Encore gets biz as theaters shun On Stage offer

NEW YORK — In a move that left several smaller Off Broadway theaters reeling, Playbill Inc. has elected to drop six of them from its list of clients, and has turned away several others seeking its services.

The action was taken to cut costs while honoring more profitable commitments on Broadway, where the biz is booming.

Those theaters dropped are Chicago City Limits, the Jewish Repertory at Playhouse 91, the Soho Playhouse, the Lambs, the American Place and the Players Theater, all in Gotham.

The Signature Theater Co. had approached Playbill about beginning service, but was turned away. Officials at the Signature Co. could not be reached for comment.

Higher costs

The pull-back by Playbill could mean substantially increased costs for the theaters, which could now be forced to print and provide their own programs to theatergoers.

“You operate on a razor-thin margin. Something like this is often the difference between being in business and not being in business,” said Paul Zuckerman, artistic director and a producer at Chicago City Limits Theater. “It breaks your heart.”

Reps said Playbill regrets the decision, but maintains it’s purely economic. “We know what we’re doing is not an easy thing. But primarily, these are smaller theaters and less frequently lit,” said Phil Birsh, Playbill prexy and publisher.

Playbill distributes 1.29 million copies to relatively upscale eyeballs every month. The ad-supported magazine, which contains features on the industry and info about the shows, is provided gratis to theaters.

Birsh says the more copies printed of a particular show, the cheaper each gets. For the smaller shows, clearly, the costs are greater.

While a small house might have a hit on its hands, Playbill simply can’t justify going back to advertisers — whose budgets are set well in advance — to ask for more money.

“I can’t go back to advertisers and say, ‘We had a big month, I want more (money),’ ” lamented Birsh.

But Chicago City’s Zuckerman maintains that the very audience that Playbill is seeking — young, upscale, with changeable brand loyalty — is what these smaller theaters deliver.

“You have a lot of little theaters that make a big impact. That elusive young demo that everybody’s looking for? We get that every night. I’d say that 90% of Broadway shows don’t have that.”

In its place, Playbill is offering these affected smaller theaters a lightweight version of its regular program called On Stage, sans advertising and with a direct cost to the theaters.

According to a source at Playbill, all of the dropped theaters have rejected the On Stage offer.

At the American Place, which just renewed an unexpected Off Broadway hit in “Sakina’s Restaurant,” On Stage was simply too expensive.

“They can keep it,” Carl Jaynes, general manager of the American Place, sniffed. “I’d just as soon take it to Encore (a competitor of Playbill). If it’s this many theaters, I would think that that’s enough for a whole other business, the same way that Encore started.”

Encore’s head, Tom Holmes, confirmed that he has since closed a deal with Jewish Repertory at Playhouse 91, a 288-seat theater, and is in negotiations with both the Americana Place and Soho Playhouse.

Zuckerman said that for now, the theater would likely go out and solicit ads to produce its own programs.

A source at Playbill added that the main reason for the cancellation was that several of the theaters were difficult if not impossible to contact regarding deliveries of the programs.

“A lot of these places, there’s no one there during the day. No one answers. It’s impossible,” said one Playbill source, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Several calls by Daily Variety to the Player’s Theater, the Soho Playhouse and Playhouse 91 were all met with answering machines. Messages left there and at the Lambs Theater were not returned.

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