Smithsonian Hopes To Cash In On Stiller Movie

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With the release of Ben Stiller's Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, officials at the Smithsonian Institution are hoping for a financial boost. It stands to benefit from the major Hollywood blockbuster in many ways: from having its name planted on cereal boxes to getting a percentage of the box office.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If the crew zoomed in on Washington, they would have a hard time missing the Smithsonian Institution. It's a giant complex of museums mostly clustered near the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. It is sometimes called the nation's attic, and is also, this weekend, the nation's movie setting. It is featured in the sequel to "Night at the Museum," featuring Ben Stiller once again as a beleaguered museum guard.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair has covered the trouble at the Smithsonian, and now zooms in on the movie.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: I've been to a lot of Smithsonian press conferences about things like governance and fundraising. The press conference for "Night at the Museum II" was thankfully nothing like that. It was in the 19th century Smithsonian castle where an odd jumble of objects are on display: a stuffed snow leopard, some old fashioned bicycles, an electric guitar.

Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS (Actor): It's nice to be in a room that looks like Michael Jackson's garage sale.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: Robin Williams sat in a row with Ben Stiller, Rickie Gervais, Hank Azaria, Owen Wilson and Amy Adams in front of dozens of reporters from around the world.

Unidentified Woman: I have a question for Amy. Your career seems to be going very strong right now. How do you view your position?

Mr. RICKY GERVAIS (Actor): Right now…

Mr. WILLIAMS: Right now…

BLAIR: Ricky Gervais and Robin Williams couldn't resist.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Enjoy it.

Mr. GERVAIS: Yeah, right now.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Good luck, Amy.

Mr. GERVAIS: What you do with your money, investing it?

BLAIR: Of course, Amy Adams is doing great right now.

Ms. AMY ADAMS (Actress): I'm sorry, was there a question at the end?

BLAIR: Adams has two movies out this summer. She plays Amelia Earhart, who comes back to life in this film, and Julie in "Julie and Julia" with Meryl Streep. "Night at the Museum" is mostly set in the Smithsonian's Air and Space, and just like the first one, the living exhibits cause Ben Stiller's character all kinds of grief.

(Soundbite of movie, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian")

Mr. CLINT HOWARD (Actor): (as Air and Space Mission Control Tech #1) I wanna go, no go for launch.

Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): (as Larry Daley) I say no go. Let's not go.

(Soundbite of collision)

(Soundbite of screaming)

BLAIR: The Smithsonian Institution has 19 museums the filmmakers could choose from. There's Air and Space, Natural History, American History, American Art. It has thousands of cultural artifacts, like the hat Lincoln wore the night of his assassination, a Wright Brother's airplane, Archie Bunker's chair and Dorothy's ruby slippers.

(Soundbite of movie, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian")

Mr. HANK AZARIA (Actor): (as Kahmunrah) Why, these aren't real rubies at all. Ruby slippers, indeed.

(Soundbite of glass shattering)

Mr. AZARIA: But whoever you were, Archie Bunker, you had one comfortable throne.

BLAIR: Was this an easy thing to green light within the bureaucracy of the Smithsonian?

General JACK DAILEY (Director, Air and Space Museum): Um, no.

BLAIR: General Jack Dailey is the director of Air and Space.

Mr. DAILEY: There was some level of resistance initially. In fact, Claire Brown, our director of communications, was probably instrumental in selling this throughout the institution.

BLAIR: Now Claire Brown doesn't really look like the type to be selling a Hollywood movie. She's a proper, reserved woman in her late 50s.

Ms. CLAIRE BROWN (Director of Communications, Smithsonian): If the name Smithsonian was on the movie, you know, we had to be very careful about, you know, was it going to reach the right audience? Reputationally, was it going to be mission related?

BLAIR: The mission of the Smithsonian is the increase and diffusion of knowledge. The movie is a wildly exaggerated action-fantasy-comedy. Even Rodin's thinker, which isn't even at the Smithsonian, comes to life.

(Soundbite of movie, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian")

Mr. AZARIA: (as The Thinker) Thinking. I'm thinking. I'm thinking.

Mr. STILLER: (as Larry Daley) It's not happening, no.

BLAIR: But here's the thing. The Smithsonian is a taxpayer-funded institution that has been running at deficit for years. By having its name in the title of a major Hollywood movie, the Smithsonian is getting exposure it could never afford on its own: on billboards, commercials, Milk Duds, Happy Meals, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Ms. BROWN: I think with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, it's 41 million packages. And kids eat a lot of macaroni and cheese.

BLAIR: Claire Brown and one of her colleagues got to approve the script, and they, in turn, gave the filmmakers a lot of leeway to put whatever and whoever they wanted in the movie version of the museum.

Mr. SHAWN LEVY (Director, the "Night of the Museum" Films): The range of exhibits at the Smithsonian gave us license to imagine such things.

BLAIR: Shawn Levy directed both "Night at the Museum" movies. He says they're about the big what-if.

Mr. LEVY: That's a big part of the job of filmmaking, is you indulge you fantasies. You indulge your inner what-ifs.

BLAIR: And folks at the Smithsonian are tickled by it. Air and Space Curator Bob Van der Linden loosely consulted on the movie.

Mr. BOB VAN DER LINDEN (Curator, Air and Space): Some of the things they're having the airplanes do are a bit of a stretch. They have the Wright flyer flying down the hall, through a door, and outside with a passenger on board. The real Wright Flyer could barely get out of its own way - totally preposterous, but great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: Here's Bob Van der linden, a serious curator who works with historic facts all day, clearly charmed by the whole experience. It turns out during filming, director Shawn Levy had a tougher time dealing with the fictional properties.

Mr. LEVY: There's a scene where Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch approach Hank Azaria's evil pharaoh.

(Soundbite of movie, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian")

(Soundbite of breathing)

Mr. AZARIA: (as Kahmunrah) Is that you breathing? Because I can't hear myself think.

BLAIR: It sounds like Darth Vader was a bit of a diva.

Mr. LEVY: There's a guy who wears the suit, and he showed up on the set. But there's also Lord Vader's handler. And this is a representative from Lucas Film, who was a lovely woman who stood there next to Darth Vader all day. And occasionally she would say Vader wouldn't do that. And I was like, really? Vader can't like shake his head in frustration? No, it's Darth Vader. He wouldn't do that. And there are these unspoken, like, codes of behavior for Lord Vader that this woman was there policing.

BLAIR: Shawn Levy says a third "Night at the Museum" is not out of the question. At the press conference at the Smithsonian, someone asked where it might be set. Ben Still and Robin Williams couldn't resist.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, the Louvre. You could go to the Louvre and have them all go crazy, huh?

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. But it's sort of been Da Vinci-coded or something.

Mr. WILLIAMS: You're right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: After the first movie came out, attendance at New York's American Museum of Natural History jumped about 20 percent. Folks at the Smithsonian's already crowded Air and Space say they're ready for the onslaught.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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