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Variety Anguish: A ‘Cri de Coeur’ From an Insider

Jason writes a diatribe: “Variety is at a critical point and no one seems to have a plan of action”

Variety is in bad shape, and everyone knows it, except perhaps Variety itself.

In response to an analysis by Ken Sonenclar of the failing trade this week at paidcontent.org, an insider who called himself Jason wrote an anguished, lengthy comment about why the trade hasn’t got a clue and is on the road to ruin.

He writes: "Can Variety SURVIVE as is. Of course it can’t. There’s no revenue stream besides advertising. And it’s cratering. And the staff is big, even AFTER they cut it down…and working in a brick-and-mortar building is EXPENSIVE."

He laments: "There are some decent things on Variety.com, but nobody’s commenting. Why? And where are all of the links? And where’s the “bigness” to some items? These aren’t minor things that they should be scoffing at. These are real things. Bona fide things to do to change the culture. And most importantly, where’s the analysis? Opinion. Edgy columnists. Have you SEEN the blogs? Where’s the tiger of the bunch? Not just “Hey – I like this show.” But rather, meaningful stuff."

Many of these themes have been explored in WaxWord before, questioning what plan publisher Neil Stiles’ had to turn around Variety’s fortunes. (Neil Stiles, What’s the Plan?)

And I expressed amazement at his comments when we shared a panel this fall that he wasn’t really sure what Variety is anymore. (Variety’s Stiles: ‘I’m Not Optimistic About This Habit Called Journalism)

Recently Variety lost its one big news-breaking gun, Mike Fleming, to the feared-but-hated deadline.com, and replaced smart people that the trade laid off with folks who have less experience and institutional knowledge. (Like former editor Mike Speier’s replacement with a newsprint veteran, Leo Wolinsky, with no web experience and no knowledge of the entertainment industry.)

As regards Sonenclar’s post, I also commented in that space about his observations about TheWrap. As I mentioned there, Sonenclar does not seem aware of the fact that TheWrap has not only one revenue stream – display advertising – but also revenue streams from syndication and events. Ken wrote me that I hadn’t returned his call from a few months back – which was not intentional, Ken. We’re just crazy busy over here.

But back to Variety. This insider cites all this issues and more, and I reprint it along with a personal invitation for Jason to be in touch. You seem to get it. Would be glad to meet you.  And you are dead right about this: TheWrap would not have a reason to exist if Variety understood how to respond to the needs of a changing media landscape. But it’s a time of historic change, and some things will fade while new things arise to replace them.

Here is the rather heart-rending comment/essay:

Jason writes: 

Ken –
Good piece.
But it’s not an equal financial playing field, and that’s the problem Variety has. So your generally good points just need some tweaking.

I don’t have a dog in the fight. But you’re missing the key problem: overhead. The fact that Nikki and Sharon compete at all – reasonably – is simply incredible considering the Wrap has six people in a small office in Santa Monica, Nikki has three people all working virtually from home…but Variety has 100 people…in a high-rise…with insurance…and 401 (k) payments….and travel expenses for many of them…and , well…you get the point.

This isn’t only an editorial discussion…it’s a business plan discussion. Can Variety SURVIVE as is. Of course it can’t. There’s no revenue stream besides advertising. And it’s cratering. And the staff is big, even AFTER they cut it down…and working in a brick-and-mortar building is EXPENSIVE.

This really has hit a critical point for Variety, and one problem is that nobody seems to have a plan of reasonable action. I know plenty of people there, and they all say the same thing. Great brand, no leadership. And sure, some are griping because journalists gripe. But don’t they have a decent point? What is Variety doing to change the game? What is Variety doing – with its history, access, talent and management – to shake it up? To change everything. This is about MORE than just tomorrow or 2010. This is about years from now.

It’s not working. The newspaper is thin. The site is a mess. There are some decent things on Variety.com, but nobody’s commenting. Why? And where are all of the links? And where’s the “bigness” to some items? These aren’t minor things that they should be scoffing at. These are real things. Bona fide things to do to change the culture. And most importantly, where’s the analysis? Opinion. Edgy columnists. Have you SEEN the blogs? Where’s the tiger of the bunch? Not just “Hey – I like this show.” But rather, meaningful stuff.

So what’s coming down the pike? What are the changes? It’s 2010, so I assume if there were MAJOR changes, they’d already be here, because this deterioration is something that has been going on for years. And I know I’m not privy to the war room planning, so of course, many will scoff at this as, “what does THIS guy know?” But this is Hollywood. Be creative in the marketing. Give us SOMETHING to look forward to. Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) is the market leader in customer service/computing…and even THEY come out with new ideas every year.

You are Variety. A great name. So where is the braintrust to kick everyone’s ass? Where’s the same attitude of the people you cover. The creativity. The work-at-all-hours people. The idea people.

And I don’t mean a Web redesign. And hiring an ex-LAT staffer whose job, by the way, isn’t to produce copy – is that what they REALLY need right now—ANOTHER editor? Where’s the new Mike Fleming? The new young columnist? The new hot get? Where are the stars? And hiring a guy from Philadelphia (?) to run the site doesn’t count.

Have you all sat in a room, looked at each other and said, “This isn’t working…let’s go get us people who can kick ass.” And I don’t mean by typing fast. Or giving orders. Or having good meetings. Or being a nice person. I mean…who can change the game?
Variety let 30 people go. Mike Fleming left. What more does it take for all of you to say, “Jesus…time to stop living back in the heyday of 1982.” David Begelman isn’t walking through the door anymore. Frank Mancuso doesn’t make movies anymore. These people were your audience during a great time. Now you have a new audience. So how are you appealing to them? Bart, Fleming, Adalian, Fritz, Speier, Hammond, Gallo, Frater…these people were talented. And brought a sense of importance to your place. OK – they were let go…no problem. So go get NEW giants. Is Leo Wolisnky a giant?

I’m not naive. I know every paper is going through this. I know it’s hard. I know it’s not an easy fix. So don’t get me wrong. It’s not your fault that it’s happening. But isn’t it your responsibility to do EVERYTHING you can to give your team, your staff, your readers what they deserve? Mainly, a great site with a great look and a great search engine and a great archive and, if you desire, great stuff behind a paywall?

And speaking of paywalls, I bet everyone at Variety loves the Internet. They seem like a prudent, intelligent bunch who obsesses over news and information and details. So if the sites they go to all day long are free, isn’t that proof enough? What do YOU do when you see a pay-only site? Click away, I am sure.

But most importantly, what are you putting behind it? I know you know that’s the big question. OK – so if you put an archive of every film review behind it. Cool. If you put Red Carpet photos of every premiere ever. Cool. But right now…what are you charging people for that they can’t get in one hour somewhere else? Seriously. Nobody over there has an answer to that.
What’s more frustrating, from what I hear, the management team is the only team who doesn’t use THEIR OWN experiences to learn. They all read Nikki and 20 other FREE sites every day. Hell – their writers get scooped by them. But apparently…they all are smarter by going behind a pay-wall?

And let’s talk about Tim Gray. Funny man. But is he a leader? Is he? The man HATED the Internet and everything about it until 1 year ago when he was made editor…and IN CHARGE of it. Ask anyone. People say he routinely scoffed at the Web staff. Respected none of them. He was a guy who pondered Weekly placement and amusing columns…but HATED everything about the Web. I ain’t lyin’. Just ask.

To that point, where does it say that a man who has 30 years experience sitting at a desk and being quippy means he can redefine a newspaper’s entire identity? Why is he better choice than some hot shot who knows about Web architecture? The answer…he’s not. He’s a detriment, not a help. He’s a great columnist. A good lunch date. But in leadership: is funny what matters? They are slowly eroding. Can “funny” give way to some ass-kicking…finally?

And links — don’t get me started…why is Variety the only site who hasn’t figured out that links are key? Sharing is caring. Everyone’s good will comes back. So people share…and like to share. But Variety is still in “newspaper” mode: our news…nothing else. OK – how is that working out for you?

And about people. I am quite sure everyone loves talking about movies with critic Todd McCarthy. Fun around the water cooler. Intelligent discourse. Great debates. Cool chatter. Makes you feel smart. And I know everyone thinks he is “great.” He is. He is indeed one of the best ever. For 20 years. But making six figures to say “Nine” sucks – no matter how smartly – is bad business in 2010. I bet you have young people on your Web staff who are MORE employable and valuable then Todd McCarthy. Yes, having an important voice matters. He is an important voice. But it doesn’t seem to be paying off. So what’s the plan there? His movie reviews don’t get picked up. None of them seem to anymore. But hey – at least people had a great talk about whether “Inglourious Basterds” was better than “Kill Bill”…or whatever. But again – it’s not about YOU. It’s about readers…and do they care about 1000-word reviews from the Giffoni film festival? Ask them. Please tell me if I am being unreasonable.

But I go back to this: Doesn’t anyone there get it? It’s not a newspaper. It’s a Web site. Just because there are words and headlines, that doesn’t make it the same.

It’s time. For a change. Isn’t it? Variety can’t get past the “newspaper” mentality. They just can’t, it seems. Where’s the new hire to talk about behind-the-scenes stuff, what it all means. Reactions to hot news. Mike Fleming had 250 comments on “Spider-man” and “American Idol” at his new home. When he was at Variety, he never had 5 comments. No joke.

I know you want to praise 3D stories and indie film in Peru. That’s cool and good and interesting and necessary. But while you have interesting and necessary…so many places are kicking their butt. Change. It’s time.

See related: Neil Stiles, What’s the Plan?

Variety’s Stiles: ‘I’m Not Optimistic About This Habit Called Journalism

Peter Bart: "It’s Time for a Reinvention"

New Variety Editor Tim Gray Gets Grilled – Entertainment

New Daily Variety Editor Leo Wolinsky: Grilled