Sony Pictures said Wednesday that it would become the first major studio with a dedicated division for distributing digital programming such as concerts, plays and sporting events to theater chains.
The move comes as Hollywood studios and cinema owners look to expand their offerings in an era of essentially flat attendance for traditional movies.
The Culver City studio's new division, the Hot Ticket, will present "Delirium," a music, dance and acrobatics show from Cirque du Soleil, in August, followed by the closing night production of the Broadway musical "Rent" in September.
"As digital cinema starts to roll out in a big way over the next couple of years, you're going to see so many new applications," said Rory Bruer, the studio's distribution president. "Just as people are pounding the table for 3-D, 'alternative content' will be another part of the business."
An estimated 5,000 of the 38,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada are equipped for digital projection, Bruer said, but more than half could be converted in the next several years.
Walt Disney Co. scored a big hit this year with its digital 3-D presentation of "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour," which grossed $70 million despite playing at fewer than 1,000 theaters. It is making another 3-D concert movie with the Jonas Brothers for early next year.
For several years, companies outside the studio system, such as National CineMedia, Screenvision and Access Integrated Technologies Inc.'s the Bigger Picture, have distributed to theaters opera performances, rock concerts, Japanese anime, sports documentaries and children's cartoons.
Theaters usually show this "alternative content" during off-peak hours, such as weekend mornings or weeknights.
Movie ticket sales in the U.S. inched upward in the last two years, but the estimated 1.4 billion admissions in 2007 was down 12% from the peak in 2002. Analysts cite the boom in home entertainment and video games along with film piracy as factors.
Theater owners see such alternative content as a way to attract new customers and drum up additional business. "We have had some success playing various non-film programming from opera to pop concerts to sports," said Bruce J. Olson, president of the Midwestern chain Marcus Theatres Corp. He said he expected Hot Ticket events to be "outstanding draws, particularly on weeknights when we are not busy with traditional film fare."
Bruer said the recorded versions of "Delirium" and "Rent" could be shown at a modest 400 to 500 theaters nationwide, perhaps on two consecutive weeknights. Eventually, the studio, which is sharing costs with production partners, hopes to program 10 to 12 such events a year. The studio said only a few executives would be assigned to the division, which would draw from existing personnel in its movie marketing, distribution and acquisitions groups.
"In the beginning this business is not going to be a huge moneymaker, but this is a long-term play," Sony's Bruer said.