Updated at 3:30 pm on Monday:
Peter Bart, a Hollywood institution for 20 years in his role heading up Daily Variety, has been moved aside to be replaced by his deputy Tim Gray, Reed Business CEO Tad Smith announced on Sunday.
The move is the end of an era for the daily and weekly trade publication, which has been struggling to adapt to the rapid-fire pace of news-gathering while seeing advertising decline sharply in the wake of a weak economy and entertainment industry cutbacks.
The trade went through severe cutbacks in January and has continued to lose web traffic and ad revenue, mirroring the troubles facing many other traditional newsprint companies across the country.
Gray, who will report to Variety president Neil Stiles, faces a daunting challenge.
In an interview with TheWrap, Gray said he would be focusing on evolution rather than revolution, but that the Variety brand has gotten a little "blurry":
"I think one of the goals is to get a distinctive identity for all of the (properties)," he said. "With the web, if you said to people, ‘What are three things you like better about the web than anything else?’ They’d have to get back to you on that one. The goal is to give it an identity."
In an interview with TheWrap, Bart said he didn’t feel sad. "I feel stimulated," he said. "I love to get on with the next group of missions. I’ve had few different careers — had a great time in journalism, spent many good years in the movie business, i’ve been doing this for 20 years — it’s time for a reinvention."
But it’s Variety that may well need reinventing.
For two years in a row, the movie studios have severely cut back their advertisements during the Oscar season, in 2008 because of a writers guild strike, and this year in the overall context of a weak economy.
Any Hollywood executive picking up the daily trade cannot help but notice Variety’s shrinking size and the lack of advertising since the Academy Awards in March, a worrying shift for the flagship publication of Reed Business Information, even in a fallow time of year.
Gray is considered an experienced and well-liked editor who has run both daily and weekly publications but has not been intimately involved in Variety.com.
But Gray said he was not sure which direction he’d be taking Variety.com, which has lost audience in the past year.
"If I knew the answer to that, I’d be the richest man in world," he said. "I’ll have meetings with (Variety President) Neil (Stiles) and Brian Gott, the publisher. But it’ll be an evolution, rather than a revolution. You won’t log on to Variety.com and say, ‘Whoa, I get it.’ We’ll try stuff." (See The Grill interview with Gray.)
To many, Gray’s promotion indicates Variety’s intention to continue to pursue a print revenue strategy, even as most legacy media are striving to convert themselves into online-first publishers.
He ran into trouble in 2001 when a profile of him in Los Angeles magazine said that he had disparaged minorities, leading to his temporary suspension. Bart was reinstated after an investigation.
Mostly, though, Bart imbued the publication with his own voice, as someone who had been both a journalist and a producer on the Paramount lot in the 1970s.
"What’s unique about Peter as an editor is he had been on the other side, he had actually done the job of the people he was reporting on," said Charlie Koones, the former publisher of Variety. "As a result, he was able to speak with an authority that people respected. Not everybody loved Peter, but everybody read Peter, because he called it straight."
At age 76, Bart presided over a generation of prosperity and growth for the industry’s main trade, during which it had dominated its main rival, the Hollywood Reporter. For many years, Variety has produced annual profits of 30 percent to 40 percent after taxes, according to knowledgeable individuals. That margin has been significantly reduced in the past year.
But Bart may well have been regarded as being of the wrong generation to transform Variety for the digital age. Indeed, he was known within the newsroom for being not very interested in the technological changes transforming the industry.
He still writes his book on a typewriter, for example.
Gray, a mild-mannered manager well-liked by reporters and Hollywood power-brokers alike, has already been editor for several years. He won out over the other internal choice, Michael Speier, the executive editor for news, who is more involved with the online operation, but is also a rougher-edged personality.
Stiles said the move came as expected at Bart’s 20-year mark. Bart will continue to serve in an emeritus-type role. He will continue to blog and write a weekly column and "serve as Variety’s ambassador in public venues, on television, on the web and at industry events," the Variety article said.
He will report directly to Smith, “assisting him in furthering Variety’s editorial mission in print and online and expanding the brand’s position in new revenue streams,” Variety said.
One might be a Variety-branded television show that Bart hinted would lie in the near future. "We’re working on closing the deal," he said.