WASHINGTON – What happens after dark in the halls of a museum? A few lucky kids will get to find out in the months ahead, thanks to some big promotions and travel deals drawing on the buzz of Hollywood's new museum flick, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian."
The world's largest museum complex, the Smithsonian Institution, is in the spotlight and hoping the movie - starring Ben Stiller, Robin Williams and Amy Adams - will draw millions of young new visitors to see the real airplanes and artifacts housed in Washington that are featured in the movie. Kid-friendly product promotions already are offering chances to win free trips for a sleepover at the real Smithsonian.
Much of the movie is set at the National Air and Space Museum, though it also features artworks and treasures from other sites on the National Mall. It's set for release in theaters May 22.
"Hopefully they can make history come to life," said aeronautics curator Robert van der Linden, who reviewed the script and made sure film crews didn't break anything while they shot scenes at the museum last year.
The show is "a complete fantasy," he said, noting the Wright brothers come alive with their famous flyer zooming out of the museum (the real plane barely got off the ground). Adams portrays the famed pilot Amelia Earhart with her bright red Lockheed Vega airplane. "It reminds people of what's here," the curator said.
In the sequel to the 2006 film "Night at the Museum,"which was set at New York's American Museum of Natural History, Stiller's character, security guard Larry Daley, comes to Washington to find his museum friends who are stone-cold exhibits by day but spring to life when the sun goes down. They had been shipped from New York to a mythical vault under the National Mall.
The film trailer gives a few more hints about the characters he'll encounter in D.C. There are roles for Darth Vader, Oscar the Grouch and even Abraham Lincoln, who rises from his seat at the Lincoln Memorial.
It's even more magical than the first movie, said Claire Brown, a spokeswoman for the Air and Space museum, who has seen the new film.
"Paintings come to life. Photographs come to life. Statues come to life," she said. "Nothing's off limits."
The Smithsonian is capitalizing on this moment - its first time to be so prominently featured in theaters across the country.
Beyond an agreement with 20th Century Fox for the movie's creation, officials from the museum and the city's tourism bureau teamed up with the movie studio to strike deals with McDonald's, Kraft, Hershey's and Post cereals. They want to make it hard for anyone to miss this movie and offer the chance to visit the real museums. Sweepstakes offers on millions of boxes of macaroni and cheese, candies and cereals will give away free trips for kids to have a sleepover with their families at the real Smithsonian. Another publicity campaign will help visitors find the real artifacts that they see in the movie.
The strategy is driven, in part, by the last "Museum" movie. It brought in more than $250 million at the U.S. box office and helped drive a 20 percent increase in attendance at the New York museum. And the last big movie that focused on Washington's cultural scene, "National Treasure," helped drive up attendance at the National Archives by 200,000 visitors in 2004 - drawing special interest among boys.
The Smithsonian already draws 10 million visitors over the summer months but would like to see even more.
"It's reaching a demographic that is so important to our future," Brown said. "We want kids to know they can have fun in museums."
The Smithsonian also stands to gain more than $1 million if the film does well and tens of thousands of dollars in additional revenue from special events. Spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas said they could not reveal specific figures from the movie deal with Fox.
Washington tourism officials are planning special "Night at the Museum" packages with city hotels and will advertise for the first time in movie theaters in cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Raleigh, N.C.
The nation's capital already is drawing attention from kids, they said, because there are two young girls living in the White House. (No word yet on whether the Obama daughters have been invited to the movie's world premiere at the Smithsonian's IMAX theaters on May 14).
"Often times we hear that parents have a civic duty to bring their families to D.C. for a vacation," said Victoria Isley of the tourism bureau Destination DC. "But we believe 'Night at the Museum' will really help kids inspire visits themselves."
Other Washington-area museums also are getting in on the action with plans to have their exhibits "come alive" at night, regardless of whether they're featured in the movie.
During the last two weekends in May, George Washington's Mount Vernon estate is opening its grounds for lantern-lit evening tours with plans for historical characters to pop out of their exhibits. The site offered similar themed tours tied to the "National Treasure" movie that have been popular even after the show closed in theaters.
"It just proves that marrying pop culture with museums or cultural attractions really works," said spokeswoman Emily Coleman Dibella. "It gets people excited again about going to museums."