Sony PicturesEntertainment has set a new precedent by becoming the first Hollywood studio toactually pay theatre chains to carry one its promotional trailers.

According to a news report in Thursday's Los Angeles Times, Sony paid two US exhibition chains -- General Cinema Theatres and AMC Entertainment -- as much as $100,000 to guarantee that a 60-second trailer for its Rob Schneider comedy The Animal would be previewed ahead of Universal's The Mummy Returns over a two-week May period.The Animal opens June 1.

Sony's worldwide marketing and distribution chief Jeff Blake made no apologies, even though rival studios publicly fretted that such a move would tempt exhibitors to start charging for other trailers too.

"It was a minimal amount of money but it was well spent,'' Blake told the Los Angeles Times. "A picture like The Mummy doesn't come along every week. It gave us a unique opportunity to get 100 percent placement in many situations to expose our movie to the broadest possible audience.''

Typically, five trailers are run free of charge ahead of a film presentation. Two of those belong to the studio responsible for the subsequent feature and the other three are divided among three different studios. But because Sony wanted to preview both TheAnimal and Final Fantasy ahead of Universal's blockbuster sequel, itfound itself having to offer a financial inducement to these two theatre groupsin order to get its second promotional slot.

Sony's unusual strategy comes at a time when relations between exhibitors and their studio suppliers, never easy at the best of times, are particularly tense. Burdenedwith debt, chains have been looking at new revenue sources, such as rolling stock advertisements and particularlythose opportunities stemming from using digital projection systems. However, they feel thestudios should bear the high cost of converting their theatres into electronicmovie-houses.

The studios, on the other hand, have been loathe until to foot the bill even though they stand to gain immediately from digital deliverybecause of the lower costs of distribution. Now, according to some reports, several of the studios including Sony, Warner Bros, Disney, Paramount and Universal are thinking of clubbing together and paying for certain screens to be converted; in return, they would receive 25 cents for every patron that attends a digital screening at those theatres. A similar plan has been floated by Technicolor and Qualcomm.