By Josh Clinard
Reed Elsevier, owner of Variety, placed the “bible of Hollywood,” for sale March 23, 2011. The move is a reminder that the trades are changing -- drastically.
Until the emergence of the Internet, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter competed as Hollywood’s primary guide to all daily business transactions.
“People used to talk about ‘the trades,’ and some people still use that term, but THR signaled its new direction when they hired Janice Min from US Weekly,” said Tim Gray, Variety’s editor-in-chief.
The Hollywood Reporter dropped its daily publication in exchange for a glossy, weekly edition and the online publication aimed to appeal to the interactive eye.
Variety remains a B&B publication catering to a very specific audience of mid-senior level executives in the entertainment world, said Tom Lowry, former senior editor at Variety.
An interesting future lies ahead as the trades as the trades wait to see who buys Variety.
“Variety is a storied brand, but this is a very tough environment,” said Kim Masters, editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter.
“The question is whether they find a buyer and whether a prospective buyer is willing to invest in daily journalism. If they're not in that game, it's hard to see why anyone would bother buying the title.”
“Pretty much in Hollywood, on everybody’s desk, every studio or management company had them sitting next to each other,” said Alex Ben Block, senior editor at The Hollywood Reporter. “They competed for every news story, every ad, every subscriber, every everything."With the emergence of the Internet, entertainment news became less of a commodity.
“If I had three stories on the front page and one inside, than that was a pretty good day,” said Mike Fleming, a Deadline reporter, previously at Variety for more than 20 years.
“Now I probably average about 10 or 12 stories a day.”
Furthering this trend was the emergence of smaller enterprises and aggregation sites, which post the same stories with little or no new content.
“[Readers] just see stories, headlines; its hard for them to know that one organization -- The Hollywood Reporter or Variety -- is going to fact check copy, edit, stand by their work, and do what they can do to do it right,” Block said.
"And somebody else is going to get up in the morning in their pajamas and have a cup of coffee and write whatever craps in their head,” Block said. “And that’s who you’re competing with.”
The influx has had a drastic hit on the bottom line, especially with a loss of advertisement sales. Nikki Finke’s Deadline and Sharon Waxman’s The Wrap currently compete with Variety and The Hollywood Reporter for advertisements but do not have the overhead cost of a print publication.
A week after Variety went up for sale, other media reported this problem.
“The need to be in Variety 10 years ago was much, much more of a priority,” said a marketing executive for an independent distributor in a story reported by Daniel Frankel of GigaOM. The executive, who aggressively buys trade ads every year to promote his studio’s movies during the run-up to the Golden Globes and Oscars, said, “Marketers used to have to enter a lottery-like system for the right to purchase an $85,000 Variety cover ad during awards season.”
“If you’re in the toy business, you have Christmas. If you’re in the trade business, you have the award seasons,” Block said. “And some publications live and die by how well they do in the award season.”
With cut backs on advertising sales, the publications needed a new strategy.
To combat its dwindling number of advertisers, Variety re-focused its target audience and erected a pay wall.
“It signaled that [Variety] wanted to become more of a B&B publication, cater to a very specific audience that they thought was most important the mid-senior level executives in the entertainment world,” said Lowry.
Page views dropped some 40 percent, according to figures from Nielsen in a 2012 Reuters article by Jill Serjeant.
“Advertisers like unique visitors and they like higher numbers than you might get from a pay wall,” Lowry said. But Gray said the paywall is a success stands by the decision.
“It’s easy to inflate figures to make yourself look successful,” Gray said.
“You can send out a lot of free copies of your paper and boast about a big print circulation, but the real key is paid circulation, and Variety’s is robust, much healthier than others’.”
In 2009, a year after Reed Elsevier’s unsuccessful attempt to sell Variety, a hedge fund bought The Hollywood Reporter with a new vision.
“The trades were making uninteresting products about a very interesting business,” said Richard Beckman, CEO of Prometheus Global Media, the magazine’s parent company, in a 2011 New York Times article.
“When we bought it, people said, ‘Forget it, it’s dead.’ And then when we announced the plan to put the news on the Web, transform a daily into a weekly, we were ruining a venerable institution that was 80 years old. And now some of the biggest skeptics are telling us it is just what the industry needs.”
“The large photos, lush paper stock and great design are a kind of narcotic here,” Terry Press, a longtime entertainment marketing consultant and a fan of print, said in a May 2011 New York Times article.
Although highly criticized at the time the dramatic change revived interest from its core audience, brought in a new crop of readers, and brought in a new editor.
Min, former editor of US Weekly, the second-largest celebrity and entertainment weekly in the country, stepped into the position of editor, amid criticism she would turn the trade into a consumer sheet instead of a trade news publication.
In an August 2010 The Wrap article, Jennifer Aniston’s publicist, Stephen Huvane, said “Janice Min doesn't know anything other than tabloid journalism so of course THR will start to look just like the other trash that's out there.”
Min had a different strategy, surprising her competitors and even her own staff.
“I think the opportunity with THR is to help set the news agenda for the industry instead of covering picky little details,” said Min in an interview with Waxman at the Wrap shortly after being being named editor in 2010.
“I was surprised because she doesn’t come from the background of the trade stuff,” said Block, “but she has a great instinct for what people want to know, and she asks great questions, so when she doesn’t know the answer to something she’s not shy about asking.”
“I would say that THR is more aggressive in its journalism since Min's arrival,” said Masters. She accredits Min’s commitment to breaking news and reporting big stories in depth distinguishes The Hollywood Reporter from any of their competitors.
In May 2011, the Times reported that from April 2010 to this April, traffic to hollywoodreporter.com rose to 4.5 million unique visitors a month, an increase of 800 percent, according to comScore.
“I definitely did see that the stories we were doing were being shared and echoed on social media, and were being picked up by other publications who were doting on everything great that we were doing,” said Eriq Gardner, senior editor at The Hollywood Reporter.
“Circulation for the weekly has inched up over 70,000, which seems small, but it reaches a pretty rarefied demographic,” the article reported. Richard Beckman, who runs Prometheus Global Media, the magazine’s parent company, says ad revenue for the weekly is up 50 percent over what the daily version brought in. The cover of the weekly, which began publishing last November, has become prized real estate, a place where talent and executives love to see their products and mugs.”
An Entangled Web
Alarm at Min’s entrance into the Hollywood news industry came following years of criticism of the trades, especially in regard to questionable relationships between reporters and industry insiders.
Writers such as George Christy, a long-time columnist at The Hollywood Reporter, were criticized for unethical relationships with industry insiders.
In a 2001 American Journalism Review article, Catherine Seipp reported Christy had been accused of coaxing screen credits from producer friends in return for mentions in his articles. The credits gave him membership to the Screen Actors Guild, which “offers members first-rate health insurance and pensions; benefits that by far surpass anything available to ordinary Hollywood Reporter employees or, in fact, most journalists.”
Later in 2001, Seipp wrote another article in AJR reviewing Peter Bart, Variety’s editor-in-chief for 20 years and current Vice President and Editorial Director, and his role as a reporter in an industry he was deeply rooted in. Bart previously worked as a top executive and producer at Paramount.
“Bart is a major mover-and-shaker who's been accused of using his Variety position to reward friends and punish enemies ever since taking the post a dozen years ago,” said Seipp.
“On the other hand, what did anyone really expect? Before arriving at Variety in 1989, Bart had been blurring the boundaries between entertainment journalism and Hollywood for years.”
Mike Fleming, once Bart’s right-hand man, disagreed.
“Peter and I don’t work together anymore so I have nothing to gain by taking his side,” said Fleming.
“If the editor does not have relationships in the community, then he’s not a good editor,” he said. “You should know all those top people, and you should be able to corroborate your story. If the editor does not have relationships in the community, then he’s not a good editor.”
Fleming is not alone in his conviction.
"The concept that the editor of a trade publication has a conflict of interest if he's friendly with studio chiefs and super-agents," wrote veteran television writer-producer Bob Shayne in the Los Angeles Times on August 27, "and thus can call them up on the phone and check out stories with them, is ludicrous. That's what they hired him to do!"
Block said it is imperative to have established trust between writer and source, to get the real story. “Because if they trust you, then they answer your calls,” he said.
Otherwise, the writer is stuck with the gatekeeper; the PR person who provides a prepared statement.
Mike Fleming explained that when he first entered the industry, he could go through Bart when a source was outside of his pay grade.
Block testified to the challenge of being a new reporter in the industry.
“The difference between Hollywood and almost any other industry is Hollywood has the most sophisticated communications marketing of public relations apparatus ever conceived in the world,” said Block.
For Block, the relationship is strictly professional. “They’re not my buddies…not the people I invite to my daughters birthday party,” he said.
Mike Fleming believes trades reporters’ standards are no different from any other business reporter.
“I’ve worked with these people over the years, and it’s always easy to say, journalists suck or these people are shady but I’ve always found that people in our business, especially now, they’ve worked so hard, and I consider it to be a very honorable enterprise,” said Fleming.
Charles Fleming, editor of the Showbiz section at the LA Times, wrote under Bart at Variety and remembers a time when such a conflict of interest arose. After writing a negative report on Paramount, a sales man approached Fleming to reprimand his overage, saying Paramount cancelled an order it had just placed. When Bart heard about the incident, he took the salesperson aside and told him he would be fired if he every did anything like that again.
“The trade papers are writing for an audience that is also the principal subject matter and also the principal advertising base,” said Fleming.
“So their job can be a rather complex one. There was a very clear understanding that the editorial side functioned independently from the business side.”
“I’ve worked with these people over the years, and it’s always easy to say, journalists suck or these people are shady but I’ve always found that people in our business, especially now, they’ve worked so hard, and I consider it to be a very honorable enterprise,” said Mike Fleming.
52 Card Pick Up
With Variety up for sale, the future of the trades is unclear.
“So right now I compare the business model of the trades in Hollywood to a game of 52 pick up,” said Block.
“You know when you’re a kid and you throw all the cards in the air to see where they land? Well right now the cards are suspended in the air and we don’t know where they’re going to land. We just know there will be a bunch of cards, and somewhere down the road they will land.”
Lowry questioned whether The Hollywood Reporter’s model is sustainable.
“Just to put on my skeptics hat,” Lowry said, “I wonder how long they can support the budget for that kind of publication, stocking paper, and obviously the photography budget has to be out the roof in terms of doing original shoots”
Variety’s future is yet to be determined. Whether the paywall stays up has yet to be determined, and likely will be up for discussion when Variety is sold.
“It depends on whether they’re going to generate enough ad dollars behind the pay wall which advertisers like unique visitors and higher numbers than you might get with a pay wall so it depends on how that shakes out,” Lowry said.
According to Fleming, the key problem at Variety it is not breaking the stories and the stories they are breaking lie dormant, trapped behind a paywall. This is something Fleming says should frustrate any writer – having his or her work put somewhere where it couldn’t get read.
Lowry sees the publication focusing on its target audience of industry businesses and offering more premium services to strengthen its base of subscribers. He threw out the idea of providing special data that couldn’t be found anywhere else, such as a state by state summary of instate production tax incentives.
Block reiterated that the need for content, high-quality content will always be present. The looming question is who will pay for it.
“Is it going to be paid for by subscribers, advertisers, or by promotional efforts, or is there some other bottle out there?” Block said.
“Or, is it going to be paid for by imaginable pixie dust?”
Josh Clinard is a junior journalism student concentrating in public relations at UNC-Chapel Hill. He will intern at the Independent Film Channel in New York this summer.