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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hollywood reacts to Variety's axing of Todd McCarthy: 'What were they thinking?'

March 11, 2010 |  7:29 am
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Variety's decision to dump Todd McCarthy, the trade paper's film critic for the last 31 years, has not gone without notice. In the last 36 hours, I've been deluged with phone calls and e-mails from industry insiders, who -- with the exception of one director who's still ticked off at McCarthy for giving his film a crummy review -- have all been amazed and bewildered by the move, which now leaves Variety without a full-time film critic. I even had an industry mom take time out from heckling the umpires at our Little League game to register her astonishment. As one producer who called me Tuesday put it: "What were they thinking? Does the publisher really think we're all reading the paper just to see our Oscar ads?"

It's a good point. The craziest thing about the decision, which has been defended over and over by Variety President Neil Stiles, isn't that Variety has fired its leading film critic. After all, as Stiles told me Monday, the paper will probably review just as many movies as ever, simply with freelance talent. No, the boneheaded part of the move is that, with Army Archerd dead, Michael Fleming gone and Peter Bart no longer in power, McCarthy was Variety's best-known asset. And now they've tossed that asset into the trash.

Variety As a number of industryites made clear, people don't read Variety for news anymore. That's now available free of charge, at any time of the day, from any number of websites on the Internet. People in the business read Variety for its analysis and opinion. And especially now that the paper is behind a pay wall, if you want people to pay for a subscription, you have to offer them something unique -- which is what McCarthy was able to offer with his knowledgeable reviews. People aren't going to pay to read a story headlined "Fox Holds Up 'Wall Street' Sequel" when it's all over the Web at basically the same time.

Of course, Hollywood is rarely any more critic friendly than its venerable trade paper. Just as everyone was offering an outpouring of support for McCarthy, hoping against hope that criticism will somehow survive, New York Press film critic Armond White was "banned" from an advance screening of the Ben Stiller film "Greenberg," with White charging that he'd been frozen out because he'd trashed director Noah Baumbach's work in the past. White said he was kept away at the insistence of Baumbach and producer Scott Rudin, though it was Rudin's publicist, Leslee Dart, who took responsibility, saying, "The order came only from me."

Dart says White had made nasty comments about Baumbach in the past -- which he apparently has -- so the move wasn't entirely instigated by his reviews. White's criticism is often so over the top that you want to roll your eyes like Sam Jackson at the Oscars. And in fact, White has said that Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" and "The Squid and the Whale" were "two of the decade's most repellent movies," adding that Baumbach's "Conde Nast hipsterism" makes the filmmaker "the Lars Von Trier of Brooklyn and the Hamptons." (You have to marvel at just how many insults White can work into such a short amount of space.) 

It's something of a tempest in a teapot, since it turns out that although White was initially kept away, he is being invited to a later screening. But you can't bemoan the loss of a top critic at the same time that you're punishing another critic for spouting opinions you don't like -- when it comes to critics, you have to take the good with the bad and the ugly. It's yet another reminder, for all the sympathy McCarthy has received, that critics are still yanked around by Hollywood studios and producers, who routinely prevent them from seeing stinkers until the last possible minute -- or refuse to screen the films at all.

So when we hear about how little a paper like Variety values its critics, let's not forget that most Hollywood studios value them even less, keeping the top critics away from their blockbusters while happily showcasing laudatory blurbs from the pliant junket press. If film critics are dying off, one by one, I'd say that everyone deserves some credit for putting a knife in their back.  

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