The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Peter Bart: How he boosted his Christmas bonus

April 8, 2009 | 11:52 am

UPDATE: Peter Bart just called to say that Amy Wallace's story -- see below -- is "totally untrue." He adds: "It is completely preposterous to say I did anything like what she describes. To quote someone anonymously at some unexplained time in the past is beyond hearsay. It's defamatory." Bart adds that Wallace's original Los Angeles magazine story about him was "a pack of lies."

ORIGINAL POST: Peterbart2 The news earlier this week that Variety czar Peter Bart was being kicked upstairs after 20 years in the catbird seat has inspired a number of reminiscences about his quirks and unusual exercises in power, none more than fascinating than this piece from Portfolio's Amy Wallace. It was Wallace, you may remember, who wrote the classic Los Angeles magazine profile of Bart back in 2001, which revealed, among other things, that the Variety chieftain had shopped a script he wrote to some of the same studio execs that his trade paper covered.

The best tale Wallace tells is her account of bumping into a studio chief at a movie premiere after party about a month after her story was published. As she recalls:

"I have to tell you a story," the studio boss said, launching into a tale about a lunch with Bart the previous December. It wasn't the first lunch the two had shared, but this one was memorable. According to the studio chief, before they'd even looked at their menus, Bart announced: "Your studio has not been advertising enough in Variety. This has affected my Christmas bonus." Bart said there would be repercussions, the studio chief told me: "For the next six months, you won't catch a break in Variety."

And lo and behold, Bart kept his promise. According to the studio chief, even when he had a No. 1 movie at the box office, Variety's story would open with a dig along the lines of "Despite a string of flops...." Wallace asked the chief what he did about it. She writes: "The studio chief didn't hesitate. 'We upped our ad buy.' "

Should we be shocked? Not really. For years, this was how the entertainment trade papers operated. Years ago, when I used to cover the record business, Hits magazine used to talk up execs or slyly badmouth their records, depending on who'd bought ads and who hadn't. Billboard magazine had its own interpretive skills as well. In the days before SoundScan, record companies used to wheel and deal to get an album placed No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart -- or keep it at No. 1 a week longer -- as a way of impressing industryites that the label had a true hit on its hands.

Bart was simply the last holdover from the old ways of doing business, when showbiz news was covered in ways that were, well, negotiable. As Wallace puts it: "Bart did his job. He made Reed Business Information boatloads of money. Which is why it's no surprise that he's being pushed aside now. Through no fault of Bart's, the money isn't flowing like it used to." 

Photo of Peter Bart by Shea Walsh /Associated Press