Solved! Tim Gray on the mystery of Variety's missing review of 'Iron Cross'
Variety has been taking some pretty bruising body punches in the blogosphere over its strange treatment of Robert Koehler's pan of "Iron Cross," which dismissed the Roy Scheider-starring Holocaust-themed revenge drama as "mediocre stuff, choppy and uncertain, with hints of ambitious ideas that fail to gather steam." In the big scheme of things, it was a review -- originally published in December -- that would've been quickly forgotten, since it was hardly any more scathing than, say, Todd McCarthy's recent kiss-off of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland."
What made the review something of a cause celebre is that Variety mysteriously yanked the review from its website without offering any explanation for the sudden move. This has led to a host of snarky Web speculation that the venerable trade paper spiked the review after receiving a blistering complaint from Joshua Newton, the film's director, who was furious that he's spent $400,000 in Variety advertising on an Oscar campaign for the film, only to see the picture dismissed as mediocre by one of Variety's critics. As a Defamer headline put it: "Variety Will Kill a Bad Review of Your 'Mediocre' Movie for Just $400,000."
But now, surprise of all surprises, the review is back up on Variety's website. What happened? I got Variety editor Tim Gray on the phone, who said the trade paper had taken the review down after Newton complained about factual inaccuracies in the review. "The filmmaker contacted us through his lawyers and made claims about factual inaccuracies, so I took down the review so we could investigate the claims," Gray said. "We get complaints about reviews all the time, but not often about accuracy issues."
Gray says the paper did an investigation, which included Gray watching the film himself. "We decided after investigating all the issues that we're standing by our review, so we put it back up." Gray was hesitant to say more, even demurring when I asked him what his take was on the movie. "I'd rather not comment on that." he said.
The whole episode wouldn't have drawn much fire except for the fact that Newton was so angered by the review that gave an interview explaining that he was approached by a Variety salesperson last summer who pitched him on the ad campaign on the same day that Gray mentioned the film in a column as a possible Oscar contender. When I spoke to Gray, he insisted that he had no idea that any of his advertising people were using material from his column as ammunition to sell ads. "There's a totally complete separation of church and state here," he says. "I never tell the ad people anything in advance about what I'm writing."
So did Variety really do something wrong here? I think it was a mistake for the paper to pull its review before it conducted an investigation, which did make it look like it was kowtowing to an advertiser. It would've been better to vet the review and only delete it from the database if the editors could no longer stand behind it. But Newton, who's been giving interviews complaining about his treatment by the paper, is clearly deluded about the quality of his film. The only other review I could find of "Iron Cross," which ran in the LA Weekly, was also negative. (The film had a brief, Oscar-qualifying theatrical run in L.A. last December, but has apparently not opened commercially anywhere else.)
Moreover, Newton seems to have no idea how a trade paper works. In an e-mail that Newton putatively wrote (again, according to Defamer), he claims that Koehler "took it upon himself to review the film" and "managed to sneak it into the publication." This is pretty laughable. Koehler's been writing reviews for Variety for ages and no one sneaks a review into a paper without it being read by a variety of editors before publication. Newton also told Gawker that "Iron Cross" was put "on a short list of Oscar contenders by the editor himself," as if this were a sign of the film having potent Oscar potential.
If you read Gray's column -- which ran last June, long before people had seen most of the potential Oscar films -- it mentions nearly 60 movies as possible contenders in various categories, including such now-forgotten titles as "The Boys Are Back," "Amelia," "New York, I Love You" and "City Island." It was, in fact, the opposite of a short list -- it was a laundry list of pretty much any film that had a pulse. If I were Newton, I'd take a deep breath and move on. I know that we live in an era where the media is held in low esteem, but if filmmakers really think that a $400,000 ad buy can guarantee a good review, even in Variety, they're even more gullible than the people who went to see "Valentine's Day" because someone called it "HILARIOUS!" in the blurb ads.
Photo: Roy Scheider, left, and Helmut Berger in "Iron Cross." Credit: Calibra