No Commercial Break

Anyone who thinks public television is free of commercial pressures should consider the plight of Steppenwolf Theatre Company: Twenty Years on the Edge. The hour-long documentary, which explores one of America’s most dynamic theaters, includes interviews with Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, John Mahoney, and Laurie Metcalf, shot last year when they and many other ensemble members returned to Chicago to celebrate Steppenwolf’s 20th anniversary. Executives at PBS previewed the special last year and agreed to broadcast it nationally if WTTW, Chicago’s public television station, could find a sponsor. But the video has been gathering dust at WTTW for more than six months. “We did this documentary because we thought it would have great appeal nationally,” says writer-producer Scott Silberstein, “but the lack of interest from sponsors has surprised us.”

Denise Rozkuszka, a spokesperson for WTTW, explains that sponsors prefer series to specials, which may get only one airing. But another source at the station says that sponsors are also demanding more bang for their buck: “Corporations used to look at underwriting as a charitable contribution, but now most of them see it as a marketing expense and want to know what kinds of benefits and exposure they’ll get.” In the past, PBS has named sponsors before and after a program; now the rules allow sponsors to broadcast company logos, corporate images–even commercials. But according to the source, few corporations will underwrite a program just to have their names associated with a high-quality show or a prestigious institution like Steppenwolf; in fact corporations tend not to be interested in theater. “Irish dancing would be an easier sell these days.”

Rozkuszka declined to say what potential sponsors had already passed on the Steppenwolf show, but sources say WTTW may have shied away from approaching United Airlines because the company already makes a considerable contribution to Steppenwolf. If United were to underwrite the PBS special, Steppenwolf might get less money for its own needs. Sponsors of public television programs generally pick up the cost of production and broadcast; Rozkuszka says PBS could opt to air the show without a sponsor, but then HMS Media, Inc., the Des Plaines production company in which Silberstein is a partner, would have to swallow its $83,000 investment in exchange for the favorable publicity of having a show aired on national television. Silberstein’s company is on the way up: its 1993 documentary on River North Dance Company aired on PBS in 1995, and it’s currently working on documentaries about Second City and the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. But 80 grand is 80 grand, and Silberstein would like to see the program sponsored, though he says HMS will consider other options if no one will bite.

Meanwhile, Steppenwolf is exploring the idea of a new division to develop feature films. “This is something some of the ensemble members have long had an interest in doing,” said Martha Lavey, artistic director at Steppenwolf. Lavey wouldn’t say how soon the company might establish such a division. Some of Steppenwolf’s most famous alumni live on the west coast and act in films; Sinise has already directed three features and could easily start a production company under the Steppenwolf banner.

First-Class Ticket

Now that people are turning their living rooms into movie theaters, the multiplex chains have decided to turn their theaters into living rooms. On April 3 the General Cinema Theatres chain, which controls 1,200 screens nationwide, will open the deluxe Premium Cinema in suburban Lombard. The 70-seat theater, part of a new 18-screen multiplex adjacent to the Yorktown Shopping Center, will offer leather chairs, extra leg room, and tables next to each seat, where patrons can set their wine, beer, champagne, or gourmet food. A $15 ticket will include valet parking, coat check, and unlimited popcorn; a lounge attached to the theater will sell delicacies such as wild mushroom pizza, chicken satay, and spinach-and-artichoke dip, all prepared in an on-site kitchen and costing between $5 and $9. Beer, wine, and champagne will range from $4 to $12 a glass, and because of the liquor, no one under 21 will be admitted through the theater’s separate entrance.

Brian Callaghan, manager of public relations at General Cinema, says Premium Cinema was conceived for older, affluent patrons who might have given up on going to the movies or for couples who want a special night out. “It’s the very first movie theater of its kind in the nation,” he says. But it probably won’t be the last: a spokesman for rival chain Cineplex Odeon says that next month it will unveil its own deluxe theater in its home base of Toronto. If the theaters can turn a profit, they could spark a national rollout of deluxe movie houses by both chains.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Scott Silberstein photo by Nathan Mandell.