“Great Brand, No Leadership”

An apparent Variety insider (or an ex-staffer) named “Jason” has written a tough-minded critique of the venerated trade publication for Paid Content.org. “Change or die” is his basic message. Brutally honest stuff but hard to argue with in sections.

“The fact that Nikki Finke and Sharon Waxman 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 401K 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?’

Variety is a great name. So where is the braintrust to kick everyone’s ass? Where’s the same attitude of the people it covers. The creativity. The work-at-all-hours people. The idea people. And I don’t mean a web redesign.

“And hiring an ex-LA Times 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. Okay, they were let go…no problem. So go get new giants. Is Leo Wolinsky 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 and 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. If you put an archive of every film review behind it, cool. If you put Red Carpet photos of every premiere ever, cool. But what are you charging people for that they can’t get somewhere else pretty quickly? 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. And they’re making a smart move 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 one 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 that 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. How’s 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’s 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.”

Wells interjection: McCarthy is one of the best and brainiest critics in the country, and if he isn’t worth a decent salary at whatever publication then I don’t know what critic would be.

Back to Jason: “But again — it’s not about you but readers,” he continues. “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 website. 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-Nan 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.”

Whomever and wherever he is, Jason must know he is now a hunted man. Like Walter Pidgeon trudging through the swamp in Fritz Lang‘s Manhunt, he can hear the barking howls of the approaching hounds.

  • Phreaker

    So, are we to judge the merit of a site based on the number of comments? I don’t think so. Indiewiere, NY Times, The Hot Blog – just because they don’t have comments doesn’t mean people aren’t reading what they’re saying.

    A lot of comments is what the Huffington Post has – and even Entertainment Weekly has one. This is about community building, the comment thing. That isn’t really Variety’s bag. What are people going to comment on? The latest puff piece about The Young Victoria? And what are they going to say?

    The pay wall is a bad idea. Todd McCarthy is one of the only reasons to read Variety at all. He’s worth every penny.

  • Anthony Thorne

    Slow-minded dweeb that I am, this entire piece just made me realise how the ‘merit of a site’ is very much tied to the number of comments the published pieces might get. Comments = visitors = readers = = more comments = more visitors = more readers etc etc etc. If Jeff or whoever can say to banner advertisers, we get plenty of hits, lots of return visitors, lots of people surfing through browsing who return again just to see what the commenters are saying about the piece, advertisers like the flow of high traffic activity. If a Variety piece gets just a comment or two, its an indicator that no-one reading it really gives a shit, there aren’t that many return visitors, and the site isn’t seen as a ‘must visit’ by many people at all. Which one would an advertiser prefer? Even if you take the validity of Phreaker’s comments above, Variety could be seeing higher numbers if they had a greater community there to drag in return visits. I visit 15 or 20 film sites repeatedly across the course of a week – Variety ain’t one of them.

    The Hot Blog has plenty of comments at times, as do other mainstream papers like Vanity Fair. I can’t argue with much of what ‘Jason’ has written at all.

  • aris

    Except that ‘Jason’ doesn’t have any solutions.

  • bitplayer

    I use to work in the newspaper business and I can tell you exactly what’s going on. As trade publication they are so up people in Hollywood’s ass they aren’t capable of being aggressive to the point of pissing people off. I’d bet that most of the people on staff wait for sources to call them and aren’t beating the pavement so to speak for stories. They are all everybody’s friends and that isn’t compelling, not when someone like Finke is trashing sacred cows or posting internal documents.

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