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The Variety reviewer layoffs, a spooky event in a scary time

March 8, 2010 |  7:56 pm

There are many reasons to be depressed about Variety’s decision to lay off Todd McCarthy and David Rooney, both of whom happen to be former colleagues, and astute critics to boot. To be a publication that -- justly -- prides itself on its breadth and quality of reviews and still make a move like this is to suggest something scary not really about Variety but about journalism and the film business as a whole.

My colleague Patrick Goldstein lays out the issues in sharp relief.

There is, as he points out, the unfortunate reality that critics matter less and less to Twitter-happy young filmgoers (a proposition that’s no doubt inherently true, but, with reviewers’ decreasing prominence and airtime, perhaps also self-fulfilling). But even accounting for that, Goldstein writes, "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."

A potential freelance gig doesn’t cut it either, Goldstein says.“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.”

There remain reviewers at Variety who are not only prolific but also some of the smartest critics around; as a memo from editor Tim Gray noted, there are some really solid writers who will continue to contribute. And it's notable that the paper will continue running the same number of reviews. This is a salary issue, not a space one.

But the issue seems a bit more symbolic. We know numbers were run, budgets were allocated, decisions were made. From the outside there’s no way to know the exact revenue impact from a paper losing three full-time critics (the layoffs also included Brit reviewer Derek Elley). But observers would be right to say that this is, in the end, not about the numbers. As it is for other publications that have eliminated full-time review positions, the brand damage is not easily measured. It is, in fact, incalculable.

-- Steven Zeitchik