long-planned renovation to the West Court.” If this has been in the plans for such a long time, why did the museum only make it public this month? Until our group raised this issue, the plan, its cost and its sources of funding have kept secret from the public.
We are, of course, glad to hear this has been “long-planned,” since that would lead us to assume there has been a thoughtful analysis of design, construction and operating costs for this new project. As the Board of Regents, we believe you must demand that the museum produce and share with the public such cost/benefit studies from an independent third party before destroying a theater that is solidly in line with the Smithsonian’s educational goals.
It is important you know the director is attempting to mislead you and the taxpaying public with statements such as the following: “Since its opening, attendance at the theater has dropped off dramatically, with most showings at barely 20% capacity.”
Museum leadership has been caught in a dizzying array of such misleading statements, without ever producing actual numbers to prove it. But we can. As filmmakers who provide 100% of content to this theater, we receive ticket sales numbers. Our records show that, in the last three years alone, attendance has consistently grown, from 265,000 (2014) to 285,000 (2015) to more than 310,000 (2016). Before the Director issues another misleading statement such as the one above, we call on you to demand a full and factual accounting from him.
Further related to his statement, 20% is a perfectly acceptable attendance rate in the world of commercial theaters. It is also a fact that the Johnson IMAX Theater also generates revenues well into the seven digits, and profits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Director Johnson also states that, “Less than 4% of our visitors attend IMAX films.” We agree this figure could be higher, and we lay the blame squarely at the feet of Director Johnson, who has done everything he can to limit the marketing of IMAX films to visitors, including removing signage and ticket sales in the Rotunda. If visitors do not know there is an IMAX theater, they cannot be expected to buy a ticket. This is a failure of museum leadership and marketing team, and not at all representative of the public’s attitude.
The Director states, “We are reaching more people than ever before to further their understanding of the natural world and our place in it.” We believe that exhibits and immersive film experiences complement one another and achieve that goal better than one without the other.
Lastly, we take issue with the director’s statement that “the Smithsonian still has two other IMAX theaters – across the Mall at the Air & Space Museum and in Dulles, Virginia at the Udvar-Hazy Center – which will continue to present both popular and traditional IMAX films, consistent with the educational mission of the Smithsonian.” This ignores the fact that the IMAX at the Air & Space Museum will be closed for up to two years for planned renovations. It ignores the fact that the Udvar-Hazy Center is almost one hour away from downtown Washington. And it ignores the fact that neither of these other spaces are dedicated to films about the natural world, leaving an educational void on this topic at a time when learning more, and not less, about our human interaction with our precious planet is critical to our future.
We therefore wish to reiterate our three requests to the Smithsonian:
- Defer the decision to destroy the Johnson IMAX theater and conduct a professional, 3rd party analysis to determine the value to the public of its various educational offerings, including the theater and the cafeteria.
- Release the theater’s full attendance numbers and issue an apology to the public for making misleading statements about attendance numbers.
- Explain why the museum has actively sought to undermine attendance to the Johnson IMAX theater by drastically reducing the presence of IMAX signage and ticketing in the main rotunda and cutting show-times, and to ask what steps it has taken to offer discounted tickets to the public, which many families cannot afford.
On behalf of the filmmakers of “Save Our IMAX” and its thousands of supporters who have expressed their dismay at the Smithsonian through letters, social media and a Change.org petition, I look forward to your response.
—Save Our IMAX (www.SaveOurIMAX.org)
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