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Variety for Sale as Hollywood Trade Struggles in Digital Era (Updated)

The 100-plus-year-old trade is up for sale, says Reed Business Information

Variety announced Friday that its parent company Reed Business Information has placed the venerable but much diminished trade on the block.

Reed has been in the process of selling off many of its other assets, but this is the first time it has indicated it would abandon the trade as a standalone property. It is its last remaining U.S. magazine.

"Variety is an iconic title serving the film and entertainment industry for more than 100 years," Mark Kelsey, CEO of RBI said in a statement. "With RBI's increasing focus on data services, and the sale of our other U.S. print magazines, it now makes sense for us to sell the business."

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The oldest of the Hollywood trades, Variety has been struggling with declining advertising and circulation for at least five years. Once the dominant source of information for Hollywood, it has been challenged by digital upstarts like TheWrap and the Deadline blog. It has also faced greater competition from long-time rival The Hollywood Reporter, which relaunched its website and folded its daily print editions, launching a glossy weekly in its stead.

Also read: What’s Variety Worth and Who Will Buy It?

The decision comes on the heels of the lucrative awards season, when For Your Consideration advertising will have pumped up the trade's balance sheet.

At its height the trade was a huge cash cow, raking in 30 to 40 percent profits in the 1990s, with annual revenues upward of $60 million.

Variety began to suffer badly in the economic downturn of 2008, when advertising in general went into freefall. A series of layoffs ensued.

Also read: Variety Bleeds Talent, While Newsroom Morale Suffers

A spokesman for Reed Elsevier, RBI's parent company, declined to comment on Variety's financials, framing the decision as part of a greater strategy to get out of the publishing business.

"Our stategy is consistent," the spokesman said. "We continue systematically to evolve our portfolio of businesses prioritizing data services and high-growth markets. This is primarily through organic measures but also through acquisitions and divestments."

RBI has owned Variety since 1987.

The trade was further challenged as new more nimble competitors entered the marketplace. 

Also read: Variety 2.0: Save the Good Stuff For Print

Instead of choosing to compete with the 24/7 news blogs, the trade diminished its profile by adding a paywall in early 2010 while its competitiors provided instantaneous news coverage for free.

In addition to pushing out its iconic editor for decades Peter Bart, Variety has slashed staff in recent years, letting go some of its most notable reviewers and writers. The trade still has more than 100 people who work there, according to an RBI spokesman.

Among those who have left the mid-Wilshire building include writers Ben Fritz, Mike Fleming, Anne Thompson, Phil Gallo, critics Todd McCarthy and David Rooney and editors Leo Wolinsky, Michael Speier and Diane Garrett. (Garrett is now a news editor at TheWrap.)

Publisher Neil Stiles has managed Variety’s books by slashing costs via lay-offs on the editorial and business side and pushing hard into a series of business conferenes. But to most observers, he has yet to articulate a strategy to adapt to the demands of digital-age news cycles and newly energized competitors.

In addition to erecting the paywall and focusing on print in the past year over growing Variety’s digital presence, Stiles has increased the number of conferences to counter the decline in advertising revenue.

Also read: Exclusive: Variety Up For Sale (Exclusive)

In a statement on Friday, Stiles glossed over all of this, insisting that it would "continue to thrive" under new ownership. The publication has added some staff, including reporter Andrew Wallenstein and film editor Josh Dickey, a former Wrap editor.

Its circulation has always been small, averaging about 35,000. Its current circulation is believed to have fallen, but numbers are not available.