The film business is full of showy sprinters: filmmakers and movies that flash by as they ring up impressive box office numbers, only to leave little of substance in their wake. Then there are the dedicated long-distance specialists, like Greg MacGillivray, whose thought-provoking documentaries — including “Everest,” “To the Arctic,” “To Fly,” and “The Living Sea” — play for years, even decades at a time.
These giantscreen labors of love may not have made MacGillivray a household name, but over the past four decades, they’ve entertained and educated millions around the globe, and recently — in a hare-and-tortoise scenario Hollywood should envy — quietly passed $1 billion in box office.
While most filmmakers would be ecstatic about reaching that milestone, MacGillivray is not one of those people.
“I’m actually a little embarrassed, as it’s the educational value of our films and the kinds of changes they’ve helped bring about that are the most important thing to me,” says MacGillivray, 65, who co-founded MacGillivray Freeman Films back in the ’60s with partner Jim Freeman, who died in a 1976 helicopter crash.
MacGillivray doesn’t judge success by B.O., or awards, for that matter (he’s twice Oscar-nominated). Instead, he is more proud of his films’ unique combination of visually dazzling images (“I still love to shoot everything myself”), the serious educational message behind them (“Our mission is to teach people about conservation”) and their impressive longevity.
“?’To Fly’ has played nonstop at the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum since its 1976 release,” he notes, “and ‘Everest’ is the highest-grossing giantscreen film ever made — more than $148 million since its 1998 release — and it just keeps going.”
Whereas most documentaries focus on timely, hot-button issues such as gun control and immigration reform, MFF films pull back to reveal the timeless grandeur of the natural world. There’s no sell-by date for majestic images of Everest or the Grand Canyon, “and we try to keep it that way,” says MacGillivray. “We have to choose long-lasting subjects that can run for 20 or 30 years and still look fresh, and that’s not so easy.”
For the past two decades, conservation has been MacGillivray’s “main push, particularly with regards to the ocean,” he reports. “Not only have I made films about the subject, but I’ve largely funded them on my own, so I’m fully committed to doing whatever I can to change the audience’s respect and appreciation for the ocean. In 100 years I want whales, dolphins and sharks to still be around, and the ocean to be a healthier place.”
With this in mind, the director is currently on location shooting “To the Arctic,” a film “about the impact of melting ice packs on polar bears and caribou,” due for release next year. After that comes “Humpback Whales” and “Return to Everest,” and the massive five-year project “One World Ocean” — “all of which we’ve started work on,” he adds. “So we’ve got a full plate. We have no plans to do features, although Jim and I worked on a lot of big Hollywood films like ‘Towering Inferno’ and ‘The Shining.’ We’ll stick to what we do best.”
MacGillivray is quick to share credit with “the unmatched Imax experience” for MFF’s success. “We’re separate companies, but joined at the hip, and a big part of the attraction (of our films) is the Imax format,” he explains. “I think that if we produced the same films in a smaller format, they simply wouldn’t gross as much.”
Although Imax films can be cumbersome affairs, costs haven’t risen as precipitously as those for traditional productions, with MacGillivray estimating that the average giantscreen production costs $8 million in 2D and $10 million in 3D, up about 20% over the past decade.
Mike Lutz, senior VP of business development, reports that the lion’s share of the company’s box office receipts has always come from its Imax films. But the business model and the nature of that longstanding relationship, which began back in 1976 with “To Fly,” is “very different” from typical Hollywood operations, he stresses: “It’s an exhibition-style business rather than a day-and-date style business, so when a film’s released to an Imax theater, they cover the cost of the Imax print and take care of all the advertising and so on.”
Consequently, MFF receives a far lower percentage of the gross. “So even though we’ve generated around $1 billion over the years, a much higher percentage stays in the theaters to help propagate local programs and support natural history and science museums and their own education and scientific programs that otherwise wouldn’t get support,” he notes.
MFF has long worked closely with 125 of the world’s science, space and natural history institutions to bring its immersive learning experiences to a global audience in some 32 countries, and MacGillivray admits that the museums’ Imax theaters have become “cash cows — and that income helps fund curatorial staff and other exhibits, which is great.”
John Mackey, president of Discovery Place in Charlotte, N.C., reports that MacGillivray “listens a lot to our needs and is very committed to our educational goals. He’ll screen a new work in progress, give us a rigorous survey and then act on our feedback.”
Mackey, who oversaw the building of the Discovery Place Imax theater in 1992, adds that MacGillivray’s films “have always been the most popular, and he always produces excellent educational materials and guides to complement his projects.”
Jennifer Grant Warner, senior VP and chief programming officer at Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History, notes that its Imax theater — “and Greg’s films in particular” — play a “key role” in funding the museum’s operations. “His films are always top-attended and help us fulfill our educational mission because he always puts the science first, and that’s so important for us,” she says.
Peak performer | Hollywood’s collective wipeout | High-flying advances | MacGillivray’s message