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Tuner Tie-Ins Wake Up And Smell The Coffee

A rise in commercial sponsorship and tie-ins on Broadway has legit vets wondering if the upswing might actually portend a return of corporate coin to the producers’ coffers. Nobody’s holding his breath.

These days, theater lobbies double as car showrooms (at “Sunset Boulevard” in N.Y. and L.A., with Acura and Lexus, respectively, parked there) or toy stores (at the upcoming musical “Big” and its FAO Schwarz multipart tie-in, as well as at Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”). Airlines and river boats get their logos in ads for shows in exchange for cross-promotional assistance, as is the case with “Translations” (Aer Lingus) and “Show Boat” (Mississippi Delta Queen).

Such efforts are risk-free, bringing instant visibility regardless of how a show does at the box office. In recent years, big business has also occasionally partnered with Broadway producers: Witness the Jeep Corp. with “The Will Rogers Follies”; Johnnie Walker Black Scotch and “City of Angels”; and Visa on the post-Broadway “Chorus Line” tours.

But that involvement could be turning into a fast-fading memory. Today, actual dollars from non-entertainment companies remain the exception. Chrysler Corp. put some money into “Having Our Say,” soon to arrive at the Booth Theater, but for the rest, marketing is the inroad du jour.

“If you have the right product and the right marriage, corporate help is definitely available,” said Mitchell Maxwell, a producer of “On the Waterfront.” With that show slated to open May 1 at the Brooks Atkinson, Maxwell tried to entice Sony’s video division into a tie-in, and possible investment, with Sony releasing a new edition of the 1954 film on cassette. “But they dragged their feet, and turned us down,” Maxwell said. “We were really upset.”

For “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” opening March 23 at the Richard Rodgers, the A& P Co.’s 8 O’Clock Bean Coffee company is immersed in a $300,000 media and point-of-purchase campaign in hundreds of local supermarkets, plus radio spots, print ads and billboards, with sweepstake prizes on the table as well. The hook is the musical’s “Coffee Break” number, during which a video-projected blimp cruises by emblazoned with the coffee logo.

The show’s producers also have grabbed in-store promos for business types through Bloomingdale’s (comp tickets with purchases) and Brooks Brothers (display windows with a “How to Succeed” theme).

“Big,” based on the 1988 Tom Hanks movie, opens Oct. 12 and is trying to parlay one of the film’s most memorable scenes into a multileveled campaign with the FAO Schwarz toy chain. The “dancing on the big piano” scene from the film and musical sealed a deal with the store, which will open a mini-boutique in the theater and also sell tickets at the New York branch, where the opening-night party will be held.

But producer James Freyberg, though glad to have clinched the tie-in, is anxiously trying to nudge the relationship toward the investment floor. So far, no sale.

“We first approached them for an association from a marketing standpoint,” said Freydberg. “Corporations are really looking for new ways to get visibility, and they seem to be taking certain parts of their budgets and experimenting. As we’ve gotten more deeply into it, (investing) did happen to come up. It’s an area we are pursuing.

“In the case of an Andrew Lloyd Webber, we have an international commodity, and almost any corporation would want to be identified with him,” Freydberg added. “If ‘Sunset’ went to Acura and said, ‘We have a musical by Johnny Jones,’.. . well, I don’t think so.”

The latest effort by producers to pique corporate interest is product placement. Maxwell, for one, is looking to have several “historical” product logos on the “Waterfront” sets. Beer and soda companies are being contacted, “but we’re not close to pulling the trigger yet. Frankly, it’s inconsequential to the capital of the show anyway.”

“I really think we’re finding ways to protect the integrity of a show with these campaigns, and get tremendous benefits at the same time,” said Susan Lee, director of marketing at the League of American Theaters & Producers. “Corporations are used to very, very large numbers. As theater and the corporate world look to each other, it definitely takes patience to work it all out.”

Other producers are even more dubious.

“For companies that have traditionally been involved in sponsorship arrangements, I don’t think their marketing budgets are growing exponentially,” said Edgar Dobie, who heads the New York office of Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. RUG teamed up with Acura and Lexus to reserve a parking space every night in the lobbies of the Gershwin (N.Y.) and Shubert (L.A.) for a new car alongside the ticket windows.

“We’re also extremely cautious,” Dobie added. “We don’t want to turn our lobbies into consumer bazaars.”

That would just be too, well, Mickey Mouse.

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