In this article in today’s New York Times, Carol Murray, director of marketing for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, which operates the local Imax theatre, explains why she decided not to show the documentary film, “Volcanoes.”
“If it’s not going to draw a crowd and it is going to create controversy,” Murray said, “from a marketing standpoint I cannot make a recommendation” to show it.
This is just flat wrong. Controversy sells movie tickets. If you want to put butts in the seats at local cineplex, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. Just ask Mel Gibson or Michael Moore.
Amazingly, the Fort Worth science theatre is not the only Imax operator to self-censor this science film because it presents science. The Times says, “‘Volcanoes,’ released in 2003 and sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and Rutgers University, has been turned down at about a dozen science centers, mostly in the South … because of its brief references to evolution, in particular to the possibility that life on Earth originated at the undersea vents.”
Apparently, panic erupted in the museum’s marketing department after a test screening of “Volcanoes” for 134 local residents. Reading through the viewer comments, a whiff of controversy arose – and it seems to have set Murray’s hair on fire. She told the Times that “while some thought [the film] was well done, ‘some people said it was blasphemous.’ In their written comments, she explained, they made statements like ‘I really hate it when the theory of evolution is presented as fact,’ or ‘I don’t agree with their presentation of human existence.'”
That this happened in a museum dedicated to science is as scary as it is sad. I suppose you could argue that avoiding controversy is mission-critical in marketing departments at a public institutions. But when avoidance of controversy leads to censorship, a line has been crossed.