SACRAMENTO, CALIF. And now, from the state that brought you Hollywood and "product placement": an IMAX film about California, conceived by state tourism officials.
"Adventures in Wild California," which opened in some U.S. and Canadian theaters in May and June, offers a dazzling portrait of the state's history, characters and natural beauty. The 40-minute documentary, which state officials call "edu-tainment," was paid for primarily by corporate underwriters, several of which are flatteringly portrayed.
Most newer IMAX films have sponsors financing them, said Brian Weisfeld, senior vice president of operations at the Mississauga, Canada-based IMAX Corp. The films tend to draw high-income, highly educated audiences that appeal to advertisers.
Whether the sponsors get mention in the film depends on the filmmaker, he said.
An IMAX film about New York that has been playing for several years features shots of a blimp belonging to MetLife, a principal sponsor.
While Weisfeld said such arrangements don't necessarily undermine the films' integrity, critics say the corporate presence represents a dangerous crumbling of the walls between content and advertising.
"The line between entertainment and advertising, and news and advertising, is blurring in so many media that it's increasingly hard to tell the difference," said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, a watchdog group opposed to "the excesses of advertising." He cited CBS News' decision to digitally superimpose the network's logo over an NBC sign during a New Year's Eve broadcast from Times Square.
Who controls the content?
Nina Rosenblum, an Academy Award-nominated documentary maker, said giving underwriters such exposure would be unacceptable in her recent work for ABC, PBS and HBO.
"We would not be able to do that because it compromises the integrity of the documentary," she said. "Once people are paying to be in the documentary, it's no longer a documentary in that sense."
Some industry observers see nothing wrong with sponsors getting exposure in this type of movie.
"It's a different kind of product, the IMAX film," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. "If it's entertaining, I think that's the bottom line. If endorsements don't get in the way of the message, and audiences enjoy it, that's the most important element right there."
Many feature films, too, accept payment to give exposure to brand-name products, a practice known as "product placement."
Greg MacGillivray, who directed "Adventures in Wild California," said he made the movie he wanted.
"I had full editorial and creative control, and no obligation to do really anything but a film that would be popular and be able to be shown in IMAX theaters around the world," he said in a telephone interview from his Laguna Beach office.
Even so, MacGillivray, who also directed the best-selling IMAX film ever, "Everest," said he faced a similar situation with that film's chief sponsor. "We had to tastefully involve a short scene featuring Polartec at the beginning of the film," he said.
Risk-takers or financial backers?
"Adventures in Wild California" takes viewers on freefalls with parachutists and to the tops of the Golden Gate Bridge and giant sequoias. It drops them into glitzy crowds awaiting the Academy Awards ceremony, and into monster waves at the surf spot known as Mavericks.
Fifteen companies, tourism associations and others contributed a total of $7 million to make it and to provide theaters with promotional materials. About $1 million came from California taxpayers.
The principal sponsor, Wells Fargo & Co., is featured in two scenes: A stagecoach emblazoned with the company name barrels across a dusty plain, and the Wells Fargo building looms large in a nighttime shot of the Los Angeles skyline. Three other sponsors receive prominent exposure, their founders portrayed as visionaries: the Hewlett-Packard, Robert Mondavi and Walt Disney companies.
MacGillivray, a soft-spoken surfer and second-generation Californian, said the companies played important roles in California history and exemplified one of his themes: risk-taking.
The stagecoach, he said, also offered movement -- a welcome element on the wide screen. MacGillivray persuaded Wells officials to loan him the stagecoach for free.
"I said, 'If we have your credit at the beginning of the film, the stagecoach will make it seem too commercial.' They understood that," the director said.
The first closing credit is for Wells Fargo.
Raynell Boeck, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, declined to say what the company contributed to the film.
Visits to California slumped in the mid-1990s, and Division of Tourism deputy director Caroline Beteta dreamed up the film to jump-start the industry.
The finished product, she said, "stands on its own."
"We have stayed so clear from the creative process so the film has integrity," she said. "But once it's done, we're using the film as a marketing platform to create sales opportunities on behalf of California's travel industry."
The film is set to play in some 115 markets around the world, said Lon S. Hatamiya, secretary of California's Trade and Commerce Agency.