Film reveals ancient city of Jerusalem to wider audience

Jerusalem from National Geographic's new 3D IMAX movie. (National Geographic)
Jerusalem from National Geographic's new 3D IMAX movie. (National Geographic)

The old city of Jerusalem is the star of a visually stunning 3D 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 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in September and will start showing Saturday in Raleigh, N.C., at the Marbles Kids Museum.

It’s already playing in other museums around the country, from Boston to Seattle, as well as Charlotte, N.C.; Tallahassee, Fla.; Lubbock, Texas; Hutchinson, Kan.; and Columbus, Ga. It is already playing in London and Paris.

“ ‘Jerusalem’s 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.”

“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 – and possibly even sex appeal – 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 3D 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; a home to people of three religions who live side by side but don’t connect.

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. 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.”

Ticket prices run from $5 to $10 for adults, depending on the venue. 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 who isn’t affiliated with the “Jerusalem” movie. “It’s an immersion experience.”

The film’s close-up look at holy sites is having a particular impact with some groups that don’t traditionally 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. At the Science Spectrum Museum and OMNI Theater in Lubbock, administrative manager James Nesmith said the film had attracted a new audience of older people and busloads of church groups, instead of children and families.

“People come as far as two hours away,” he said.

Kittie Hamersley, ministry assistant at the First Baptist Church of Crosbyton, Texas, 37 miles east of Lubbock, went with a group of 24 seniors from the church to see the film.

“I was just really interested because I’ve never been there,” said Hamersley, who was particularly struck by the Western Wall. “I really enjoyed being able to visualize that.”

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