NEW YORK-Just as large-format exhibition is expanding from what was once only theme parks and museums to more traditional theatrical venues — with industry leader Imax Corp.’s 144 worldwide theaters leading the way — so Sony is increasing its long-term global commitment to every side of the business, according to Mitchell Cannold, president of Sony Online Ventures and the executive in charge of Sony’s large-format film business.

Sony’s five-year relationship with Toronto-based Imax began with the construction of New York’s Sony Imax Theatre, followed by commitments for three more venues in Berlin, San Francisco and Tokyo. The company’s latest technological flirtations with 15/70 film (15 perforations per 70mm frame) have focused equally on the development and production of new movies and the distribution of new acquisitions.

According to Cannold, Sony is embarking on a schedule of producing “at least two 3-D Imax movies every year and acquiring one or two more.” Distributed through Sony Pictures Classics, Sony’s 3-D Imax productions typically run 30-40 minutes in length and are budgeted at about $8 million. The narrative-driven “Wings of Courage” and the New York travelogue/adventure “Across the Sea of Time,” Sony’s first large-format productions, are always on the schedule at the Sony Imax Theater in New York, and each is currently playing eight to 12 large-format venues around the world. (“Wings” has grossed nearly $20 million worldwide in two years; “Time,” released in October 1995 has a box office of $11 million.)

Projects scheduled for the near future include “Riding the Comet,” a three-dimensional sci-fi adventure inspired by Carl Sagan’s book “Comet,” scheduled to open in late 1998, and “Thrill Ride: The Science of Fun,” a 2-D acquisition premiering this July.

In stepping up its commitment to production and working toward creating the kind of films that can be entertaining, educational and viable for a global market, Sony has aligned itself with top-notch talents in the large-format production field. The company has inked exclusive relationships with Stephen Low and Andre Picard, two of the most prominent and prolific makers of Imax films.

Low produced and directed “Across the Sea of Time,” as well as one of the earliest Imax 3-D films, “The Last Buffalo,” and 1992’s “Titanica.” He is currently working on “Mark Twain’s America,” an Imax 3-D project co-produced by Sony New Technologies and Ogden Entertainment; the pic is slated for release in early 1998. Picard is best known as the executive producer of the popular “Rolling Stones at the Max” and the Oscar-nominated “Fires of Kuwait.”

In the case of “Wings of Courage,” filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud had no previous Imax experience when he was tapped to direct, but was pursued because of his majestic approach to filming the natural world in films like 1981’s “Quest of Fire” and 1989’s “The Bear.”

“We’re delighted with our relationship with Sony and their commitment to Imax on both the exhibition and production sides,” says Bradley Wechsler, co-CEO of Imax Corp. “Sony has such tremendous resources that we can do amazing technological collaborations.”

Sony is also looking to partner itself with “strong producers with powerful brands that can complement Sony’s strong marketing abilities,” Cannold says. In addition to Ogden Entertainment, Sony has inked a co-production deal with Discovery Entertainment and is in discussions with Children’s Television Workshop, Jim Henson Prods., Hallmark Entertainment and Scholastic Prods., a quartet of powerhouses in family entertainment.

“We’re not trying to produce these ourselves,” Cannold says. “Our potential partners understand how to embody entertainment and educational values in a film, and they come from a cost-effective TV background.”

There also appears to be a growing appeal for corporate sponsorship of the much-bigger-than-life medium, a potentially attractive opportunity for global brands like Sony. The risks are low for global sponsors positioning their brands around large-format productions, according to Cannold, who adds that sponsors are afforded the chance to be part of “the Tiffany of theatrical film experiences — superior technology, fabulous theaters and films that are in the public eye for three to five years.”

MetLife and Fuji are two such companies that have made seven-figure cash contributions for sponsorship identification on “Across the Sea of Time,” which included everything from logos on popcorn bags to a mention in press materials.

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