King of the (Really) Big Screen
Greg MacGillivray got into filming five decades ago to share his love of nature with the world. Now, all that’s changed is the size of the screen and the number of family members in the business.
By Terence Loose
With 37 films which have raked in over $1 billion at the box office, two Academy Award nominations, and the highest-grossing documentary of all time, MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) has become synonymous with the giant screen. Partnering with celebrities, kings, superstars, iconic brands, museums of science and nonprofits, Greg MacGillivray, along with his son, Shaun, wife, Barbara, daughter Meghan and a loyal staff who works at their historic Villa Bella headquarters in Laguna Beach, are changing the way theatergoers experience film in a big way.
It didn’t start out that way. Greg, who lives in Laguna Beach, began small, his love of the ocean and nature inspiring him to shoot short surf films in high school, showing them in his garage and charging fellow surfers 25 cents admission. It was all to fund his first “feature” film—a beautifully shot surf movie called “A Cool Wave of Color”—that took him four years to finish. It was so low-budget, in fact, that he couldn’t afford the $3,000 it would take for a soundtrack. So, in 1964, when he took a year off of college to screen the film in rented theaters up and down the California coast, Greg stood in the back and narrated the film himself, playing music from a boombox.
His family served as unpaid assistants. “My parents were super supportive,” he says. “They came to every screening, regardless of where it was, just to help me. They’d help me sell tickets, then collect tickets at the door. My sister helped run the projector and my grandmother would watch the exits to make sure no surfers snuck in for free.”
The film, while not a fortune-maker, didn’t lose money (a success by surf film standards). That success led him to put out 1965’s “The Performers.” And this one was a relative hit, netting $35,000.
Encouraged, the then-physics major went to his parents with the idea of quitting school and pursuing film. “They said, ‘Well, you can’t starve in Southern California and you can’t freeze, so what are you worried about? Just try it,’ ” Greg says. So he left school and began working on his next film with friend and soon-to-be producing partner Jim Freeman. MacGillivray Freeman Films was formed.
Establishing the Viability of IMAX
Together they made surf films so beautifully shot and framed that Hollywood came calling. They worked on films such as “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and “Towering Inferno,” and then went big time. Not Hollywood big time—giant screen big time. Their first IMAX film was “To Fly!,” which is today the longest running film in history—it has played daily at Washington, D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum since its opening in 1976.
Tragically, Freeman died in a helicopter accident just before the opening of the film, but Greg has kept his partner’s name attached to the company to honor Freeman’s legacy and the role he played in the company’s success.
In fact, “To Fly!” is the film that changed Greg’s trajectory as a filmmaker. “Within the first year the Imax theater became the most well-attended theater in the world. They sold out every show. “To Fly!” established the commercial viability of this new thing called an IMAX theater, so after the wonderful experience I had making that film, I decided I would bend my career to make more Imax films,” he says.
With screens up to 80 feet high and images 10 times sharper than conventional film, IMAX films place viewers directly into the action as it unfolds on-screen. The screen, curved and positioned closer to the audience, with a six-channel, multi-speaker sound system designed in a surround sound pattern, along with 3-D, allows a cinematic experience that envelops an audience. The large screens, coupled with world-renowned artists who have become authentic brand ambassadors throughout each campaign, has allowed MFF to use the power of celebrity to captivate audiences through films, premieres, concerts, soundtracks, press appearances, behind-the-scenes content, and more. Artists have included: Dave Matthews Band, Helen Mirren, Liam Neeson, Meryl Streep, Paul McCartney, Pierce Brosnan, Robert Redford, Sting and Jeff Bridges among others.
Using the Power of Film to Help Protect the Environment
Because IMAX films are more experience than movie, they forced Greg to rethink his filmmaking and realize that he could not only wow his audience, but educate them about his passion: the natural world, especially the ocean.
But it wasn’t easy. A fact that has been proven again and again. Take “Everest,” MFF’s much-lauded 1998 film. Greg and his team took a 42-pound camera to the top of the world. Then there was 2003’s “Coral Reef Adventure,” during which expert diver and cameraman Howard Hall got the bends after a dive to 365 feet. And 2012’s “To the Arctic,” for which Greg’s son, Shaun—a University of Southern California film school graduate who joined the family business only after having a film shown at Cannes—took the IMAX camera to some of the most inhospitable places on earth to film the touching story of a polar bear family struggling to survive melting ice. That turned out to be one of the most challenging shoots in the company’s history. “Electric cords and film would get brittle and break. Cameras would break. And you’re going into an area where half of the year is dark. The temperature is minus 30 to 40, with howling winds. It’s just a not pleasant place to go,” Shaun says.
Add to that the fact that the polar bear population is less than that of Laguna Beach, and spread out across Russia, the North Pole, Canada, Alaska, Norway, Denmark and Greenland, and you’ve got the makings of a movie disaster—or no movie at all.
Fortunately for the polar bears—and movie audiences—MacGillivrays don’t give up. Shaun and crew got lucky on the fifth trip to the arctic in four years and got the pivotal shots for the film. That love of nature and unique filmmaking, and inspiring others to respect it, is what motivates both Greg and Shaun. It’s what drove Greg to take his camera into the surfing lineups of California for his first film and Shaun to drag his camera to the frozen top of the world for his first IMAX movie.
Exploring America’s Sacred Land
That driving force was also put to the test in 2016’s “National Parks Adventure,” MFF’s off-trail adventure where a trio of adventurers set out to experience America’s most historic naturally beautiful places. Narrated by Academy Award-winner Robert Redford, the film’s greatest challenge was highlighting the vital history of the creation of the National Park System “while maintaining the exhilaration of exploring the parks in the here and now,” says Greg.
“The key was finding that tricky balance between bringing audiences on high-energy adventures while also telling the rich story of how the parks were protected in the first place. We might not have had any wilderness left to explore, because things were heading in that direction.”
The film captures the essence of it via perhaps the most famed, and most unusual, camping trip in U.S. history: naturalist John Muir’s three-day escapade roughing it with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt through Yosemite Valley in 1903. For producer Shaun, the moment brought him back to his own early introduction to national parks. “I always remember the first time I saw Yosemite Valley and Half Dome as a kid,” he says. “So it was really special to be taking this trip back in time there.” Referring to the performances by actors playing John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, Shaun says it felt like history “was unfolding before our eyes.”
Dreaming Even Bigger
Their most recent film, “Dream Big: Engineering Our World,” in partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers, is what MacGillivray Freeman Films refers to “as a huge film, literally.” Narrated by the Academy-Award winning actor Jeff Bridges, “Dream Big,” which was released in February, is a first of its kind film for IMAX and giant screen theaters, meant to transform how we think about engineering. From the Great Wall of China and the world’s tallest buildings, to underwater robots, solar cars and smart, sustainable cities, the movie, according to the film’s marketing materials, “celebrates the human ingenuity behind engineering marvels big and small, and reveals the heart that drives engineers to create better lives for people around the world. … It is not only a journey through engineering’s greatest wonders, but equally a tale of human grit, aspiration, compassion and the triumph of human ingenuity over life’s greatest challenges.”
The project is part of a movement bringing engineering to the forefront of our culture and is the first giant-screen film to answer the call of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) initiative, which aims to inspire kids of diverse backgrounds to become the innovators who will improve the lives of people across the planet as we head into the 21st Century and beyond. The film is accompanied by ongoing educational, museum and community efforts to expose young people from all backgrounds to what engineering can conjure in the world and is accompanied by an educator’s guide and lesson plans with multidisciplinary activities from K-12 students.
“The film reveals that engineering has at its core, far more than math and science; it is just as much about getting creative, about helping people and even carving out our human destiny,” says Shaun, who produced the film.
Creating Positive Change
To that end, joining Greg on hundreds of filming expeditions is his wife, Barbara, who has been an integral production partner over the years, and now daughter Meghan, who helps with production. Strong advocates for the health of the ocean, as well as the preservation of all our natural environments, Greg and Barbara founded the MacGillivray Freeman Films Educational Foundation in 2004 to produce giant screen films that contribute to the public’s understanding of the ocean and the environment, sciences and cultures. Their aim is to use giant screen films and educational programs at museums and science centers to inspire and empower viewers.
“Creating positive change in the world begins with a person’s sense of his or her own potential,” Greg says. “When people connect to their personal power to affect change, they will feel part of something that is larger than themselves and will feel inspired to act. Our mission is to remind people of their incredible individual potential for creating immense and positive change.” (macgillivrayfreeman.com)
Educating the Masses with One World One Ocean
Any entertainer can be a message giver and move his or her audience in the direction they want to see the world go. And ever since my first surfing films I’ve had the desire to educate people about the need to sustain the health of the ocean,” filmmaker Greg MacGillivray says.
That’s why, in 2012, the MacGillivray family founded the One World One Ocean campaign, a nonprofit media campaign that uses everything from YouTube videos and social media to IMAX films to educate the masses on why the oceans deserve our love and help. As his son, Shaun, puts it, what we do in the next 10 years will set the ocean’s fate for the next 10,000. And possibly our own.
As a part of the One World One Ocean initiative, Mission Aquarius, an underwater expedition and media campaign, was born, featuring a full week of real-time programming direct from the undersea habitat, chronicling a six-day underwater expedition led by ocean research pioneer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Audiences could dive into original daily content, including a special feed that offered a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to live underwater in the Aquarius lab, live interviews, short videos, blog posts and slideshows. Using the latest digital tools, aquanauts were brought into classrooms, living rooms, onto buses and trains, engaging and inspiring millions. In just one week, the Mission Aquarius campaign generated 500 million media impressions, 300 unique news stories, and saved the world’s last remaining undersea research station: In January 2013, Florida International University announced it would take over the operations of Aquarius.
But unlike many other environmental emergencies, the plight of the ocean is not obvious—it looks blue and vast and clean from the surface. Plus, except for the odd whale breaching or aquarium visit, most people don’t get to wonder at its creatures. Hence, MacGillivray Freeman Films’ IMAX features such as “Coral Reef Adventure,” “Dolphins,” “Humpback Whales,” “Journey to the South Pacific” and “The Living Sea” are a powerful and needed tool in the fight to save them.
“We know it’s going to be tough. We know because the ocean looks so healthy on the surface, people won’t naturally think about it,” Shaun says. “But if we can sneak the education in while we entertain them, with IMAX films and other media, we can move the needle. We can make a positive impact.” (oneworldoneocean.com)