Filmmaker Shaun MacGillivray Wants Kids to Dream Big

A great story lures people in, allowing them to experience things in a way that they otherwise could not.

The Great Wall of China. The International Space Station. A village bridge in Haiti. The Falkirk Wheel in Scotland. The 127-story Shanghai Tower in China. The Hyperloop in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Viewers can explore the genius behind all of these engineering wonders in Dream Big: Engineering Our World, one of the the latest IMAX® documentaries by MacGillivray Freeman.

But this film is not simply for viewing. It aspires to change behavior.

For this project, MacGillivray Freeman teamed up with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Bechtel Corporation to inspire children of diverse backgrounds to become innovators and eventually improve the lives of people around our planet.

We aim not just to entertain but to spark a fire in the viewers’ minds and inspire a new generation of lifelong learners,” says second-generation filmmaker Shaun MacGillivray, a YPO member from California, President of MacGillivray Freeman and Managing Director of the company’s One World One Ocean Campaign, a multi-year, multi-platform ocean media initiative.

Dream Big will show in every school across America by the end of 2019, with a projected audience of more than 25 million people globally. The multi-faceted educational program includes hands-on activities, engineering design challenges, lesson plans for Kindergarten through 12th grade and short educational videos. In addition, the program offers events designed to promote mentoring programs for girls and engineering programming in museums and communities across the United States.

So far, it’s working. More than 80 percent of students report they are more likely to pursue careers in engineering after watching the film, and more than 10,000 girls have attended Girls Night Out mentoring events.

Preparing for impact

MacGillivray Freeman began making documentaries about the surfing culture in the late 1960s before turning its attention to commercial films. A 1976 request from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air & Space Museum to create the first film for its five-story-tall IMAX theater changed the trajectory of the company again. To Fly! has played continuously since its release and has been seen by more than 100 million viewers, making it the second-highest grossing  film for IMAX and giant screen theaters.

MacGillivray Freeman has since created 40 IMAX films, many of which revolve around inspiration in education and connecting people to the natural world. Its credits include the highest-grossing IMAX film ever, Everest, two Oscar®-nominated films, The Living Sea and Dolphins, and the highest grossing documentary of 2016, National Parks Adventure.

“There’s always been this passion to not only inspire people to think a little differently about our planet and the oceans but also in general,” says MacGillivray.

A big part of its success and influence stems from the company’s theater partnerships: museums, science centers and aquariums around the world whose key tenet is lifelong learning. It’s at the heart of MacGillivray Freeman’s mission, too. The company provides educational outreach and develops supplementary materials for use on fieldtrips and within the classroom at multiple grade levels while the films play at these institutions from one year to more than 40 years.

“We’ve been on the cutting edge as far as utilizing the latest technology to make the most immersive, incredible experiences that change people’s behaviors across multiple platforms,” says MacGillivray. “A lot of times the stories help people realize they’d like to be involved with the subject.”

Each film typically reaches 10 million people in theaters, 25 percent of whom are students on school trips. An additional 10 million to 15 million view the films through the second window of streaming services. Of the 25 million people who have seen each of its films, many have been called to action.

Extending reach through partnerships

“That social impact and being able to change behavior around a certain topic is built into who we are with every film that we do,” says MacGillivray.

To accomplish that, MacGillivray Freeman partners with Fortune 500 corporations and associations who want to do good in the world and nonprofits to enact change. MacGillivray Freeman provides the storytelling and works on projects from Imax to iPhone, from short-form social media content to longer-form television and big IMAX films.

“We aim not just to entertain but to spark a fire in the viewers’ minds and inspire a new generation of lifelong learners.” Shaun MacGillivray, President at MacGillivray Freeman Films, Managing Director One World One Ocean

As head of the business development and partnership team for MacGillivray Freeman, MacGillivray has successfully raised funding of more than USD40 million for IMAX documentary films in the last three years. He is currently producing the company’s forthcoming IMAX films: Exploring Wild America, Ireland and Flying With Superheroes.

“The way that I am able to get any project through the door is through a corporate partner, corporate foundation or a high-net-worth individual who’s excited about giving back,” says MacGillivray. “They want to inspire, educate and create awareness around a certain topic and move the needle. We’ve found that our films have really changed people’s behaviors, whether that’s making them more likely to donate to a cause or to continue to protect a specific area like the national parks.”

The power of brands

In 2011, Coca-Cola launched an integrated marketing campaign centered on the conservation of the brand’s mascot, the polar bear. Rather than use an animated polar bear, Coca-Cola instead chose to feature real polar bears in the campaign to motivate consumers to help protect this critically endangered species. Coca-Cola partnered with MacGillivray Freeman to use footage from To The Arctic, which captures a mother polar bear in Svalbard, Norway, as she hunts, feeds, nurses and protects her two cubs in a rapidly changing environment.

A text-to-donate take-action campaign featured in the advertising helped raise USD4 million for the World Wildlife Fund to protect areas in the Arctic. It was a win-win for Coca-Cola, too: its company reputation increased by 20 percent, and brand love went up by 10 percent as a result of the campaign.

“If you don’t have a sustainable business, then you’re never going to be able to do anything,” says MacGillivray. “But it’s by far the most rewarding thing we do when we can make a visible impact, when we know people are getting inspired in an interesting way to protect the oceans and the environment, becoming motivated to make a difference in the world and getting excited about a topic they hadn’t thought about. There is a lot of energy that comes from that.”

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