“Daddy, is it real?” asked a boy in genuine wonderment from the back row just a few minutes into the screening. The story that unfolded before us – or around us, more precisely – on a 25-meter dome seemed extraordinary, and not just because we were watching a real climbing mission in the Himalayas, but because it was as though we were there, soaring above the mountaintops with avalanches threatening to flatten us.
“Everest” is one of the films being screened this season at the planetarium of the Eugenides Foundation in Athens, and it has already wowed many of the foundation’s patrons of all ages. But for the management and creative teams here, the biggest source of pride is that these high-quality digital shows are produced exclusively for the Eugenides Digital Planetarium using cutting-edge 3D technology. Their success is attested to by the fact that three of the productions are already being screened in Europe and the United States, where the Eugenides “enjoys a great deal of esteem among colleagues,” according to the planetarium’s director, Dionysis Simopoulos, who is also a physicist and astronomer. Russian planetariums are also beginning to show an interest, he added.
Exactly 10 years since it first opened, at 950 square meters, the Eugenides Digital Planetarium remains one of the biggest and best equipped in Europe and the US, topped only by the newest of its kind in Japan.
The newest addition to the list of achievements of the foundation’s creative team is “Journey to the Stars,” a co-production with the American Museum of Natural History and US-based computer graphics firm Evans & Sutherland.
From its inauguration day in 2013, the Eugenides Digital Planetarium has welcomed some 3.5 million visitors to 30,000 shows. It is the second most-visited attraction in Athens after the Acropolis, with around 40 percent of its visitors comprising schoolchildren from fifth grade and up. What’s more, over those 10 years, the Eugenides Foundation, which bankrolls the planetarium, “has not spent a single cent of taxpayers’ money,” stressed Simopoulos.
The entire operation is funded exclusively from the trust fund set up in 1954 by Eugene Eugenides and his sister Maria Simou, which was continued later by Nikolaos Vernikos-Eugenides. Revenues from ticket sales cover just 12 percent of the planetarium’s operating costs, added Simopoulos.
In contrast to other planetariums that on average see their visitor numbers drop by around half after the first five years of operation – most likely because they are perceived as one-visit facilities – the Eugenides Digital Planetarium has seen a dip of just 10-12 percent in the past decade.
Simopoulos argues that plenty of new productions keep the public coming back.
“Every year we present two new digital shows that are 40 minutes long,” explained the foundation’s director, adding that in the world’s other 600-odd planetariums most shows do not exceed 20 minutes in length.
Simopoulos conceded that the crisis has had an effect on visitor numbers, but noted that “people still want to come, and I attribute that to the magical powers of the stars in the skies.”
Giving back to its audience, the Eugenides Digital Planetarium also holds a lot of free screenings and events, such as the premieres of new shows, which can see attendance as high as 15,000 people.
“We do what we can to ensure that no one is left out of our activities,” said Simopoulos.
Future plans at the foundation include upgrading the planetarium’s equipment even further to get deeper 3D imaging, as well as continuing to promote its productions abroad.
Simopoulos said that the foundation is also planning a major overhaul of its website in 2014 so that people outside Athens can have access to some of the things the Eugenides has to offer.
On Monday, November 4, “Journey to the Stars” will be screened free of charge at 6, 7.15, 8.15 and 9.15 p.m. in celebration of the planetarium’s 10th birthday. Priority coupons will be distributed from 5.30 p.m. at the box office.
Eugenides Foundation, 387 Syngrou, Palaio Faliro, tel 210.946.9600. For more information, go to www.eugenfound.edu.gr.