Hollywood Asks: Will Jay Penske Polish Up Variety or Tarnish the Brand?

Industry insiders believe Variety has lost ground but its name may still have value

Hollywood offered its advice to new Variety owner Jay Penske on Tuesday, expressing hope that fresh leadership and new capital will return some of the celestial sparkle to what used to be the bible of the entertainment industry.

But not everybody was optimistic.

"I think it's a tremendous name, and I would hate to see it disappear," said Leo Wolinsky, former editor of Daily Variety. "They need to become more hard-hitting and be more aggressive online. The editorial leadership was resistant to change and was satisfied with what had become more of a bulletin board of industry press releases and happenings."

Others worried that the bark-and-snark culture of Deadline Hollywood, which Penske also owns, would invade Variety, rather than the other way around.

Also read: Why Nikki Finke + Variety = A Business Dilemma for Jay Penske

“Ultimately I'm hoping that Deadline becomes a little more of what Variety is and does not just take over Variety's subscriber base," said Gavin Polone, a film and television producer who recently called for readers to boycott Deadline Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke on New York magazine's Vulture site.

"I hope they do more legitimate journalism, which Deadline doesn't do," he told TheWrap. "Everything there is extremely superficial or filled with [Finke's] opinion, and journalism has to do with facts. If it becomes a lot of 'Toldja,' that's pathetic."

Even as an initial wave of optimism swirled among Variety well-wishers and staffers, there was also a belief by many that Penske has purchased a deeply troubled asset, one with a marginal online presence and rapidly declining advertising revenue.

"It's going to be complicated and take a lot of imagination to figure out how to make Variety feel relevant," said Patrick Goldstein, the former Big Picture columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "It's a wonderful old-fashioned brand, but it's sort of like film in a digital age. They've got to figure out a way to modernize it and reinvent it."

Also read: Deadline Owner Penske Media Buys Variety

In particular, Goldstein thinks the first thing Penske Media should do is tear down Variety's paywall, which has dulled the impact of their casting scoops and caused its traffic to nosedive to fewer than half a million monthly unique visitors. (Others noted that doing so would put it in the same horserace as other online sites, including TheWrap and Deadline, while sapping millions in subscription dollars.)

And many said that it may be too late to return Variety to its central place in the Hollywood trade firmament.

"It’s one of the industry’s favorite stories, David swallowed Goliath," said Howard Suber, a film professor at UCLA. "Who would have thought this little newsletter that started during the Writer's Strike would grow into this big powerful company? But Variety is no longer Goliath thanks to TheWrap and Nikki Finke.

"The monopoly on information is no longer there, and the amount of information that people are dying to know is either less than it used to be or is available for free elsewhere," he added.

Though the staff at Variety is anxious about what its new corporate parents will have in store, there was some optimism that Penske would not just purchase the storied if battered brand in order to gut it.

Also read: Is There a Buyer That Can Steer Variety Into the Fast Lane?

"A lot of people are going to write about this being the death of print, but I actually think it's a win for us," Jeff Sneider, a film reporter at Variety, told TheWrap. "[Deadline] may be our big, bad online competitor, but there are still things we can both learn from each other."

Throughout the entertainment industry, there remains enormous reservoirs of good will for Variety and its century-plus in the business, even by those who say that it has lost several steps.

"The Variety name still holds a very powerful recognition, but it has been diminished," said Robert Dowling, the former editor-in-chief and publisher of the Hollywood Reporter. "But I don't think the DNA of it, the essence of it, its core has been altered. It’s like a plant that hasn't been watered in a while and it looks tired and it looks old, but with fresh watering it will sprout right up."

Film critic Roger Ebert also wished the publication the best while saying he hoped the new ownership would maintain Variety's extensive film criticism.

"I consider Variety a pillar of the film world, but it has fallen on lean times," Ebert wrote in an email to TheWrap. "I hope this is the inspiration for a rebirth and relaunch."

Penske did not respond to TheWrap's request for comment, but in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said he plans to keep the two entities separate.

"We see an incredible opportunity for future collaboration while remaining editorially independent," Penske told the Times.

But to make the purchase work, many analysts believe there must be some kind of cross-pollination between the two brands, possibly with Variety and its sales team handling the lucrative special issues and Deadline and Finke running herd on breaking news. 

It didn't have to turn out this way, some former Variety staffers say. With more visionary leadership and a less bottom-line approach to news gathering, Variety could have found its way through the digital shoals to thrive in the 24-hour news cycle.

"They played it safe," a former Variety reporter told TheWrap. "They got rid of the big-name columnists, they got rid of the expensive stars. It's what happened at many, many newspapers,  and it has to do with protecting the salaries of people at the top … who lined their pockets instead of doing what was best."