Saturday, May 19, 2018
Business

Weeks before 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' opens, MOSI's IMAX Dome Theatre closed for repairs

TAMPA — Almost daily, the Museum of Science and Industry has blasted social media with promotions for the highly anticipated premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on its large IMAX screen next month.

What MOSI hasn't mentioned, however, is that it quietly closed its IMAX Dome Theatre for repairs weeks ago.

MOSI's landlord, Hillsborough County, said the theater likely won't be up and running again until at least Thanksgiving.

A problem with the museum's electrical system was discovered during routine maintenance in October. A breaker on a motor control panel connected to IMAX equipment was tripping.

Due to the age of the equipment — it was two decades old — MOSI elected to replace the control panel entirely. As it is, the IMAX theater has been offline since Oct. 14, according to the theater's online calendar.

Hillsborough County, which owns MOSI's building, will pay for the repairs as part of its maintenance agreement. Nevertheless, the IMAX Dome Theatre — a unique, arched, 10,500-square foot screen that offers 180-degree views — is a major funding source for the museum that won't produce any money for at least six weeks. Last year, ticket sales brought in $855,000, representing 11 percent of all of MOSI's revenue.

MONEY PROBLEMS: Unapproved loan, unpaid vendors among MOSI's troubling financial issues, report finds

MOSI's high-wire bike is also offline and has been for a couple months, museum spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said. MOSI hopes a new cable for the bike will be installed within three weeks.

"IMAX revenue was down about 50 percent compared to last year in the month of October," Herbon said, "so we look forward to getting the theater back up and running as soon as possible to help with MOSI's cash flow."

It's bad timing for MOSI, which faces mounting financial pressures. The museum finished fiscal year 2015 with $195,000 deficit, according to financial statements provided to Hillsborough County and obtained by the Times.

A county review of the north Tampa museum in September found $1 million in unpaid bills, new debt from a January loan that was not approved by the county, a maxed out credit card, and a letter of credit that was nearly tapped out and close to expiring.

Among MOSI's long list of vendors owed money is IMAX Ltd. As of September, the museum was behind $135,000 in payments to IMAX.

Ann Sommerlath, a spokeswoman for IMAX, said they are "aware of the financial issues around this site and have worked with the team at MOSI on more favorable terms."

Those terms, Herbon said, include a lower royalty rate for film prints. She added that the museum is on track with its payment plan.

"We are proud to have IMAX as one of our long-term corporate partners," Herbon said.

Other than a disclaimer on MOSI's website, the IMAX closing has not been publicized.

MOSI's active Twitter account has posted dozens of tweets advertising tickets are available for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which will play at the IMAX theater starting Dec. 17. MOSI is promoting the latest installment of the George Lucas-turned-Disney franchise on Facebook as well.

None of their tweets since Oct. 14 mentioned the IMAX is currently offline. No press release went out either.

And on Thursday on Facebook, MOSI suggested patrons should check out an IMAX film this Veterans Day, even though MOSI's own website says the theater will be closed on Wednesday.

Josh Bellotti, Hillsborough County's director of real estate and facilities service, said the plan is to have the new control panel installed by Thanksgiving. Preliminary estimates before installation have put the cost of repairs at $19,000.

Bellotti said the broken control panel was "original to the facility," meaning at least 20 years old. The 340-seat, 82-foot high IMAX Dome Theatre opened in 1995.

Aging equipment and infrastructure has been a persistent problem for MOSI, the largest science museum in the southeast, as it seeks to move beyond its financial troubles. A 2014 audit of the museum discovered "substantial deferred facility maintenance." The audit also criticized the "lack of routine maintenance" which MOSI employees told auditors was "symptomatic of 'general neglect systematic throughout MOSI.' "

The IMAX theater also closed during July's heavy rainstorms due to "problems with the dome's gutter system," Herbon said.

The loss in theater revenue comes just as the MOSI board rejected Hillsborough County's terms for a $400,000 loan. Though MOSI President and CEO Molly Demeulenaere asked for the loan to cover payroll and basic operating expenses, the board balked at Hillsborough Administrator Mike Merrill's stringent conditions for any new borrowing.

Instead, the board voted to increase its 2016 fundraising goal from $3 million to $3.4 million. In 2015, MOSI's contributions totalled $1.9 million.

Last year, Florida Hospitals purchased the naming rights to the IMAX theater for $2 million. The donation allowed MOSI to convert its projection systems from film to digital 3D.

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.

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