Variety to studios: Stop giving scoops to the competition!
Variety has been making a lot of news lately. Unfortunately, the news has been pretty much all bad.
In case you've just tuned in, the venerable trade paper has suffered one black eye after another in recent weeks. First, it got embroiled in a nasty dispute with Joshua Newton, the director of "Iron Cross," who has now sued Variety, claiming the paper lured him into a $400,000 promotional campaign that included promises of an Oscar campaign and help with securing a distribution deal -- but then turned around and ran a "hostile" review of the film. The filmmaker's suit was full of embarrassing charges, including the claim that the day after the negative review ran, Variety attempted to placate Newton by saying that "no one takes these reviews seriously."
To make matters worse, it turns out that Variety had even briefly taken down the review from its website after the filmmaker complained about alleged inaccuracies, leading to the classic Defamer headline: "Variety Will Kill a Bad Review of Your 'Mediocre' Movie for Just $400,000."
In the midst of the "Iron Cross" debacle, Variety had another round of layoffs, this one so severe that the paper axed Todd McCarthy, its sole remaining full-time film critic and a 31-year veteran at the paper. The layoffs were a tacit admission that the paper's revenues were continuing to slip after another downturn in studio Oscar-season advertising.
So what's next? My sources at a number of different studios say that Variety Editor Tim Gray and various entertainment reporters at the trade have been telling publicity execs that if they give casting scoops to any of Variety's online competition, the paper won't run their big announcement stories in print, relegating them to online posts only. When I spoke to Gray, he acknowledged the new policy, saying: "We simply said that if you give any of these show business websites the story first, then we'll put the story on the Web -- for the record -- but we won't put it in the print edition."
I had assumed that the new policy was directed at Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood, because the Web's hot-headed gossip queen had hired away top Variety reporter Mike Fleming and has regularly trashed the trade's too-little, too-late coverage, frequently boasting about how often she beats Variety to scoops. But Gray insists the directive applies to "any" site that reports showbiz news, which presumably includes The Wrap, Vulture or the host of film-related blogs at my own paper.
Gray insists that it's not a knee-jerk reaction "to someone getting some news two minutes before we do and us throwing a hissy fit. It's [being done] in instances where it was obvious that the story had been fed to an outlet before everyone got it." Gray added that he's also talked to reps at talent agencies, a prime source for most announcement-oriented leaks.
Studio publicity execs were unimpressed by the move. "It's a terribly analog way of thinking in a digital world," said one studio PR chief. "It's just a totally unrealistic response, since if we've learned anything about the flow of information these days, it's that it gets out in all sorts of uncontrollable ways. The minute we have a meeting or make a decision, it's up on someone's blog. We're not the announcer anymore. We're the responder to what someone's already written. All we can do most of the time is damage control."
I think this new Variety directive is doomed to fail. It's all too obvious that the trade paper no longer has the clout to make studio executives quake in their loafers at the prospect of an announcement not making its way into the print edition. As it is, many of the younger studio executives, managers and agents in town probably haven't seen a print copy of Variety in years, preferring to get their news from Web alerts sent to their BlackBerries.
If Variety really wants to improve its showbiz coverage, it should stop ripping off other publications' stories without giving any credit to where the original post appeared. As I pointed out recently, Vulture had the news that Ivan Reitman was directing a new romantic comedy with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher hours before Variety's version of the story appeared. But the trade didn't credit Vulture for being there first. And the Wall Street Journal had a terrific article last Friday about Wal-Mart doing a huge merchandising partnership with DreamWorks to promote "How to Train Your Dragon." Variety followed the article on Sunday with a less-than-terrific story of its own on the same exact subject, again without offering any credit to the Journal for having been there first.
So before it complains about being scooped, Variety should get in the habit of doing the right thing itself. When the paper is so clearly following in other people's wake, it should start giving other publications credit when they clearly get to the story first.
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