- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

With the economy in turmoil and charitable giving down all over the country, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” will serve as a two-pronged boon for Washington’s flagship museums. In addition to swelling the museum’s coffers, the new movie is almost certain to boost attendance.

The first installment in the series, “Night at the Museum,” was a surprise blockbuster, grossing $250 million domestically and another $324 million internationally. The Ben Stiller comedy, set in New York’s Museum of Natural History, was responsible for an attendance spike of 20 percent to 25 percent at the museum.

Both the filmmakers and the museum chiefs hope the Smithsonian will receive a similar bounce from the sequel.

“We’re hoping that we get a bump in awareness as well as attendance,” said Claire Brown, director of communications at the National Air and Space Museum, where much of the film’s action is set. That bump is one of the main reasons that the Smithsonian - which had never before allowed a narrative feature to film on Smithsonian grounds - granted the filmmakers permission to shoot on location.

“It helped immensely that our first movie was well-known enough. … The Smithsonian knew before I ever met with them that we were going to treat their exhibitions respectfully and with humor and wit and definite reverence as well,” said Shawn Levy, the film’s director.

The fact that the first movie increased attendance at its host museum didn’t hurt, Mr. Levy added.

Working within the Smithsonian’s walls allowed the filmmakers to create a greater sense of realism and provided some of the cast and crew with a little inspiration.

“I really enjoyed everything in the Air and Space Museum,” said Mr. Stiller, the movie’s star. “That’s just really fun to be around all that stuff, the real stuff. We got to walk around the back one day, and there was this incredible model airplane collection that no one sees, just hundreds of model airplanes detailed out. It’s kind of amazing.”

That discovery led Mr. Stiller and Mr. Levy to create a sequence in which the miniature airplanes have a dogfight in the middle of the Air and Space Museum.

Since admission into the museums is free, the expected spike in attendance inspired by fantasy sequences like this one won’t translate directly into more money. That’s not to say that the Smithsonian won’t benefit financially in other ways.

“We did get a location fee,” said Ms. Brown, “and we got a licensing fee, and yes, there will be an opportunity for us to share in the profits from this movie in a limited way, and we are also selling merchandise that relates to this movie.”

Additionally, the film will be screening at the Smithsonian’s IMAX Theater, and third-party marketing tie-ins will bring in more revenue. “There are some sponsorship agreements where we participated with Kraft macaroni and cheese and Post cereals, and we are on the packaging,” said Ms. Brown. “What is the dollar value of being on 41 million boxes of macaroni and cheese? It’s a new experience for us, some of this kind of work.”

The financial windfall couldn’t have come at a better time for the museum. Though federal funding of the Smithsonian has increased to $731 million, the organization’s endowment has taken a beating as the stock market tanked, shedding nearly 30 percent of its value since the end of 2007.

Not all of the grand buildings within the District have jumped at the chance to snap up Hollywood dollars.

Though Deborah Ziska, the chief of press for the National Gallery of Art, said that she thinks the Gallery was contacted during the filming of the new movie, she also said that it doesn’t “want to be used as a set for movies that are not about the National Gallery of Art.”

“If it’s not about the Gallery, it’s not something that’s worth disrupting the visitor’s visit to the National Gallery of Art or using our resources,” she said. “There would be a lot of opportunities to be used as a backdrop or a set for a movie. We don’t consider that to be in our best interest.”

Financial considerations don’t enter the equation because talks never get very far, according to Ms. Ziska: She thinks the last movie that filmed at the Gallery was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Strangers on a Train” (1951).

“It’s a huge undertaking for a museum to manage a film shoot,” said Karen Meyerhoff, the managing director of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, which has played host to seven shoots in the past two decades. “The money is one thing, but you’d never do anything just for money. You want to make sure that it’s good for the image of the museum, that it’s going to drive interest in art audiences everywhere, that the general public is going to get something out of this that is going to make them want to go to their local art museum.”

The District’s landmark national institutions often set conditions similar to those of the National Gallery for lending their likeness to production companies. The Library of Congress, for example, requires that the institution be integral to the story as a condition for appearing in movies like “National Treasure 2” and “Eagle Eye,” with which it cooperated to spread awareness of the library’s mission.

Like the Museum of Natural History, the Library of Congress seems to have benefited from the added exposure in Hollywood: Compared to two years ago, the number of visitors who passed through the library in January through April is up 69 percent. Though spokesman Matt Raymond said it’s impossible to tell how much of the recent spike is the direct result of being shown on the big screen, he readily acknowledges, “Anecdotally, every time I’ve seen a tour guide ask a tour group, especially if they’re younger people, ‘How many of you have seen “National Treasure 2”?’ 90 percent of the hands go up.”

The Kennedy Center - prominently featured in the District-set “State of Play” - has an additional concern. “We are a national memorial to President Kennedy, so we have to take this into consideration,” said spokesman John Dow, adding that the Kennedy Center has live performances literally every day.

“In the case of ‘State of Play,’ I believe they came in and it was an overnight shoot, so the building was closed,” Mr. Dow said. In all such cases, the studios are expected to pick up the tab for operating costs, but these ventures aren’t big money-makers for the center.

Hollywood’s renewed fascination with Washington and the national treasures within its borders, combined with a tighter economic outlook ahead, means that more and more of the District’s national heritage sites could find themselves tempted by the prospect of big screen close-ups.

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