Smithsonian Shouldn't Destroy Natural History's IMAX!
By James Hyder
Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, DC, is planning
to close its 18-year-old Samuel C. Johnson IMAX Theater on Sept. 30,
nominally to “create new space for public programming and accommodate
a more spacious and sustainable restaurant,” according to a statement
from the museum’s director, Dr.
Kirk Johnson. The plan had not been announced publicly and only came
to light in mid-July, when a group of distinguished giant-screen film
producers, led by Jonathan Barker
of SK Films and Taran
Davies of Cosmic Picture, published an open letter calling for the decision to
be delayed or reversed. (Click the links to see that
letter and the statement
to LFX from NMNH.)
Barker has appeared on radio
shows in Washington to make his case, and at press time the group’s
petition at Change.org had gathered more than 1,500
signatures. The group has since sent additional letters to the
Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and to the Secretary of the
Smithsonian, Dr. David Skorton.
Several editorials have
protested its closing.
The move to close the theater is unprecedented
and extremely puzzling to anyone familiar with the operation of GS
theaters in museums. Failing museums have closed and taken their
theaters with them, but demolishing a GS theater in a healthy museum is
virtually unheard of. It also makes little sense to close an operating
theater and revenue source in favor of a replacement for which there are
no concrete plans and no funding in place, as appears to be the case
here. (We asked NMNH specific questions about financial models,
construction plans, and other details, but only received the statement
NMNH’s IMAX theater is part of the West Court
project, built in 1999 at a cost of $45 million in a large open
courtyard within the original 1910 museum building. The
80,000-square-foot (7,500-square-meter) center includes the 487-seat
theater, the 800-seat restaurant, and an interactive Discovery Room on
the top level.
With 7.1 million visitors in 2016, NMNH is the
fourth most popular museum in the world. This level of visitation would
seem to guarantee the success of any giant-screen theater; the 312,000
tickets reportedly sold in 2016 is significantly lower than would be
That number is more than twice the average of 34
institutional GS theaters that report their attendance to the Giant Screen Cinema
Association in 2016, but only one theater is located in a museum
popular than NMNH. That one is the National Air and Space Museum (NASM),
across the National Mall, which drew in 7.5 million visitors in 2016.
Its Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater has been the world’s most popular for
much of its 41-year existence. Although I don’t know its 2016
attendance number, when I managed it in the late 1980s and early 1990s,
it routinely served over a million visitors, going as high as 1.5
million in some years.
That discrepancy might seem to support
Johnson’s claim that declining attendance at NMNH’s theater
justifies closing it. Of course, most institutional giant-screen
theaters around the world have seen attendance drops over the last few
years, for a variety of reasons that we have covered in LFX.
And NMNH’s IMAX theater has some inherent obstacles to achieving the
high ticket sales of its sister in NASM, the main one being that its
location within the labyrinthine NMNH does not make it easy for visitors
However, in an Aug.
18 letter to the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, the filmmakers
protesting the closure revealed that, contrary to the statements from
NMNH, the box office reports they have received from the theater
indicate that its attendance has gone up, not down, over the past three
years, from 265,000 in 2014 to 285,000 in 2015 and over 310,000 in 2016.
(The group has also made requests under the Freedom of Information Act
for documents and e-mails relating to the closure of the theater and the
expansion of the restaurant.)
Furthermore, several managers, consultants, and
other experts I have spoken to about this story fully agree with the
conclusion I have reached, as a former IMAX manager: even if attendance
were falling, the solution would not
be to close the theater, but to boost marketing efforts.
I have no doubt that the staff of Smithsonian Enterprises, which operates the Institution’s three
IMAX theaters, shops, and other profit centers, could provide many ideas
for increasing attendance, and probably have done so. (We did not speak
with anyone from Smithsonian Enterprises, which referred us to the NMNH
public affairs office.)
Instead, for reasons that are entirely unclear,
museum management (which ultimately controls operation of the theater)
appears to have acted to undermine, rather than support, the theater.
As I mentioned, the location of the IMAX theater
is not obvious to visitors, the majority of whom enter through the Mall
side of the building. For that reason, a satellite box office was
installed in the Rotunda, the main entrance hall, shortly after the
theater opened in 1999. And yet, on my most recent visit I was surprised
to see that it had been removed, as had some of the signage promoting
the theater. This can only have hurt ticket sales.
The rationales offered for closing the theater
make no sense to anyone with theater management experience, either from
a business or mission point of view. The museum director asserts that
the theater runs “at barely 20% capacity,” while complaining that
the current restaurant cannot handle demand, and that “lines often
extend into the main hallway of the museum.” However, most GS theater
managers recognize that, unlike attendance, “percent of capacity” is
a statistic of dubious utility, since it can be raised or lowered at
will by changing the number of shows on the schedule. Furthermore, no
comparable capacity figure has been cited for the restaurant, which is
undoubtedly mostly empty for most of the day.
With sales of over 300,000 tickets, plus
concessions, gross revenue of NMNH’s theater must be in the vicinity
of $3 million, based on reasonable assumptions. Net income is therefore
probably well over $1 million a year. I think most GS managers and
marketers would agree that, in a museum with 7 million visitors, those
numbers could be increased substantially with little difficulty.
I have no idea about the current profitability
of the restaurant, or how much it might potentially be increased in an
expanded footprint. (I will note that food service typically has much
lower profit margins than GS theaters.) The cost of the proposed
renovations is estimated at $16 million, according to a Smithsonian
spokesperson, although no RFP has yet been issued.
Furthermore, no consideration seems to have been
given to the option of expanding the restaurant in a manner that
doesn’t affect the theater. Barker and other observers point out that
there seems to be plenty of space within the existing structure to do
On learning of the estimated cost of the
project, Cosmic Picture’s Davies told LFX:
“The American public should be gasping for air at the $16 million
price tag to tear down and replace a perfectly viable and profitable
IMAX theater at taxpayer expense. The plan to expand the cafeteria is
not based on any independent analysis of demolition, construction, and
operating costs, and it is likely the bill to taxpayers will be far
higher. How many years will it take to recoup such a huge investment by
selling more hot dogs and pizza to children?”
As for serving the mission, the museum
director’s statement says the new construction will include “new
space for public programming,” although he revealed no details about
this space or how it would meet mission goals. Will it be able to
provide informal science education to hundreds of thousands of people in
the unique and memorable way that GS films do? Will it provide more than
a million dollars of net annual revenue like the theater?
Another assertion in NMNH’s official statement
is that “the Smithsonian still has two other IMAX theaters,” at NASM
and in NASM’s Udvar
Hazy Center at Dulles Airport. However, this argument is
specious for several reasons, the main one being that NASM’s theater
rightly fills its schedule with films related to its mission, and
showing natural history films there would be inappropriate. A less
well-known problem is that NASM is in the midst of a long-term
revitalization that essentially involves rebuilding the entire museum
from one end to the other. During each phase of the project, large
sections of the building will be closed to the public. This means that,
sometime in the next five years, NASM’s IMAX theater (and its Einstein
Planetarium) will be closed for up to two years. If NMNH’s IMAX is
demolished, that would leave the National Mall with no IMAX theaters for
the first time since 1976.
The unavoidable conclusion is that closing
NMNH’s theater would cost the museum and the Smithsonian money and
reduce, not enhance, their ability to fulfill their mission. At the very
least, a great many questions have not been answered.
Which raises the matter of transparency, and the
fact that although the director claims that planning has been under way
for five years, in all that time the museum made no public statements,
nor did it solicit public opinion, about the project. Indeed, the plan
was only acknowledged by the museum after the filmmakers’ open letter
was published, a scant few weeks before the planned closure of the
The Smithsonian is funded in part by U.S.
taxpayers, and should consider public opinion in decisions that would
deprive visitors of such a significant public asset. It does not behoove
the institution to behave in this secretive and opaque fashion in
matters of such import.
The Smithsonian and NMNH owe the American public
more consideration and openness in this vital matter than has been
evident so far. The filmmakers’ call to delay the closure and
demolition of the theater, pending full disclosure and discussion of the
project and its ramifications, is entirely justified and should be
For more information on the campaign to save the
theater, visit www.saveourimax.org.