By Diane Carlson, Giant Screen Cinema Consulting

“Members and donors are a strategic stakeholder group, and it is beneficial to the institution as a whole for them to have a special relationship with the GS theater that transcends the transactional act of buying a ticket.”

There is generally a lot of discussion about how giant screen (GS) films can be linked to education or exhibit programming. There has not been as much discussion of how the theater can link to other endeavors of its host institution—specifically with the development (fundraising) and membership units. It was my experience at Pacific Science Center in Seattle that there was a wonderfully symbiotic relationship among these groups. I was fortunate to have colleagues who understood and valued our IMAX® theaters and how they could be an asset for their objectives. The outreach by these units to key stakeholders for the theaters, in addition to general marketing, was a significant benefit to the theater. As marketing budgets have become smaller, it is more important than ever to leverage all available resources to support the success of any institutional GS theater, including periodic capital upgrades.

When the Science Center first established a donor club, I was fortunate to have been put in charge of member events. This happened in part because the theater was seen as an asset that could easily provide a series of donor events throughout the year in a highly efficient manner. As the donor program grew, I no longer managed the event program, but I remained a key partner and was involved in the event planning strategy.

Brian Terwilliger, Diane Carlson, and Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden

For example, when I was planning on programming the film Living in the Age of Airplanes, I pitched the film to the VP of Development, Erik Pihl, as the program theme for the annual gala. He embraced the idea and thought it a perfect match for a gala sponsorship by Alaska Airlines and The Boeing Company. (Boeing was already an ongoing supporter of the gala.) Initially, we were told that the CEO of Alaska Airlines would probably not attend. However, not only did he attend, but we sat Brian Terwilliger, the film’s director, with him and it was a wonderful pairing. I was also seated at their table and was able to talk about the film with Alaska Airlines staff. This event was after the initial launch of the film, so it garnered additional visibility, including a photo of the three of us in the theater for a local magazine feature on the gala.

Below is a perspective from Erik Pihl, the former VP of Development at Pacific Science Center, with whom I worked for nine years. He currently heads Community Engagement for the new National Nordic Museum in Seattle.

“During my service as VP for Development at Pacific Science Center, we used the Science Center’s robust IMAX film program (two screens) as an important donor and prospective donor engagement tool.

Donors who become closer to an institution are more likely to support it and remain supporters for an extended time period, if not life-long.

The IMAX film program adds another program dimension in which donors can become more engaged. Most science centers/museums change their special exhibitions three times per year. Films change much more frequently, expanding the opportunities for engagement.

On top of the sheer number of films shown in a year is the diversity of giant screen film content: environmental, engineering, animals, conservation, adventure, etc. This wide variety of programming increases the opportunity that donors will find programs that are aligned with their values and interests—the more a program aligns with a donor’s interests, the deeper the engagement.

We frequently leveraged further opportunities to bring filmmakers and film talent to Seattle for the launch of a new film. This provided opportunities to organize small dinners for donors to meet the cast and crew of a film, making donors feel important and privileged to have access to the talent and/or thought leaders.

We provided all members free admission to documentary films. We also provided complete access to all films, including features, to the Center’s leading donors (those making gifts of $1,000 or more). We regularly monitored usage and found that donors did not abuse these special privileges. Rather, those who attended the IMAX theaters perceived that the institution valued their relationship and their support.

Using the IMAX theaters as an engagement tool led to funding for two major theater remodels, with seven-figure contributions for each project. They also led to increased support for the Museum’s operating budget and membership at higher levels.

While giving away free tickets may seem counter-intuitive to an institution’s theater business model, our experience was that the institution yielded far greater philanthropic support (including membership) and still achieved its financial goals from tickets purchased by the general public.

There’s a marketing side to this too. With more than 24,000 member households, the Science Center had a strong following that could influence the market through word of mouth. Providing free tickets to members and donors helped get the word out about a new film and created a buzz in the community about it.

An IMAX theater definitely can be a compelling and helpful tool for institutions to grow and sustain their membership and philanthropy programs.”  — Erik Pihl, Former VP Development, Pacific Science Center

“Member previews of documentaries were some of our top attended member events. In my experience, our IMAX theater was always, and should always be, a major factor in membership strategy.”

Erik had been at the Seattle Art Museum before joining Pacific Science Center, and he brought with him a strong membership engagement approach. One aspect of this was to have exhibit previews for members—and by extension we also added previews for our IMAX documentary films—in addition to the reception-based events for our higher-level donors.

Film producer Shaun MacGillivray with three generations of a Pacific Science Center donor family at a special donor screening of National Parks Adventure

I had a great partnership with the membership team, and comments from the last membership manager are below:

“In my four-year experience working in membership at our city’s Science Center, our IMAX theater was a consistent and crucial factor in membership sales and member satisfaction. In member surveys and in data collected through A/B testing, additional IMAX feature movie passes were one of our top-performing incentives for renewal and acquisition campaigns, even outperforming reduced cost in some tests. On top of this, I’ve found that the perceived value of IMAX passes always far exceeded their usage rate. Aside from movie passes, we found a number of other unique ways to boost engagement, exclusivity, and value around our IMAX theater. Member previews of documentaries were some of our top attended member events, free concessions provided an extremely low-cost-high-value perk, and we’ve run several successful upgrade campaigns with an IMAX movie as the primary call to action. In my experience, our IMAX theater was always, and should always be, a major factor in membership strategy.” — Lucas Moser, Former Membership Manager, Pacific Science Center

Members are increasingly important to cultural organizations. They are stakeholders and key for word-of-mouth marketing. At the end of this piece there is a link to an article from Colleen Dilenschneider’s Know Your Own Bone website that addresses the financial value of members for cultural institutions, especially as attendance is in decline at many organizations. But most importantly, below are comments from long-time members of Pacific Science Center who shared comments about their theater experiences:

“What IMAX movies mean to me: Best documentaries—intriguing subjects, inspirational accounts, educational stories, far-flung places. These are thoughts that come to mind and reasons that I love and enjoy IMAX films. They are well written, creatively shot and beautifully narrated. It is a fun family event that you know IMAX films can be enjoyed by young, old, and everybody else in between. Young children can be inspired by the astronauts, engineers, climbers or anything they dared to dream from watching IMAX films. It is an added bonus to meet award-winning directors/producers of IMAX films. I was able to pick their brains on a one-on-one basis over private lunch or dinner were privileges that Diane afforded me.” — Elaine W.

“IMAX has offered my family and me a basket of amazing films over the years. From Beavers when I was a child to Everest as a young adult to the more recent A Beautiful Planet. We have seen dozens and dozens of IMAX programs, and they never disappoint. As a long-time donor to Pacific Science Center, I am truly grateful to the opportunities we have had to meet the key people in making IMAX programs. From the late Toni Myers from A Beautiful Planet, to Greg MacGillivray, who has directed so many loved IMAX movies. Being a member and donor at our local science center has been a gold opportunity for our family.” — Julie B.

“Discovery Circle membership has allowed me the privilege to enjoy IMAX documentaries with special guests such as astronauts and directors. These individuals have added a lot of depth to my understanding of how these films were created and puts me in the shoes of the individuals on the big screen at these family friendly events. I especially enjoyed the IMAX Superpower Dogs film, which put us in the perspective of various dogs and their human partners as they aid in making society a better place.”  — Nathan W.

“I grew up watching IMAX movies at the Pacific Science Center, and now I’m studying film at Vassar College: those treasured nights spent gazing up at the new Harry Potter movie definitely influenced my choice of studies.” — Anna B.

“I’m very grateful for the many opportunities to attend IMAX events ever since I was a child. I attended these events with my parents and grandparents and always felt that these events and films appealed to audiences of all ages. These films are always engaging and capture touching stories that showed me other aspects of the world that I wasn’t aware of. As a young adult now, I still enjoy attending these events with my family.”  — Macey W.

This is a snapshot from colleagues whom I partnered with directly to mutually support each other’s objectives and from the members and donors who value giant screen film programming as an important part of their science center experience. Working collaboratively across an organization with ample lead time and creativity benefits not only the theater unit but the organization as a whole. For me, an added personal benefit of working closely with the Development Division at Pacific Science Center was wonderful ongoing relationships with many donors. Members and donors are a strategic stakeholder group, and it is beneficial to the institution as a whole for them to have a special relationship with the GS theater that transcends the transactional act of buying a ticket.

Diane Carlson
President Giant Screen Cinema Consulting
Former VP Guest Services and Theaters at Pacific Science Center with a 35+ year tenure.

Reference: Know Your Own Bone article about the value of members to cultural organizations: