They are the epitome of safe family entertainment, renowned for lavish animations, exquisitely filmed scenes of natural grandeur and utterly tame scripts. But IMAX films have suddenly found themselves catapulted into controversy, thanks to their occasional use of the dreaded E-word: evolution. In several states, IMAX cinemas -- including some at science museums -- are refusing to show movies that mention the subject or suggest that the Earth's origins do not conform with biblical descriptions.
The films include "Cosmic Voyage," an animated journey through the universe; "Galapagos," a documentary about the islands where Charles Darwin made some of his most important observations; and "Volcanoes of the Deep Sea," an underwater epic about the bizarre creatures that flourish near ocean vents.
In most Southern states, theater officials found recent test screenings of several of these films triggered accusations from viewers that the films were blasphemous. Carol Murray, marketing director of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History in Texas, said audience members who had watched "Volcanoes" had commented, "I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact" or "I don't agree with their presentation of human existence." As a result, the science museum has decided not to screen the film. "If it is not going to draw a crowd and it is going to create controversy, from a marketing point of view, I cannot make a recommendation," Murray told the New York Times Saturday.
Superficially, the decision affects only a dozen or so cinemas. But it could have a profound effect across the world because of the high cost of producing IMAX films. They require special cameras and expensive projectors. The economics of IMAX filmmaking are therefore very tight, and the actions of these southern IMAX cinemas will only exacerbate the problem. It is expected that producers will be far less likely to make films that could offend fundamentalists, as the loss of venues in Southern states could be enough to turn profit to loss.
"It is going to be hard for our filmmakers to continue to make unfettered documentaries when they know that 10 percent of the market will reject them," said Joe DeAmicis, vice president of the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
This point was also emphasized by Bayley Silleck, who wrote and directed "Cosmic Voyage." Many institutions across America are coming under pressure about issues relating to natural selection, and "they have to be extremely careful as to how they present anything relating to evolution," he said.
A spokesman for the Science Museum in London described the development as worrying: "It is a very tight market in the IMAX business, and we would be extremely disappointed if this sort of pressure led to a narrowing of the market for popular IMAX films. These films are very popular with families."
The decision has also dismayed James Cameron, the Hollywood director who made the IMAX film "Aliens of the Deep" and who was one of the producers of "Volcanoes." He said he was "surprised and somewhat offended" that people are sensitive to the references to evolution in "Volcanoes." He also revealed that objections had been made to parts of "Aliens of the Deep" but that these had remained in the final cut. "It seems to be a new phenomenon, obviously symptomatic of our shift away from empiricism in science to faith-based science," he said.