‘Jerusalem’ part of immersive education on screen

Short educational films captivating museum audiences

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 14, 2014 

Al-Masjid al-Aqsa, meaning “The Furthest Mosque” is one of the three most important sites in Sunni Islam. The Jerusalem mosque is the subject of a new 3D Imax film playing in museums.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The old city of Jerusalem is the star of a stunning 3-D Imax film that’s bringing new attention to a non-Hollywood type of movie: short films that play in museums and science centers.

The movie, “Jerusalem,” produced by Cosmic Picture and Arcane Pictures and distributed by National Geographic Cinema Ventures, breaks ground from what are usually educational stories about nature, animals or science. Distributors say the film has had a successful first six months.

It opened in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in September. It’s already playing in other museums around the country as well as in London and Paris. It played at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center from September to January and will be back there for Easter weekend because of its popularity.

“‘Jerusalem’ is doing extremely well,” said Mark Katz, the president of distribution for National Geographic Cinema Ventures, part of the National Geographic Society. “We’re very excited about it. It’s one of the strongest films in the industry right now.”

The film’s box office gross so far is $2.5 million, and by the “industry,” Katz means the museum cinema business. In industry jargon, they’re known as “institutional theaters,” and 45-minute films, usually on science or nature themes, attract museum-goers at more than 200 such in-house cinemas. But it’s difficult to gauge box office grosses for all the movies.

“The educational giant-screen market does not collect box office data like the Hollywood film industry,” said Kelly Germain, a spokeswoman for the Giant Screen Cinema Association in Holly Springs, N.C. “Producers and distributors typically do not share their box office information.”

Movies at these theaters play for months and even years, compared with the average of nine to 10 weeks for a successful run in commercial theaters.

“Imax” refers to the copyrighted film technology of wider, 70 mm film — standard film is 35 mm — enhanced by “surround sound,” audio from a 360-degree radius, and shown on a giant floor-to-ceiling screen that gives viewers a sense that they’re in the movie.

“It’s the finest visual resolution available,” said Michael Cook, a Santa Barbara, Calif., independent producer of Imax movies. “It’s an immersion experience.”

“Jerusalem” stands out not only because it’s so different from the usual educational film found in museums, but also because it touches on the hot-button issue of the Middle East.

It also has the star power of narrator Benedict Cumberbatch, a British actor who played Khan in last year’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” and also is known to U.S. audiences as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series “Sherlock,” shown on PBS stations.

The power of “Jerusalem” is that it transports the viewer to the city of three religions — Muslim, Christian, Jewish — and showcases all its beautiful and historic sites, enhanced by the hands-on feel of the 3-D Imax format. In aerial scenes, as well as from the ground, the camera follows the labyrinth of the city streets. It gives equal billing to the glistening Dome of the Rock, holy to Muslims as the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven and which defines the city skyline; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sacred to Christians as the burial and resurrection site of Jesus; and the Western Wall, venerated by Jews as the remaining wall of the temple destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.

The movie presents Jerusalem through the eyes of three young women — a Jew, a Muslim and a Christian — who see the small walled city, which is divided into religious sectors, entirely differently. It is a home to people of three religions who live side by side but don’t connect.

The film’s close-up look at holy sites is having a particular impact on some groups that don’t typically gather to attend such industry films.

“We’ve found a large audience with church groups and religious groups,” said Meaghan Calnan, the National Geographic Society’s communications manager.

Diane Carlson, vice president of guest services and theaters for the Pacific Science Center, said the PSC has long offered a broader range of Imax films, including commercial releases. But “Jerusalem” — which PSC brought in in conjunction with its exhibit “Race: Are We So Different?” — has drawn a more adult audience, including many more seniors than a typical PSC film would draw.

She said the audience falls into two camps: people who have never been to Jerusalem but really want to experience it, and people who have gone and want to revisit it. “They say they have been immediately transported back to the city,” when they see the film, she said.

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