The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Variety lays an egg: Is firing its critics really 'economic reality'?

March 8, 2010 |  4:01 pm

In showbiz, timing is everything. It could hardly be a coincidence that the morning after Oscar season mercifully came to a close, Variety laid off its two best-known critics, longtime chief film critic Todd McCarthy and chief theater critic David Rooney. According to Variety president Neil Stiles, the firings were an "economic reality."

Forrich

You can say that again. As anyone who regularly reads the venerable trade paper has surely noticed, even at the height of Oscar season Variety has been thinner than most of the starlets who walked the red carpet Sunday night. In years past, the trade paper was so fat with ads in January and February that -- at least in my house -- a week-old copy of Variety was a perfect fly swatting machine, guaranteed to flatten the biggest house pest. But no more. Most of last week's issues of Variety wouldn't harm a flea.

Even with 10 films in the best picture race, the ads simply weren't plumping up the paper the way they had in the past. It was inevitable that Variety would once again have to find ways to cut costs, though it was definitely a shock to see the paper get rid of its top critics, especially McCarthy, who after the death of Army Archerd and the departure of former editor Peter Bart is easily the most iconic presence at the paper.

"I never saw this coming," McCarthy, who had been at Variety for 31 years, told me after the firing was announced.

Stiles acknowledged that Variety's Oscar ads were down this year, but as he told me this afternoon, the paper had seen that drop-off coming in advance. "We took action last year, making cuts last spring in anticipation of the revenue situation," he said. "There's no sense in trying to save money after you've gotten the bad news -- it's something you have to do in advance." Stiles also insisted that the importance of Oscar ads to the paper had been inflated, saying that while they were the single largest source of income, they only made up "a significant minority" of the paper's income, not a majority of its revenues.

Stiles says that he knew the paper would take a PR hit by axing its two top critics, since the media -- myself included -- seems to seize on every new critic layoff as another sign of the end of Western civilization. "But you can't make a decision based on the PR gloss," Stiles told me. "You have to do what's right for the business. This was a decision that was made on an unemotional basis. We just don't feel that we need to own our chief reviewer. There's no reason why, going forward, that we can't do all reviews on a freelance basis." 

Stiles says the trade will run "roughly the same amount" of reviews this year as last year, when a whopping 1,209 reviews appeared in its pages. But it still seemed strange that if Variety was forced to make cuts, it would get rid of its best-known writer. (The paper laid off six other employees, mostly from the copy editing and production staff.) Having been a recognizable force at Variety for decades, McCarthy represented a sizable voice of critical authority, often being the first critic to weigh in with a review of a major studio release or a much-anticipated film festival debut.

I didn't always agree with McCarthy -- we once had a very public spat over smoking in movies, with Todd defending it as an artistic freedom while I was eager to get rid of it -- but I always valued his keen grasp of the art of storytelling and his boundless knowledge of film history. He knew how to put a filmmaker's work in perspective, and he never pulled his punches.

But it's only a matter of time before we'll be writing another obituary for another respected critic. As an art form, criticism should be placed on the endangered species list. Dozens upon dozens of critics have been laid off or taken buyouts at newspapers and magazines in the last several years. And the ones who have survived have less influence than ever before. The word counts on the film reviews at Entertainment Weekly seem to keep shrinking each year. The critics at Time and Newsweek get less play than ever.

For years, the Wall Street Journal's esteemed Joe Morgenstern had a regular pole position on Page 1 of the paper's Friday arts section. But as the paper has been redesigned, Morgenstern has steadily been moved back, first to Page 3, now often to Page 5. The reasons for all this are pretty obvious. Virtually every survey has shown that younger audiences have zero interest in critics. They take their cues for what movies to see from their peers, making decisions based on the buzz they've heard on Facebook, Twitter or some other form of social networking.

If anyone pays any attention to critics at all, it's through aggregation sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, which offer a consensus score based on an accumulated ranking of critical opinion. Still, it's sad to realize that even at Variety, the film industry's most old-fashioned chronicler of events, criticism isn't valued enough to keep one critic in a full-time position. Stiles says he hopes McCarthy will continue with the paper on a freelance basis; however, McCarthy says he "has no firm offers" from Variety for any freelance work. Anyway, for me, that's sort of like hearing that the cash-strapped L.A. Dodgers had decided to cut Manny Ramirez but assured fans that he'd still be around, playing left field, although -- you know -- on a day-to-day basis.

Maybe it would work, but when you turn your chief reviewer into a freelancer, it certainly tells you, loud and clear, how little value the job has in today's increasingly critic-unfriendly market.

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