Sony Spreads Its ‘Wings’

Before he flies into the nation’s multiplexes as new Batman, Val Kilmer will land on one Gotham screen in a movie that could test Hollywood’s commitment to new technology. “Wings of Courage,” the first dramatic film to use the startlingly effective (and just as eye-poppingly expensive) Imax 3-D technology, pushes Sony into a new world as uncharted as it may be brave.

Kilmer, Tom Hulce and Elizabeth McGovern have gone where only otter swam before, led by acclaimed director Jean-Jacques Annaud. Although it clocks in at just 40 minutes, “Wings of Courage” cost more than $15 million – no one is saying exactly how much – yet has a maximum universe of just 120 theaters worldwide. Moreover, given the prohibitive cost of making prints (about $20,000 each), “Wings” will be showing on relatively few screens at any given time after it opens next month.

What’s in it for Sony? Profit and a stake in new terrain, the company says. Skeptics agree at least on the latter.

In some ways, the scenario seems as much something out of Hollywood’s past as its future. Like the old studios that cranked out product to stock their elaborate movie palaces, Sony is jumping headlong into the 3-D production biz to supply the Imax theaters that will anchor its mega-multiplexes.

Industry sources say Sony has little choice: Box office at the Imax theater in Sony’s Manhattan flagship cineplex has been good since the state-of-the-art screen opened last November, but how long before audiences grow bored with the “Wild Kingdom” fare that has been the Imax diet for the last decade?

Sony finds itself in an odd predicament. Although the company clearly wants to move the new technology into a more commercial theatrical market, the majority of Imax theaters are firmly entrenched in the science-museum circuit. Even in commercial multiplexes, the Imax screens draw considerable weekday business from school groups.

So at least for the foreseeable future, the high-tech films will need to straddle two worlds, mixing Hollywood panache with at least nominally educational subject matter. Hence the new “Wings of Courage,” an account of French aviation pioneers Antoine de St. Exupery, Jean Mermoz and Henri Guillaumet. The film opens April 21 at Lincoln Square, and runs there exclusively for six months.

Although it utilizes the Imax 3-D technology, the “Wings” project started in the office of Mitchell Cannold, president of Sony New Technologies Inc. The production plan was developed “arm-in-arm” with the long-range plans of the Sony Theaters chain to build its flagship theater complexes.

A key element of the plan, says Cannold, was – and is – to tap into the “tremendous potential” of Hollywood. Cannold specifically sought out Annaud, whose films “The Bear” and “Quest for Fire” he thought contained the required mix of drama and science.

Sony synergy

In May 1993, Annaud pitched the St. Exupery story, and by April of ’94 a script was ready. The name cast soon followed, and TriStar joined the project to assist Sony New Technologies on “supervising production,” Cannold says. Sony Pictures Classics was chosen to distribute the film, and Cannold recruited Imax distribution exec Mark Katz to work for SPC.

But Hollywood talent and cutting-edge technology don’t come cheap. Although no one connected to the film will discuss budget, sources say cost overruns pushed the figure to $15 million. One financial source close to the project says $15 million is far too conservative, and that the actual figure falls on the far side of $20 million.

In any case, “Wings” was significantly more expensive than the $2 million-$5 million average cost of 2-D Imax films, more expensive even than the $5 million-$10 million standard for the 3-D fare. Of the 120 large-screen Imax theaters in the world, only 10 are equipped with 3-D capability. “Wings” will play the 3-D screens first, then be shown in 2-D format at the rest. Given the limited Imax circuit, can “Wings” turn a profit?

Cannold will say only, “There is a very profitable business in making Imax movies in the $5 million to $10 million range.” Since “Wings” cost more than that, it will need to be an Imax blockbuster – along the lines of “The Dream Is Alive, ” a 2-D Imax space film that has grossed in excess of $100 million. Of course, that film has been making the Imax rounds for nearly 10 years.

Still, Cannold says the 3-D gamble is “very low risk,” with the large-screen theaters (Sony-owned or not) clamoring for new, more exciting fare. Sony New Technology will follow “Wings” with Stephen Low’s “Across the Sea of Time” a historical drama set in New York City.

Given that the average theatrical lifespan of an Imax film is three to five years, success is determined “not over an initial weekend, but over the first year,” Cannold says.

And whether or not “Wings of Courage” ends up on Sony’s profit ledgers anytime soon may well be beside the point. If New York’s Lincoln Square is any indication – and Sony Theaters strongly believes it is – having an Imax 3-D screen anchor a flagship multiplex is worth the risk for its spinoff business alone. Those screens need product, and the multiplexes need to be places where more than just the buffalo roam.

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