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Posted: Oct. 15, 2012 at 9:15 p.m.
LIVONIA – It's official: EncoreMichigan.com, the premier media resource for up-to-the-minute news and information about the state's professional theater industry, has started the 2012-13 theater season with not only a new owner, but also with a handful of significant changes that will allow the company to continue providing theaters and the theater-going public with excellent service for years to come.
"We thought it made perfect sense for the theater community to take ownership of what has become one of the most significant aspects of the industry's marketing campaigns," said Carla Milarch, chair of the Michigan Equity Theatre Alliance. "Since one of the goals of META is to build awareness, appreciation and support for the region's professional theaters, we're a perfect match. To lose EncoreMichigan.com would be a disaster, since most of us have come to depend on it for spreading the word far and wide about our shows."
Founded in 2008 by Livonia-based Pride Source Media Group, EncoreMichigan.com was created to fill a void left in the wake of newspaper consolidations and downsizing, said Susan Horowitz, PSMG's president and editor in chief. "As newspapers continued to downsize their entertainment sections, comprehensive theater coverage was lost. That hurt not only the professional theaters, but the ticket-buying public who relied on the papers for their reviews and feature stories. So in 2001 we picked up the ball and committed ourselves to providing as much theater coverage as we could through our weekly newspaper for the LGBT and allied communities, Between The Lines. Through both default and our excellent coverage, we became a major player in that market, which allowed us to create The Wilde Awards in 2002 and later establish EncoreMichigan.com as a separate entity for statewide coverage."
But the site launched at the beginning of the worst economy since the Great Depression, Horowitz said, and advertising revenue was not enough to support the project. "So in the summer of 2011, we had to make a very tough decision: shut down the site or find a new owner."
That October, an e-mail was sent to the state's professional theaters that asked for suggestions on how to keep EncoreMichigan.com alive. And up stepped META with a solution.
META, Milarch explained, is a not-for-profit organization formed through a partnership between the Cultural Alliance for Southeastern Michigan and the Michigan Non-Profit Association, with financial support from the Kresge Foundation and the Ford Foundation. META's founding members are professional theater companies in Southeast and Central Michigan that produce shows under a contract with the Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers. "And so we felt it was important to take a leadership role in finding a way to preserve this vital asset that serves not only our members, but all professional theaters across the state," Milarch said.
How to fund the project, however, still needed to be resolved. "Besides reviews, previews and show listings, EncoreMichigan.com provides a wide range of services to the community, and it takes a considerable amount of money to do all of that. And as was proven by its previous owners, advertising revenue isn't enough to pay the bills," Milarch said. "So if theaters believe EncoreMichigan.com is important and necessary, there was only one way to quickly keep us on mission to provide the public with the most complete coverage of Michigan's professional theaters possible."
The answer became obvious, Milarch said, when META's board looked at similar sites around the country for guidance. "There are a small handful of Encore-like sites around the country, and as we checked them out, they mostly had two things in common: They were stand-alone non-profits or were part of an established non-profit, and their funding came primarily from annual membership fees charged to the theaters that appear on the site. And so that's the direction we decided to explore with EncoreMichigan.com."
Once it was decided that META would take ownership of EncoreMichigan.com, a membership plan was devised and presented to theater executives at three town hall meetings across the state earlier this year. Annual memberships based on the organization's annual budget are offered to all levels of professional theaters, Milarch said, from the unionized non-profit Equity theaters to the smallest vagabond troupes with no home of their own. Also included are the state's touring houses, such as Nederlander Detroit, Olympia Entertainment, Wharton Center for the Performing Arts and Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. Inclusion on the site requires a membership.
Membership fees, Milarch explained, provide much of the necessary funds to keep EncoreMichigan.com functioning – and that includes web hosting fees, website updates, license fees, legal and accounting fees, and other day-to-day business expenses. "And we have to pay our professional journalists for the work they do on our behalf."
The plan's reception, although cautious, was mostly positive. "Unfortunately, pretty much every theater in the state is struggling to survive in this tough economy," Milarch noted. "So to ask them to find in their already-tight budgets a membership fee they hadn't planned on was expecting a lot. But some wrote a check on the spot, while most of the others saw the benefit of what we were asking and became a founding member."
In all, Milarch noted, 44 of the 53 professional theaters EncoreMichigan.com reviewed during 2011 signed on. "We were quite pleased with the response, although we didn't quite achieve the financial goal we needed to meet all of the project's anticipated expenses," she said.
Meanwhile, negotiations between Pride Source and META continued throughout the first half of 2012. "Transferring Encore from one entity to the other wasn't as simple as we initially thought," Milarch said of the longer-than-anticipated switch in ownership. "A lot of details popped up throughout the process, but we eventually worked through them all to everyone's satisfaction."
Because the ownership change didn't become final until mid August, the processing of membership dues for the 2011-12 season was delayed until the contract was signed, Milarch said. And membership rules were slowly phased in or delayed until after the start of the new season. "We appreciate everyone's patience. We also appreciate their feedback and suggestions, which we've listened to and used in modifying our membership plan for the 2012-13 season. By working together, we can make this project succeed beyond our wildest dreams."
EncoreMichigan.com is a one-stop shop for consumers, industry professionals and others with an interest in the performing arts. Updated daily and packed with informative interviews, insightful reviews, comprehensive show listings, engaging commentary, audition notices, original podcasts, special offers and much, much more, the editorial content is created by a dedicated team of veteran freelance journalists and theater professionals. In addition to material created exclusively for EncoreMichigan.com, links are also provided to reviews and stories of interest that appear in other local and national publications. Together, this makes EncoreMichigan.com the most complete source for professional theater news in Michigan.
While Encore's funding mechanism has changed, its editorial functions have not, explained co-founder and editorial director Donald V. Calamia. "Yes, all of the business functions have been transferred to META, but the writers, critics and I remain independent. Pride Source exerted no influence over our coverage, and that was a critical component in the discussions with META. Our goal since our inception in 2008 is to provide our readers with the best possible coverage – and that includes an assurance that we treat every professional theater as an equal, no matter what their size or budget, or whether or not they're affiliated with the Actors' Equity Association, the union that represents professional actors and stage managers. And I guarantee that will not change under the new ownership."
The need for editorial to remain free has always been of utmost importance, Calamia added. And more so now. "Just like at Pride Source, our new owners have no control over the editorial content of Encore. Our critics, all of whom are professional journalists, determine the outcomes of their reviews and no one else – me included. One thing we've always strived to achieve is to be totally fair and honest with our reviews – and none of us would ever harm our reputations by behaving any differently in this new environment. And the same holds true for all of our coverage."
While member theaters are guaranteed coverage on EncoreMichigan.com, they're not promised positive reviews – as recent experience has proved. "We told the theaters upfront that a membership doesn't mean they are guaranteed good reviews," Calamia said. "Our responsibility to both our readers and our member theaters is to give an honest appraisal of the shows we review – without exception. We take that responsibility seriously – so much so that I know for a fact several of our reviews over the last several months were not warmly or favorably received by our member theaters. And that's the way it should be! Our readers need to know they can rely on us to be honest with our opinions – and we believe we've proven that won't change under our new ownership."
More with Encore
Because the ownership change didn't become final until recently, membership solicitations for the 2012-13 season are now underway. A key selling point will be the relationships forged between EncoreMichigan.com and its various media partners.
"Our relationship with Pride Source Media Group is as strong as ever," Calamia said. "We share their calendar system, and we also share content between us; our reviews appear in BTL and on pridesource.com, and some of their content appears on our site as well."
Another longtime relationship has also been popular with both readers and theaters alike. "The New Monitor, a weekly newspaper that's distributed in Detroit and nearby communities, is another major player when it comes to reviewing shows in Metro Detroit. But they don't have a website, so we publish their reviews on ours on the same day they appear in print," Calamia said. "It's a service we're more than happy to provide!"
But that's not all.
For more than a year, EncoreMichigan.com has provided theater-related content to CBS Detroit. "That means our previews and reviews of shows in Southeast Michigan are also seen by visitors to their website," Calamia said. "As a major media outlet with two television stations and a handful of radio stations in this market, our relationship with CBS Detroit guarantees a much broader readership for our content – which means greater exposure for our member theaters. That alone is worth the price of membership!"
A similar arrangement has also been made with MLive beginning this fall. "We've just completed negotiations to supply previews and reviews of shows outside Southeast Michigan to MLive for use on their outstate websites," Calamia announced. "This arrangement will be phased in over the next few months, and we couldn't be happier about it!"
With the CBS Detroit and MLive arrangements in place, Calamia noted, EncoreMichigan.com and its member theaters have an added statewide presence money can't buy. "In these days of dwindling media presence, we've helped assure that our theaters remain in the public eye – which hopefully will translate into an increase in ticket sales, something all of them can use!"
Encore in 2012-13 and beyond
Members and users of EncoreMichigan.com can expect to see other enhancements to the website as the months progress, Milarch said. "With a team in place to manage the business operations of Encore and an excellent staff of journalists hitting the pavement to bring readers all the latest news, we think the best is yet to come. We have several exciting plans in the early stages of development that will make EncoreMichigan.com even more valuable for our readers and members alike – including a new executive director for META who will work with Don in expanding the business."
That executive director, Lesley Braden-Phillips, will be responsible for managing the business operations of EncoreMichigan.com, which includes advertising sales and membership relations. Plus, she's been charged with researching potential funding and sponsorship opportunities. "Lesley has a big job ahead of her, but she's ideally suited for the task," Milarch said. "We're confident she'll be a great asset to the EncoreMichigan.com team!"
But for the short term, Milarch said, the primary focus is building EncoreMichigan.com's membership for the 2012-13 season. "Every professional theater in Michigan is eligible for membership, Milarch stressed. "But not every professional theater is on Don's rather comprehensive distribution list. So if a theater has not been receiving regular e-mails about this, please contact us. We'd love to have you join us!"
Information about memberships to EncoreMichigan.com can be obtained by calling 313-537-4860 or by e-mailing email@example.com.
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