Can H’wood give Time Inc. a new lease on Life?

Publication's target is entertainment biz

The retro red logo and block letters are straight out of 1936, but the latest incarnation of Life Magazine is a wisp of a thing, a freebie newspaper supplement geared to challenge Parade and USA Weekend for readers and advertising dollars.

Averaging about 20 pages since it was launched (or re-launched) in October, the new Life represents a big-ticket gamble that the once-iconic brand will give Time Inc. a truly mass advertising vehicle to bring in dollars that might otherwise go to TV.

The magazine is making a hard pitch to Hollywood for both ad dollars and the editorial cooperation of stars, offering publicists a worry-free environment that reaches the hinterlands.

So far, roughly 60% of covers have featured film or TV personalities such as Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, and Will Ferrell. Celebs are essentially allowed to write their own profiles, through “as told to” stories, or softball Q&As such as one to pitched to Debra Messing (How did did you get your savvy style sense?)

Life prexy Andy Blau says tapping the entertainment biz is core to the magazine’s strategy. To do it, Life is taking Time Inc. founder Henry Luce’s maxim to heart: “Time should make enemies and Life should make friends.”

The new Life was part of a $45 million startup slate for Time Inc. in 2004 — including Cottage Living, All You, and U.K.-based Nuts. (Suede, a fashion magazine for urban women, also launched, but folded after four issues).

Life is by far the costliest of the five, and the most ambitious. Deals with 77 newspapers, including its biggest distributor, The Los Angeles Times, gave Life an immediate circulation of 12 million — more than any other Time Inc. title.

“In years to come the fragmentation of television is going to make it harder and harder for the advertiser to get big audiences,” says Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine. “We could have started it at 20 million, but we first wanted to test the premise.”

Initially, sales were slow as ad buyers balked at the cost and puzzled at the editorial premise. Life’s strategy is to create a higher-end environment — with glossy pages and a saddle stitch — that would support full-page corporate image advertising, rather than direct-response ads typical of magazine supplements.

Unlike Parade and USA Weekend, which position themselves as a Sunday conversation with readers, Life publishes on Friday, with the idea that it will serve as a guide for what to do or buy over the weekend.

Yet initially, advertisers felt they were just being shown a diminished version of Life with a big price tag.

“The issue with Life is the very large out-of-pocket cost,” says Tyler Schaeffer, director of media brand planning at Foote Cone & Belding, who nonetheless placed two clients in the magazine. “The content isn’t as thick and glossy and awe-inspiring as Life in its heyday.”

Life has landed some blue-chip advertisers, including some that aren’t advertising in other supplements, such as American Express, Daimler Chrysler and HBO, but Blau ratcheted back his sales goal to 300 pages — down from 500 predicted in December.

The magazine sold 98 pages — at $310,976 a page, though advertisers are getting a 30% to 40% discount — since from January through April according to the Publisher’s Information Bureau. Advance Publication’s Parade sold 212 in the same period, down 3.9% from last year; Gannett’s USA Weekend sold 211, up 2%.

Through June, Blau says the mag has sold 150 ads — halfway to its 300-page goal.

Life is a much smaller vehicle than Parade (36 million) or USA Weekend (21 million), but it has focused 80% of its circulation on the 23 largest media markets, while its competitors skew more rural.

Critics of Life’s model claim their high-end strategy — and higher costs — aren’t sustainable in the supplement category. But Life execs say the additional cost of a higher-end book is negligible.

Printing and delivery costs are expected at under $50 million per year at current circ levels, offset by advertising. Like all supplements, there is no circulation revenue.

It’s a high price tag for a magazine launch, but a rounding error on the $1.2 billion in profit the Time Inc. magazine machine recorded last year.

While Life’s May 20 issue –the Ellen cover — is the first profitable issue, Time Inc. won’t predict when the business will break into the black. But it’s accustomed to sheparding its weeklies through years of red ink.

Sports Illustrated bled cash for 10 years and Entertainment Weekly for seven years before turning profitable.

Weeklies are expensive and hard to establish but have huge upside, says Mark Edmiston of media investment bank Admedia Partners. “There’s nothing more profitable in the magazine business than a profitable weekly.”