As the trades adjust to more competition and squeezed ad revenues, there's a whole lot of jockeying going on.
It's not a three-trade universe anymore (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Screen International). Now online sites such as Deadline.com, The Wrap and indieWIRE encroach on the entertainment trade space. But they aren't the only interlopers. The LAT and NYT reporters and blogs are breaking what used to be trade news stories. Not to mention the entire spectrum of film sites, plus New York Vulture, MTV.com, EW.com, SciFiWire and the like.
The trades are fighting for their lives.
But which one is in the best position to survive the inevitable transition from print to online? Is it the once-dominant, print-and-ad oriented Variety, carrying huge overhead, sequestered behind a pay wall? (Which let me go a year ago during its first round of lay-offs.) Or the leaner daily The Hollywood Wood Reporter, with new deep-pocketed owners, a Reuters deal and burgeoning online traffic? Or the trades plowing their resources into online content (Screen, The Wrap, Deadline, and indieWIRE)? Variety lost its star news-breaker Mike Fleming to Deadline.com. And when The Hollywood Reporter offered a film beat reporter job to Daniel Frankel, he stayed at The Wrap.
[Nikki Finke illustration by Jaime Hernandez courtesy of The New Yorker]
The LAT and NYT have the advantage of not only being read by the entertainment industry, intelligentsia and media, but consumers as well. That is the direction the studios are leaning with their premium seasonal awards advertising.
With Nikki Finke revealing that she was in talks with The Hollywood Reporter's new owners, and Sharon Waxman's insider knowledge of those talks, it looks like ex-THR-blogger Roger Friedman may not be the only one needing to look for a job.
Clearly, THR's new owners are impressed with Finke's online traffic, but that focus is foreign to editor-in-chief Elizabeth Guider. The Hollywood Reporter may be talking to ex-NYT reporter Waxman, who has shown that she can run an online trade, even if she's tough to work for. That merger could yield productive results. (One commenter at The Wrap, "Anita Busch," writes: "Is it true that your financial backers pulled out and you have been scrambling to find funding? That's the word around town. Might want to address those rumors before starting some of your own about your biggest competitor. How many times have you approached The Hollywood Reporter looking for a deal for The Wrap?")
UPDATE: While Waxman is not commenting on any talks, she declares that "The Wrap is not for sale. I built this to grow and thrive. I'm proud of what we we've built in a year. The Wrap is in strong financial health, my investors are pleased by our rapid growth, both on the side of traffic (1 million monthly uniques) and revenue. I run a company. I have investors. I can't take a job elsewhere. I've heard in the past week so many crazy and ill-intentioned rumors about us, none of which are remotely true. That is the nature of this business and I'm prepared to live with that."
I doubt (as with Finke's discussions with Variety more than a year ago) that any real offer was made to Finke. Richard Beckman, CEO of THR's parent company e5 Global Media, denies that the paper made her an offer, saying: "There is no truth to the report that the site's editor has been offered the job of editor-in-chief. We have great ambitions for The Hollywood Reporter and all its properties and intend to create the most powerful platform in the entertainment industry." UPDATE: Late Thursday night, Finke refused to comment, saying "I'm posting in 15 minutes, wait for my post." At 1:19 AM, she posted details of a $450,000 a year offer from Beckman's boss, with a Malibu home thrown in. Throwing that kind of money around is not how the THR is going to stay in business!
As much as everyone respects and envies Deadline's readership and news savvy, Finke is a maverick entrepreneur with little patience for taking over an outdated news model. She lives and breathes fast journalism that thrives on the internet. Whether it's good journalism or not doesn't seem to matter these days. Everyone wants the secret of her traffic.
It's not hard to fathom how it works. She has the town running so scared that many folks tip her ahead of the rest of the pack with the handout stories that the trades all thrive on. She couldn't possibly track down and nail every story on that site. Often it's just about who gets the rewrite of a press release up first. Deadline New York's Mike Fleming also has relationships that pay off with early feeds. Of course they hear and chase things, but a lot comes to Finke and Fleming, and it's driving the other trades nuts.
Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Screen all want agents, studios, producers and managers to stop tipping Deadline first. Wisely, Variety took Pamela McClintock off the box office beat (now being covered by a former intern) to compete head-to-head with her former colleague Fleming. As Variety editor Tim Gray told the LAT's Patrick Goldstein:
"We simply said that if you give any of these show business websites the story first, then we'll put the story on the Web -- for the record -- but we won't put it in the print edition."
What Gray doesn't seem to understand is that many entertainment newshounds don't care about or even read the print edition. Deadline's readers aren't worrying about good placement on page one. They want to read the news first, preferably via Tweet or text alert--something The Wrap and indieWIRE are particularly good at. And they want to to engage directly with Waxman and Finke: commenting, complaining, and feeding. It's about talk-back, linking and networking. Not about an insular Beverly Hills/Burbank corridor.
MCN's David Poland is right: Complacent top-dog Variety has no idea what its real competition is. And at a time when the paper desperately needs to get hip to the online universe, they're running the other way. Their new daily editor comes from the LAT and doesn't know the film world. The new online editor comes from the Philadelphia Inquirer and isn't up to speed either. And ever since Peter Bart ceded his role to Gray, numbers-cruncher publisher Neil Stiles has been calling the shots.