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Variety Cuts Its Life's Blood: Critics McCarthy and Rooney

by Anne Thompson
March 8, 2010 9:17 AM
12 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

At Saturday's HBO Oscar party, I enjoyed dishing about the upcoming Cannes line-up with Todd McCarthy, Variety's film critic for three decades, who is the paper's biggest star and the main reason readers all over the world read the august trade. His reviews post first, and are the best-read thing in Variety, bar none. The day after the Oscars, publisher Neil Stiles confirmed that as a cost-cutting measure, film critics Todd McCarthy and Derek Elley and theater critic David Rooney are out, set loose as possible freelance contributors. (No talks on such deals have yet taken place.)

UPDATE: The LAT reports that TV critic Brian Lowry will stay on. And features editor Sharon Swart--who knows the indie community as well as anyone-- was also among about eight staffers shown the door this morning. Variety poached her from the Hollywood Reporter twelve years ago. Online marketer Abe Burns, copy editors Carmel Dagan, Matt Coltrin and Gary North and paginator Danielle Grimes are also cut. Editor Tim Gray's internal memo urges his staffers to "ignore the bloggers" (full memo pasted on the jump).

Variety can't afford them, as they couldn't afford me or editors Michael Speier and Kathy Lyford. But I was a relative newbie, a columnist/blogger. I was a luxury. Problem is, I was well-paid, as were McCarthy and Rooney. Nonetheless, they are necessities. Without them, Variety is doomed. Along with the badly handled recent fracas over Robert Koehler's review of Iron Cross (which was pulled off the site during a robust Oscar campaign, then later restored) this sends a dubious message to Hollywood: Variety is running out of cash. As vet journalist Chris Willman tweeted me today: "this feels like end of the world as we know it. I can't even comprehend."

At the Oscars last night, things weren't going well for Variety. IndieWIRE had laid out several hundred bucks for my secure, fast DSL line, which I shared with Variety, as their air cards were going in and out. IndieWIRE sent out swift news alerts and scored huge traffic with its live Oscar blog, reminding readers to tune in with tweets. Variety barely got the final news alert out, and didn't have Oscar winners posted on its front page. Variety stalwarts Cynthia Littleton and Tim Gray were tweeting from backstage and the Kodak--going in, neither had as much as 100 followers.

I saw it coming. When I left The Hollywood Reporter (which had given me the opportunity to launch the Riskybiz blog, and had already been through several Draconian staff and expense trims) to move to number-one trade Variety, I found a bigger, fatter, more spendthrift organization accustomed to riding high off the hog. And I saw a trade that was neither in tune with its customers, nor with changing times on the web. Layoffs eventually came. And keep coming. (Here's Variety's official management reorganization story, with no mention of staff trims.)

But former editor-in-chief Peter Bart had built a respected news organization with a strong staff--and he saw the wisdom of deploying top critics all over the world. That was the center of Variety's long-range success. It made the paper a global industry must-read. Erudite and learned about cinema, Todd McCarthy gets more hits for his reviews than anyone at the paper.

Wait. Variety is behind a pay wall. They don't care about traffic anymore. Don't they care about premium content? They also lost star news hound Michael Fleming to Deadline Hollywood, which steals more readers by the day. Fleming probably saw that he too, was overpaid. And he didn't want to be rendered invisible. Too bad Variety couldn't have instituted across-the-board pay cuts for everyone--and saved some jobs and talent. Oh wait. The people at the top would have to cut their salaries too. And what about that giant red Variety logo on top of their Wilshire office tower? How many salaries a year would that cover?

While this change brings opportunity for two talented, less expensive younger staff critics trained by McCarthy--Justin Chang and Peter Debruge--McCarthy and Rooney's departure marks a sad, sad day. (UPDATE: Monday afternoon, @ebertchicago tweets: Variety fires Todd McCarthy and I cancel my subscription. He was my reason to read the paper. @AskDebruge responds: We'll have to earn you back. And David Poland says: RIP Variety.)

It is indeed the end of an era.


From: Gray, Tim M (RBI-US)
Sent: Monday, March 08, 2010 1:14 PM
To: Editorial Staff
Subject: internal memo, for Variety editorial staff only
Change is always scary, and at Variety, we have had a lot of changes in the past few years. But change is not always bad.

We are making further changes in the newsroom. We will post a story to the web, which the Dailies will run tomorrow. That's to update the outside world. This memo is to give details to you staffers, and we will have a meeting this afternoon to address any questions.

Today's changes won't be noticed by readers. Our goal is the same: To maintain, or improve, our quality coverage. But internally, we hope the changes -- which will include several new hires coming aboard -- will make things more streamlined and efficient, will eliminate unnecessary work, and will increase coordination and communication in the newsroom.

I want to outline the new editorial structure, then give you some thoughts on the bigger picture.

The newsroom will be in four areas: reporting, web, features and producing (copy editors, paginators, art dept.). Note that I didn't use the word "divisions." Because we will continue to integrate, a process that began about a year ago.

This involves several title changes, reflecting shifts in roles and duties that have begun during this past year.

Kirstin Wilder will finally get her well-deserved title of managing editor. She will continue to make sure everything runs efficiently, to oversee production and finances, and to coordinate editorial needs/concerns at the corporate level. Several people will now report directly to her.

Steve Gaydos will keep his executive editor title but drop the word "features," to reflect the fact that he is expanding his duties. Aside from maintaining his expert stewardship over VPlus, he will contribute to other growing areas.

Chris Krewson and Leo Wolinsky will obviously keep their new titles and duties. They have already devised ways to work more efficiently and effectively, on the web and in print.

Dana Harris's new title is editor of strategic projects, developing special content for additional tiers of readers behind the paywall.

Other new titles: Carole Horst, associate editor; Paula Taylor, creative director; Ted Johnson and Cynthia Littleton, deputy editors; and Terry Flores, senior editor.

Maintaining their titles, but with increased responsibility, are Brian Cochrane and Pat Saperstein.

As for the bigger picture:

Reviews: We are not changing our review policy. Last year we ran more than 1,200 film reviews. No other news outlet comes even close, and we will continue to be the leader in numbers and quality. It doesn't make economic sense to have full-time reviewers, but Todd, Derek and Rooney have been asked to continue as freelancers. And, of course, we still have great people on staff, including Justin Chang, Peter Debruge and Brian Lowry, who will continue their work as critics while performing their other key duties. And we will of course still use David Benedict in London and other freelancers.

Legit coverage: It's part of our heritage, and we will naturally continue. But the recent readers' survey reminded us that our approach to legit was a throwback to another era.

Since Variety is about business news, our coverage will be smarter, more geared for the industry and less consumer-y.

Variety restructuring: Last year, Neil Stiles and Brian Gott went to Amsterdam and met with other Reed Elsevier executives. Most said only 10-20% of their publications' income came from subscriptions and ads. It's a new world in the media, and it's a new world at Variety. Our content will remain basically the same, but the financial structure will change. We've already started making money from the paywall, events and conferences, licensing, etc etc. While these are new areas, the primary concern is this: What can we give Variety readers that they need, and what can we do better than anyone else? Believe me, these new areas are not done lightly or arbitrarily.

Newsroom restructuring: Variety editorial is the engine that gives the Variety "brand" its credibility and importance. Don't ever forget that. For the readers and advertisers who matter, we are still "the gold standard," as one reader put it. That comment is both a pat on the back, and a challenge to continue at that level. We're raising the bar on our coverage, to make it sharper. Nobody is asking you to work harder, but we all need to work smarter.

Reasons for optimism: The economy will bounce back. Ignore the bloggers (who obviously are trying in vain to steal our readers and our advertisers), ignore the obits for Old Media, ignore the negatives and the craziness that this economy has created. The people in the Depression bounced back, and so will all of us who are going through this crisis. I cannot repeat this often enough: Variety is in profit, which means we're here to stay.

In conclusion: Call our exiting colleagues, just to check in. This is hard for all of us, but it's harder for them.

Be sensitive to co-workers. Doom-&-gloom helps no one. It may make you feel better to talk about your darkest fears, but it might make them feel worse.

If you have questions, ask me. If you want to ask through someone else, anonymously, that's fine. If I can answer the questions, I will, either individually or at the next editorial meeting.

You guys are doing great work. I am constantly impressed with your level of professionalism, hard work, ethics and good humor. As responsibilities and pressures have increased, you have all shown amazing grace. You should be very proud of yourselves. Which may be the most important paragraph here. (Oh, no, I buried the lede...)

Thanks.

Tim

[Telluride Film Festival: Gary Mayer, Tom Bernard, Scott Foundas, Todd McCarthy]


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12 Comments

  • Amazed | March 10, 2010 4:46 AMReply

    If this whole thing comes down to dollars and cents I think they just sub contract the whole business out to India...they'd really save money that way. Who the heck needs all these copywriters and editors sitting in expensive LA offices. Don't laugh more and more publishing businesses are doing it.

    And instead of having reporters write the storie just have the publicists write them and file them directly to the web...and the studios could write their own reviews...Variety would save millions!

  • PublicistPete | March 10, 2010 3:08 AMReply

    Premium price + second-rate reporters and reviewers= Bad deal for subscribers. What the hell am I paying for this when there's so much free content out there.

    The only reason I still have a sub is my company pays for it.

    But I can't justify it anymore.

  • Jdavis | March 10, 2010 2:45 AMReply

    Neil Stiles has absolute contempt for the showbiz community...he runs the business like he selling widgets. He doesn't attend events or award shows and is proud of that fact. He's a bean counter with no vision.
    Peter Bart, Speier, Gallo, McCarthy, Rooney were just widgets that needed replacing so he could get cheaper, lower quality ones.

    Stiles keeps Tim around because "TIM HAS NO BALLS!" and will do anything he's told. One day they will tire of his "yes-man" personality and kick his ass out the door as well.

    Stiles will be the last man out the door once the light finally goes out on that giant red Variety logo on top of their Wilshire office tower.

  • Marcelo | March 9, 2010 11:02 AMReply

    Lemme get this straight: Variety ran more than 1,200 reviews last year, but "it doesn't make any economic sense to have full-time reviewers," let alone McCarthy, Rooney and Elley?

    But I guess there is some sort of gallows logic in allowing a phalanx of schmucks to run the show...

  • Joe | March 9, 2010 7:20 AMReply

    I gave a lot of thought to renewing my subscription to weekly Variety. I mean, it's dwindled down to 26-28 pages, max. Given how much entertainment news there is these days - it's relentless - it makes the casual reader question why it gets thinner every week.

  • Janice Findley | March 9, 2010 6:02 AMReply

    I will not be renewing my Variety subscription. No Todd McCarthy? No David Rooney? I will miss Derek Elley as well. I will never understand that in competing with amateur bloggers, publications like Variety try to become as amateur as possible, jettisoning all employees that display expertise. Very depressing.

  • jl | March 9, 2010 3:25 AMReply

    @alan, kinda like the guy on Temple of Doom who ripped out the heart of the sacrificial victim ... but Variety has decided to play both roles.

  • alan | March 9, 2010 1:11 AMReply

    how do you spell 'flabbergasted'?

    i heard variety is so quick they can take a knife, saw a hole in their own chest, pull out their still beating heart, and show it to themselves before they die.

  • David Konow | March 9, 2010 12:28 AMReply

    Like a lot of publications these days, penny wise, pound foolish. A huge mistake letting Todd McCarthy go, not to mention disrespectful and classless, but when have we ever known editors to be graceless and clueless with their writers? Isn't there a saying in Hollywood that if you can't be nice to the little people, be nice to the important people? If you're shitting on the important people, it's really a problem, but again, when have we known publications to shoot themselves in the foot, especially during a time of economic crisis? Does this make sense to anyone? Good luck to Todd and Mike Fleming. It's a blessing in disguise to be thrown off a sinking ship.

  • Sergio | March 8, 2010 11:35 AMReply

    THAT SUCKS! Variety is cutting their own throat!

  • okay now | March 8, 2010 11:03 AMReply

    Okay now I may be totally off-base here, and I didn't go any fancy business school, but it seems to me that eliminating one of your product's most attractive features, at the exact same time that you are drastically raising the price on that product, is an astoundingly poor business decision.

    I'd love to see this sort of logic applied elsewhere. Maybe raise the price on a Lamborghini while also making it go slower?

    Just fucking absurd. Best wishes to Todd.

  • Chris Thilk | March 8, 2010 10:51 AMReply

    Hard to see how they're going to make s compelling case for anyone to scale that pay wall when they keep firing the people who's writing makes it worth reading at all. Are people going to pay for access to freelancers? Probably not. And if the content isn't there are the advertisers going to value placement next to an unknown freelancer's writing? That only works on mass (and free) scale.

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