To: Peter Bart / From: Patrick Goldstein / Re: What Just Happened?
To: Peter Bart
From: Patrick Goldstein
I guess I knew things weren't going well when the big shots at various Hollywood agencies started telling me that they'd been canceling their Variety print subscriptions -- which, let's face it, cost almost as much as a decent used car -- because by the time the paper arrived in the morning they'd already read almost everything in it online. But still, the news that Tim Gray is now running the show and you're, well, stepping aside, came as a shock.
At least Variety covered your departure with the same "let's put the best possible face on this" approach that it uses when discussing a disastrous movie opening, saying that you'd still be the trade paper's ambassador in public venues and help "expand the brand's position in new revenue streams." (I mean, at 76, I guess you've seen it all, but who knew that after all these years you were actually editing a brand, not a trade paper!) I knew you weren't getting along so well with Big Variety Kahuna Tad Smith -- i.e. the guy who just kicked you upstairs -- but it was a little disappointing that when he had a chance to give you a gracious sendoff, he instead offered the faintest of faint praise, saying, "Bart has managed Variety's staff and news operations for 20 years...."
Couldn't he at least have said you did "a good job" of managing Variety? Even a "pretty good" job? I mean, geez! Donald Sterling's said nicer things about his Clippers players.
After all, it's not your fault that, the day the Oscar season ends, Variety's ad lineage falls off a cliff. You did everything you could this past year, writing blog post after blog post (back in the days when you were actually writing more than one or two posts a week) cajoling the studios into running ads, warning that their high-priced stars might have terrible self-esteem issues if they didn't see more visible support (in the form of full-page "For Your Consideration" ads) for their award-worthy films. But like it or not, movie advertising is fast disappearing from print publications, taking profit margins along with it. As you might have noticed, we've had our own problems with that here at The Times.
I know that when you write your memos to various stars when they've had a career stumble that you always offer some sage advice. So let me give it a try, since you've been given the unenviable task of trying to reinvent the Variety brand. Here's a key thought: It's time to radically change the Variety style of covering Hollywood. Much as I'm sure you'd hate to admit it, since she's been just as mean to you as to everyone else -- me included -- Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood represents the most successful model in terms of generating Web traffic and buzz.
Why? Until recently, your core showbiz audience was happy to read Variety's cozy reportage about the industry, with its sunny take on box-office returns and a front page filled with fanciful renderings of movie projects that would almost surely never end up being made. Variety made the industry feel good about itself. Variety ignored the dark side of showbiz, the endless paranoia, envy, desperation and jealousy that fuels so many people's drive to success. Nikki has shrewdly tapped into that hidden well, embracing the industry's inner schadenfreude, tossing poison darts and gleefully bashing the big and the small with impunity, knowing that much of her audience secretly thrills to see both their friends and enemies held up to ridicule.
I'm certainly not saying that you should mimic that approach. One Finke is enough for me. But it is time for Variety to embrace stronger voices that could revitalize the brand and help it colonize the Web, where strong voices rule the roost. You have an impressive contingent of film critics who've been allowed relatively free rein to write honest, sometimes even barbed reviews. Why not open up the rest of the paper to that freewheeling approach? On the Web, readers value smart analysis and strong opinion. At Variety, you still have a host of knowledgeable reporters who, until now, have rarely told all they know.
It's time to pull off the blinders and make a few waves. I've always enjoyed our lunches over the years because you didn't pull any of your punches, letting me know just which studio chiefs you thought were savvy operators and which ones were hapless dolts. It's time you encouraged your staff to be just as honest in its Hollywood coverage. Maybe it's a Hail Mary pass, but I've got news for you -- the way things are going in today's journalism, we're all throwing Hail Mary passes.
I mean, what's the worst that could happen? In the old days, studio chiefs would call and threaten to cancel their ads. But as you and I well know, that's the emptiest threat of all, since you've got the perfect rejoinder. "You're pulling your ads? What ads?"
Photo of Variety's Tim Gray (left) and Peter Bart by Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times