Clash of the PR Titans

A battle is brewing between two of the city’s most influential public relations experts: Margie Korshak and John Iltis. Both head firms specializing in the entertainment industry, and they are now competing for what almost certainly will prove to be a long-term and lucrative contract to handle the press relations and marketing campaign for Disney’s stage version of Beauty and the Beast.

The multimillion-dollar Beauty, based on the popular animated movie, is still pulling in cash like gangbusters after nearly three years on Broadway. It’s already spawned two successful national touring companies and a number of international productions. But the Disney folks have delayed bringing the musical here while they negotiated to take over the Chicago Theatre under a three-year lease with an option to extend for an additional year. Rumors have been circulating that Disney might end up buying the Chicago Theatre as a permanent home for future theatrical productions, just as the company purchased the historic New Amsterdam theater on 42nd Street in New York City. Disney intends to make the New Amsterdam a launching pad for its planned versions of Aida and The Lion King.

Disney will take control of the Chicago Theatre in September, but it has yet to announce an opening date for Beauty and the Beast. Sources had originally pegged next November as a likely starting date, but conventional wisdom now holds that Disney will wait until the spring of 1997 to allow more time for group sales and a more thorough marketing and media campaign. It goes without saying that the local PR firm hired to handle this campaign will have landed a plum assignment.

Of the two agencies vying for the Disney business, Korshak is the more experienced at big-budget theater. The Korshak agency has been doing theater PR for 27 years and has worked on the vast majority of touring productions hitting town, as well as some of the bigger off-Loop accounts. The Korshak agency was behind the media blitz that preceded the recent opening of Show Boat at the Auditorium Theatre, the rewards of which may just be starting now that the show has settled in for an extended run. A good PR firm will continue to prime the pump, trying to drum up positive press and keep the show on the public’s mind. Only last week, for instance, the Tribune ran a feature following Show Boat star Marilyn McCoo on a shopping expedition at Filene’s Basement. The piece was a publicist’s dream because it also managed to include information about the show.

Korshak says it takes a lot of manpower to handle PR for a big musical like Show Boat or the upcoming Beauty and the Beast. “I have about a dozen people on my staff who work on Show Boat,” she says. Though Korshak has always gotten the lion’s share of the city’s theater business, she has suffered some setbacks. Three years ago the New York-based Nederlander Organization, which owns and operates the Shubert Theatre, decided to move its PR operations in-house, taking away one of Korshak’s oldest accounts. Still, Korshak has continued to work on some shows that have played the Shubert because the producers wanted her agency on the account.

On the basis of experience, Korshak may have the edge in nabbing the Beauty and the Beast account, but John Iltis Associates appears to have better contacts. Another of the city’s oldest entertainment-oriented PR firms, the Iltis agency has specialized in handling motion picture accounts since it was founded in 1977. Iltis works with a number of Hollywood studios to publicize films and to set up local press interviews with movie stars. In the past couple years Iltis has branched out into representing the producers of independent films. The agency quickly gained some credibility by finding a distributor for the acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams. As Iltis Sikich Associates Releasing, it distributed the Deadhead documentary Tie-Died. Disney is already one of the motion picture accounts in the Iltis stable. “I am in touch with them nearly every day,” says Iltis.

While Iltis and his staff know a lot about the movie business, they’ve had little experience with live theater. Recently Iltis made a move to address that shortcoming. His firm cut a deal with PR maven Cheryl Lewin to bring her small agency, Cheryl Lewin Associates, on board as an “affiliate.” Once a staffer at the Korshak agency, Lewin has run her own shop for many years. Her accounts include Michael Leavitt and Fox Theatricals, and in recent years she’s also worked on several touring shows, including Tommy at the Auditorium and the upcoming How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which will open at the Shubert in June.

At the time she joined forces with Iltis, Lewin said she made the move to ease the rigors of running a one-woman show. “It’s exhausting after a while having to do so much of the work yourself, and now I’ll have a big support staff that I didn’t have before.” But more important, Iltis now has an experienced theatrical press agent, which could be the key to convincing Disney to award him the Beauty and the Beast account. Margie Korshak believes the Iltis-Lewin alliance was aimed directly at her. “I think they are trying to go after my business,” she says. Last week Lewin was coy about the impact her affiliation with Iltis might have on winning the Beauty business: “There are certain things we’ve talked about that don’t require me to go further with you at this time.”

Both Iltis and Korshak clearly are eager to work for Disney, but they’re wary of speculating on the final outcome. Korshak says, “Disney has talked to me, but I don’t want to say anything at this time.” And Iltis has the final word: “I certainly wouldn’t turn down the business.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.