To most of us, Stephen Low’s job sounds glamorous. In the 20 plus years that he has been an IMAX film director, producer and investor, he has managed to get his cameras into the cockpits of Indy race cars and Boeing jets, next to flying geese and inside beaver dams, and to the bottom of the ocean — first filming the ruins of the Titanic and now for his movie Volcanoes of the Deep Sea. But when it comes down to it, this entrepreneur is like most others. He struggles with setbacks, finding funding for his projects and, perhaps most importantly, figuring out a way to make a living out of his passion.
“Because they are very expensive to produce, and to get financing you have to be creative, each movie is kind of a miracle,” says Low. “It’s very easy for sponsors, be it government or corporate, to look in Variety magazine, see the box office numbers, and think they should be making money. But that is an illusion. The institutions that show the movies have spent billions building the theatres and they need to service them. That’s what industry doesn’t understand, they think [IMAX] is a big money deal, when it isn’t.” (Low estimates that IMAX movie makers receive only 20 % of a film’s profit, while the theatres that show them — often institutions such as museums which have high upkeep costs — get about 80%)
So, instead of spending most of his time looking through a camera, Low spends a lot of it selling the benefits of IMAX to potential sponsors. His key message: IMAX films can be excellent education and public relations tools. “There is a huge benefit for an industry to advocate for itself on a huge screen,” says Low. “These movies can have an extraordinary impact when politicians and the general public see it.”
Hail Columbia was Low’s first IMAX project. Released in 1982, the movie followed the first flight of the space shuttle. The movie’s production team convinced NASA to sponsor this film by explaining it would be good for their agency’s image. And it was. Then U.S. President, Ronald Reagan watched a private screening of the film and Low is convinced that event has affected NASA’s budget ever since.
“My agenda is to convince industries that they can use IMAX as an advocate,” says Low. “They can use it to generate billions of dollars in attitude change.”
“But that doesn’t mean IMAX can promote anything — the topic of a movie still has to be interesting enough for people to want to see it. Take the case of Low’s 1988 release Beavers. Low was flown to Japan by the Chubu Electric Power Company to discuss making an IMAX film about nuclear power for the company’s new visitor information centre. “I said forget it,” recalls Low, who had no interest in a subject with no story to speak of. “I told them, what you should do is make a film about beavers. It’s vaguely related to power, and it’ll draw families to your exhibit. And while they’re there, they’ll learn about your nuclear power plant.”
At first, the power company executives were not impressed. But soon they came around. Low got to make the film he wanted — a film which would perfectly marry his deep concern for the environment with the need to tell a good story. Viewers came to know the beavers as characters in their own right. And, of course, Chubu wound up with a film which would go on to be an international evergreen family favourite.
Like most entrepreneurs, seeing his ideas come to fruition is a challenge that demands Low’s perseverance. He estimates 85% of his movie pitches never make it to production. And, those that do don’t come easy. For example, the idea for his film Titanica was picked up in 1985, but fell through for technical reasons. It wasn’t until Low got the Russian government onboard six years later, that production began.
Low’s next project isn’t exactly new either. For the past 20 years he’s been dreaming about making a film on railroads.
“The potential is fantastic,” he says as if launching into another sponsorship pitch. “Governments are at a crossroads with pollution and highway gridlock issues and suddenly railroads, with their inherent efficiency, are coming into the spotlight. A train uses 600% less energy than a truck, the opportunity to grow and save energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions is almost limitless. So my agenda is to convince the railroad industry that they need an advocate to explain these facts carefully. It’s good educational material and good for the general public to understand this.”
If it’s not a huge money making venture and the project has now been ongoing for more than twenty years, why does Low stick with it?
“It’s just passion,” he says. “You get so excited about the possibilities that it keeps you going.”