A host of alternatives: Sony serves up tennis, gaming, classics and more


“New year, new models” is the traditional auto or electronics industry rallying call, as electronics giant Sony certainly knows. But the digital disruption has demanded a lot more. At the company’s Sony Electronics Digital Cinema Solutions division, new models for the exhibition space have expanded beyond products like Sony’s 4K-resolution digital projection systems, VPF deals and other conversion solutions.

Over the past few years, the division has entered the content business, not just delivering alternative entertainment to venues large and small, but helping to create that content.
In his recent savvy take on how the digital revolution has shaken up Hollywood and its traditional ways, veteran film journalist Mike Fleming, now with Deadline.com, recently called the current uncertainty in Hollywood “the result of a business in transition that will eventually evolve into new consumer-friendly distribution models.”

Sony, now finding itself in the alternative-entertainment business, is among those tackling new content models under the guidance of Tim Smith, Sony Digital Cinema’s VP, business development and operations. Based in San Diego, Smith has been leading the effort for four years and rose to his present responsibilities after work for Sony in engineering and financing. He joined the company in 1997 as head of engineering, and in 2008 worked in the treasury area, which brought him closer to the challenges in exhibition.

In treasury, he explains, “We tried to solve the problem of financing digital cinema and, of course, VPF [virtual print fee] was born of these efforts.”

And so was delivery of alternative content, because “our question was: How can we drive more value to theatres?”

The Sony reach is broad. “As [digital] convergence is everywhere,” Smith observes, “we are fortunate that we operate globally and can deploy around the world, because we wanted to be a big part of this transition.” An example of Sony’s stretch is a recent partnership forged between Sony Digital Cinema U.K. and U.K. alternative-content distributor More2Screen that will allow Sony to deliver “new and exciting” nontheatrical content to its 4K exhibitor partners.

As an executive with roots in engineering and financing now helping theatres program with alternative content, Smith, who is also heavily involved in Sony’s VPF options for exhibitors and broader exhibitor relations, reminds that the digital evolution requires new skills, new outlooks and new models.

Not surprisingly, he describes the alternative-content operation as Sony’s solution to exhibition’s “pain,” meaning the necessity to fill seats during the relatively slow periods outside weekends and during early day-parts.

Says Smith, “We’re helping theatres increase their entertainment content throughout the week. And the theatres are helping increase the traffic by smartly diversifying their food offerings and all the time chasing the goals of better sound and viewing that are not available in the home.”

Smith describes the theatre advantage over the home as that of being able to offer viewers a truly social experience that they really crave. This truism is at the heart of Sony’s alternative-content initiative.

Also important, Smith notes, is the realization that while the traditional activity of watching films in theatres requires a quiet environment, being part of other events actually welcomes an often noisier, completely different and acceptable kind of behavior. Says Smith, “We realized that going out to theatres to experience alternative content and not just films was becoming much more of a social experience people wanted. There’s more crowd participation, especially with programs like sporting and music events. Noise is welcome, even encouraged. Theatres become more like sports bars. There’s loud cheering, eating. People love this.”

This kind of theatre experience, he continues, can become “very dynamic. Some exhibitors want sing-alongs with music-videos and they’ll even have bars for this.”

Also in-theatre, Smith and Sony have had great success in the interactive gaming area. Sony’s Digital Cinema group launched successful events this past October with Sony’s PlayStation and AMC Theatres to promote the new game Uncharted 3. The event was a perfect fit, since about two-thirds of moviegoing audiences are under the age 30, the prime demographic for gamers.

Reports Smith, “At AMC, our Uncharted 3 PlayStation games worked really well. We organized teams of five competing with other teams of five.” Much of the event’s success had to do with the fact that Sony 4K projectors, delivering four times greater resolution than consumer HDTV sets, enhanced the experience.

Says Smith, “We always sell out with these [gaming] events, even though they take place in theatres Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays. The key is to think of the core audience—the gamers—and do most of the marketing to them on blogs.”

The positive response from the gaming community means that Sony too sees added value, as these preview events afford the company special promotional opportunities. But not everything in Sony’s alternative entertainment space is synergistic or will be exclusively. Regarding the prospect of Sony offering in-theatre gaming events promoting non-Sony games, Smith says, “This isn’t yet happening but is already under discussion. We want to get the business model right working with our Sony gaming partners before we potentially bring in outside licenses.”

Besides the successful gaming events, Sony provides theatres with music concerts, sporting events, simulcasts, and special screenings of restored film classics. “The live events work best for us,” Smith notes.

Sony delivered last year’s Wimbledon tennis finals to 3D-equipped theatres around the world in a deal between Sony and the All England Lawn Tennis Club. Says Smith, “It was a pilot program. We got to 170 theatres in 22 countries and were pleased with the results.”
In the U.S., there weren’t a large number of theatres because of the timing. Because they were delivered by satellite live, the games arrived early in East Coast theatres but very early on the West Coast.

Asked about what some have perceived as a problem of awareness in letting tennis fans know about the live feeds, Smith responds, “There are marketing challenges still be solved. Also, live sporting events tend to most appeal in the late afternoon or evenings. But [the Wimbledon finals] proved there’s great potential. And as more theatres convert to digital, live sporting events will increasingly grow as an avenue for alternative content.”

From gaming and tennis games, Sony’s alternative-entertainment efforts have also explored the remastered classics game. Last year, Sony Pictures Entertainment released a remastered version of the Stanley Kubrick classic Dr. Strangelove at a large opening in the U.K. Also recently restored and digitally remastered to 4K was Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. While Sony has been using films from its own libraries, Smith says that “we want to be open to anybody so that classic films can also reach new audiences.”

In executing its new strategy in the worldwide exhibition space, Smith explains that Sony has set up two working groups. One, primarily mandated to gather and share information, is the international group in the electronics division which shares ideas and opportunities across the globe, whether these ideas and opportunities are from or for the U.S. or overseas.

Smith describes the second group as a cross-divisional group within Sony with representatives from such divisions as pictures, music, electronics, gaming, etc. Their mandate is to evaluate promising opportunities and where the various divisions could add value.

As an example, Smith cites a documentary about a Sony music artist the group evaluated to determine who the audience was and how to most effectively distribute the film. They decided that the best strategy was to have the Digital Cinema team act as distributor, with Sony Pictures and Music contributing to the marketing in order to make this a meaningful alternative-content offering.

Regarding what lies ahead for Sony in this alternative space, Smith reports, “We have several exciting and fun offerings and parties in the works including music, gaming and sports. Partnerships with Sony Pictures, Sony Music and PlayStation could yield some very innovative and crowd-pleasing events for exhibitors.”

As it grows its alternative-entertainment business, Sony has been working with theatres of all sizes. Among smaller venues, Alamo Drafthouse and Camera Cinemas are prime examples.

Alamo is in 11 locations (five in Austin, Texas) with about 80 screens. The circuit’s CEO and founder Tim League characterizes his venues not according to whether they are commercial or art-house but with regard to their immediate neighborhoods. “Our focus is not to serve either a commercial or arty audience, but to serve the neighborhood,” he explains.

In the alt-programming space, sing-along events are big at Alamo. These comprise music-videos or music-driven classics like Grease and cult films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The theatre encourages audience participation, which it readily gets.

As for classic movie programming, ’70s exploitation films of the drive-in variety have been the rage, says League. “There’s a strong community around these events which we’ve been doing every Wednesday. But it’s not just the film that makes the event, but the participation of a strong host who curates. We’re successful in getting audiences through social media but also the old-fashioned way with mailings, etc.”

Overall marketing of the alternative programs is paramount. “Each month,” League reports, “we show pre-movie trailers we’ve produced that hype our alternative content that’s coming down the pike. We change this monthly and it is effective.”

League says he has the advantage of having Sony’s 4K projectors throughout most of his circuit and that his circuit’s relationship with Sony is just beginning. “The Sony alternative events with their PlayStation have been very successful to the point that we want to do more.”
League’s strategy is to zero in on niche audiences for its alt-programming choices. Overall, he says, audiences seem to enjoy the interactivity, like engagement with both the event films and their hosts.

“Audiences love the party atmosphere that the sing-alongs and quote-alongs encourage,” he notes, explaining that the latter involve popular films like The Princess Bride that have lines audiences can mimic. Prime times for the alternative events are Sundays through Thursdays beginning at 10 p.m.

In the alternative sporting arena, Alamo has done events like college football and World Cup Soccer, even pulling in fans early in the morning. Says League, “We missed out on [Sony’s] Wimbledon finals delivery, but are going to do that.”

The alternative events also provide moments for comedy by giving audiences the chance to talk back to movies while an ensemble of comics does their shtick in the foreground. Explains League, “This will happen when the comics perform in front of the screen with the movie as backbone. We’ll show an old B-movie like Nude on the Moon and even something like Twilight which has its detractors and give the comics and audiences the chance to mock, rant or rave.”

League says that the new relationship with Sony also benefits from the sharing of ideas, as Alamo is trying to develop concepts for new programming with Sony units like Sony Music and their music-videos.

Also, League will soon be bringing operas and lyric opera to his screens, an area of alternative entertainment Alamo has not yet delivered. League believes that an Oscar party, including a live feed of the ceremony, would go over swimmingly, “but the Academy doesn’t allow that.”

An in-theatre Oscar party jells with one of the most surprising things Sony’s Smith has learned about audience and theatre needs: how powerful alternative content is in attracting groups of patrons. “It’s recreating a sports club, a nightclub, a cinema club or a living room gaming experience into a better out-of-home experience,” he declares.

For now, Smith sees music, sports and gaming as the growth areas for alternative theatrical fare and people in their 20s as Sony’s target audience. He also observes that, generally speaking, live content outperforms pre-recorded.

He also believes that “after trying things out and piloting for a few years, we have learned to drive demographics, provide content that appeals to the strong social instincts of audiences, and can do effective marketing using blogs. I’ve also observed that theatres that provide alcohol do incredibly well and that gaming events drive concessions. Food and beverage buys really go way up compared with sales during traditional film shows.”

Suggesting the start-up mentality related to this new alternative-content business, Smith emphasizes that Sony’s goal in this area is to facilitate anyone with fresh programming concepts and help them execute ideas deemed most promising. “We’ll take small ideas to a global audience if they’re good because Sony has the resources across all its companies. We have the mechanism to make this happen and our working groups are the tools for this.”

Asked whether (finally!) a live broadcast to theatres of the Academy Awards might resound as a good prospect, he concurs but acknowledges the rights challenges.

With so much change in the media and entertainment businesses, giant Sony serves a number of often-opposing sides. Smith’s focus is on theatres and he has no involvement in the studio’s Ultraviolet storage initiative that, like most other major studios in addition to Sony, envisions a digital personal locker in the cloud for film fans to store their favorite films and TV programs.

Instead, Smith, with his eyes on theatres and how Sony divisions can help their business, sets forth the Sony Electronics Digital Cinema Solutions strategy: “Our goal is to facilitate the developers and distributors of alternative content across the globe and enable both small and large companies that have these to bring them to Sony.”

But what can theatres do to make these alternative events even more successful? Smith suggests, “Our key learning points to a focus on highly local social marketing that includes partnerships. Also the best in food and drink options, like in-theatre bars that fit the targeted audiences. And lighting that allows patrons to move around the auditorium while still having a bright screen image.”

Sounds like the perfect in-theatre scenario for a live Oscar feed and party.