With a single email sent out late Wednesday, MSN Entertainment informed as many as 100 freelance writers and editors that they would be out of work by the end of the month. Among the film writers who confirmed they'd lost their positions were chief film critic Glenn Kenny, DVD columnist Sean Axmaker, reviewer and columnist James Rocchi, critic and blogger Kate Erbland -- who also contributed to the site's "Page Turner" blog with Time critic Mary Pols -- and Hitlist contributor William Goss.
In his email, reproduced in full below, lead editor Kent Laird informed writers that, as a result of changes in Microsoft's management, his freelance budget had been cut to $0 effective Oct. 1, and that any outstanding invoices submitted after Sep. 27 would not be paid. "I know many of you contribute consistently on a daily basis or write columns/features and attend junkets for us regularly, and sadly those will all end as well," he wrote. "While we aren't quite sure yet of some final direction of the site, I am sure that I speak for everyone on the team when I say that working with each of you has been a pleasure and we will truly miss all the interactions we have had."
In emails, MSN's soon-to-be-former contributors spoke fondly of their experience with the site. "I'd feel remiss to not note that every person I worked for and with at MSN Movies, writers to managers, was someone I was proud to work for, work with, and in many lucky cases to know as a friend," Rocchi said.
"The Movies site got criticism for familiar reasons/issues (gallery layout, not being too keen on generous indie coverage, etc.) but it was a solid platform," Kenny said. "I actively liked writing for a mainstream audience, and within certain guidelines I still had a fair amount of freedom... and they paid at rates that allowed me a pretty decent standard of living, especially given I'm a bourgeois guy in my (early) 50s, rather than a younger writer who's by near-necessity OK with conditions on Digital Grub Street."
Given that they were part of a corporation in the top tenth of the Fortune 500, MSN Entertainment was drawing from some very deep pockets. But as AOL did in 2011, Microsoft effectively decided they wanted to get out of the content creation business. "When these things happen there's talk about the new leader's vision for 'what the site is going to be,'" Kenny said, "but nobody was talking, you know, eradication of original content."
It's a sad comment on the state of the film-writing industry that most of the writers MSN cut ties with have faced similar situations multiple times: Erbland and Rocchi were among those who lost an outlet when Box Office Magazine stopped publishing reviews in January. "While I've been heartened by the creation of a bunch of new film sites lately -- stuff like The Dissolve, Geek Nation, Screen Crush -- this news makes me feel like online film journalism is still in trouble, especially if you're a freelancer," Erbland said. "MSN is a huge, huge conglomerate that had a great well of talent and money and even they didn't have an interest in keeping things going. Obviously, I find that incredibly depressing."
"The corporate gutting of Cinematical in particular has frankly instilled a wariness in me only further fueled by today's announcement," Goss said. "When hired, I rarely ever send in a resume; when fired, I never even get a phone call. To work like this is to accept a perpetually uncertain state of employment, or at the very least tolerate it."
While it's cold comfort, the piecemeal nature of freelancing means that MSN's writers have other work to pursue: Erbland is an associate editor at Film School Rejects; Rocchi recently launched The Lunch, a weekly podcast about movies and food; Axmaker writes for Turner Classic Movies and Parallax View; Goss writes for Film.com and Empire's U.S. iPad edition; Pols writes for Time and is pursuing several book projects; Kenny is shopping one novel, which he affectionately calls "a garish suspense thriller," is working on a second, and his book on Robert De Niro for Cahiers du Cinema's Anatomy of an Actor series will be published next spring. But they've all taken a substantial hit, and many are still reeling from the shock.
Given that the ax fell during the Toronto Film Festival, when film writers often run up expenses they pay off with later assignments, MSN's timing is particularly bad; Erbland got the news while waiting in the Toronto airport for her canceled flight home to be rescheduled, and eventually flew off into a lightning storm. But it also means they've got plenty stored up for the months ahead, and a wealth of experience and talent waiting to be tapped.
From: Kent Laird
Date: September 11, 2013, 5:45 p.m. EDT
Subject: Microsoft/MSN Changes
As I'm sure most of you are aware, about 2 months ago, Microsoft announced a restructuring plan to move from being a software company to a services and devices company. A few immediate changes followed for us including a new VP overseeing all online services, including MSN, who has a vastly different vision for our Web site than anything in the past 15 years. Fast forward a few weeks and our CEO announced his retirement. Things are changing super-fast at Microsoft and those changes have quickly made their way to our work that we do at MSN and at MSN Entertainment specifically.
Unfortunately, I am writing you to let you know that effective 10/1/2013 our freelance budget has gone away entirely. I wish I could say it's been lowered substantially and we'd just be reducing the work we are doing, but to be honest, it has been taken away and is at $0 for the remainder of the fiscal year. I know many of you contribute consistently on a daily basis or write columns/features and attend junkets for us regularly, and sadly those will all end as well. While we aren't quite sure yet of some final direction of the site, I am sure that I speak for everyone on the team when I say that working with each of you has been a pleasure and we will truly miss all the interactions we have had.
1. I have been notified that all PO's will be closed by October 1st. That means you must invoice me before that time or you won't get paid for work you've already completed. My management says there will be no grace period, so please make sure all invoices are in by 9/27. Even if you're pre-billing something for September.
2. All on-going assignments are effectively cancelled as of 9/30/2013. Blogging, columns, recapping, reviews, etc…
3. My team and I, and others on the Entertainment team, will be reaching out to industry contacts, studios, networks, publicists to let them know of our shift. In the meantime, please feel free to put them in touch with us should you get coverage requests on behalf of MSN.
I'm more than happy to answer any questions any of you may have, but can tell you, regrettably, there isn't any exceptions that can be made to any of this information. This is the budget we've been given and unfortunately the news I have to pass on.
I want to thank every one of you for your contributions over the years you've worked with MSN Entertainment. The site has become a world-class entertainment destination and we've had many successes, much due to the original content that we have run and promoted on the site that you all contributed to. I hope you know that we all know we couldn't have found the success we had without your amazing abilities. I sincerely hope that things will shift again soon and that we can reach out to work together again soon.
Thank you again and please don't hesitate to let me know if you have any questions.