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Pulp Friction

Time was, Hollywood had two “trades” that covered all things entertainment. Now it has has four, and the competition for news, ads, and readers is down and dirty, 24 hours a day

Remember how simple it used to be to stay informed? People in the entertainment business do. Every weekday morning Variety and The Hollywood Reporter—the trade papers that had been around since 1905 and 1930, respectively—would arrive, their glossy pages packed with the trends and tidbits that kept the industry on its toes. Box office would be tallied. Upcoming slates, both big screen and small, would be announced. If your pilot got picked up, the trades were where you trumpeted it. If your movie tanked or was put in turnaround, they were where your rivals found out about it. The duality of the journalistic landscape—just two trades, both battling for scoops—made for competition, yes, but also for a relative civility. Then everything changed. And I mean everything.

Have you ever seen a New York Times Pentagon correspondent publish a scathing indictment of the military reporter for, say, The Washington Post? No, you haven’t, but not just because it would be rude or unseemly. Journalists who compete on matters of importance don’t tend to call one another out in print because, ahem, it isn’t news. But these days in Hollywood, a quartet of trades—two in print and all four online—are fighting daily over advertising dollars and who got which story first.

There is name-calling and trash-talking. There are threats and ultimatums. Increasingly the journalists have become the story, and none more so than Nikki Finke, the founder of Deadline.com—the Web site that, for better or worse, upended the status quo.

“Earth To Penske,” Finke tweeted shortly before this story went to press. She was addressing Jay Penske, the businessman who owns her site as well as Variety, and as she loves to do, she was throwing down the gauntlet. “Hollywood tried and failed to intimidate me. Big Media tried and failed to intimidate me. I like to brawl, remember?”

Oh, he remembers, Nikki. How could he forget?

This is the story of how two once-thriving trade papers became the showbiz equivalent of Pravda and Izvestia, sclerotic mouthpieces for the studio party line: outdated, rigid, stuck in their ways. It is the story of the woman, Finke, who bested them, at least for a while, and who forced them to reinvent themselves. It is the story of how Finke’s site prompted a copycat site, TheWrap.com, and how that start-up’s founder, Sharon Waxman, tried to muscle her way into prominence. It is a story about an ongoing contest between dead-tree media and the kind that gets traffic. But at its core, this is a story about journalism in trouble. Because while it may seem difficult at first to ignore media outlets that regularly call one another pieces of crap, it gets easier day by day.

The news, if you can call it that, broke at 8 a.m. this past Labor Day. After months of speculation, an actress had been chosen to play lusty Anastasia Steele in Universal Pictures’ adaptation of the best-selling erotic thriller Fifty Shades of Grey. The casting of Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, was the kind of scoop that the Big Four trades (Deadline, The Wrap, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter, which goes by the acronym THR) would have killed for. But it was not to be, since the book’s writer, EL James, had just revealed the casting choice herself on Twitter.

Within moments everyone in today’s zero-attention-span media scrambled to post the news, hoping to get a bump in Web site traffic. Stories about casting—a form of journalistic name-dropping—have been a staple since Variety was founded. But today, because they are the biggest drivers of traffic, they dominate as never before. Given that James had alerted her more than 358,000 Twitter followers, you would think it impossible for any journalist to claim bragging rights on the Fifty Shades news break. Still, one did: Mike Fleming, Deadline’s veteran movie writer, who topped his story with the label “Exclusive.”

Jeff Sneider, a dogged 29-year-old reporter at The Wrap whose job is devoted to landing casting scoops, took James’s revelation especially hard. If anyone embodies the antic metabolism of the new entertainment journalism, it’s him. He’s been fired twice by Variety and accused of harassment by Finke. He makes a habit of oversharing on Twitter, where he once melodramatically tweeted, after losing a different scoop, that he was “gonna go drive my car into a tree. My blood will be on Hollywood’s hands”—an outburst that led to the second of his Variety departures.

A Boston native who evokes a digital-age Sammy Glick (as played by Seth Rogen), Sneider had grounds to be unhappy about the Fifty Shades disclosure. Days earlier he’d written a story saying Johnson had the part, only to have his editors refuse to post it, questioning his sourcing. Now that he’d been proved right, Sneider expressed his chagrin in 140 characters or less: “Should I write I FUCKING CALLED IT in sand on the beach?” More expressions of anguish followed, and they did not go unnoticed.

“Rather than worry about EXCLUSIVES or FIRSTS why not focus on the story??” one of Sneider’s 10,000 followers tweeted. Only it wasn’t some featherweight fanboy. It was Fifty Shades producer Dana Brunetti. “Your ridiculous desire to be 1st is annoying,” the producer wrote, adding, “If you knew, then why not have a IN DEPTH article ready to go?? Isn’t that what reporting and journalism is? Not FIRST!”


This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now

Undaunted, Sneider kept railing against Deadline’s “Exclusive” claim. To which Brunetti retorted: “See, you’re OBSESSED with FIRST and EXCLUSIVE. You guys don’t get it that readers don’t care about that!”

Brunetti would rather the trades spend more time getting it right. The race to be first has spawned a sketchy “we’ll fix it in the mix” style of journalism. “Everyone in marketing and PR,” says one corporate publicist, “has a tale that goes like this: When I told the reporter their story wasn’t true, they said, ‘We’ve gotta run it to drive traffic. If it’s wrong, we’ll correct it afterwards.’”

Competition for an exclusive is so fierce that hardly anyone waits to announce an actual deal. Many stories are about actors and filmmakers who are circling a project, in early talks, or just taking a meeting for a part or directing deal. “Most of the journalism I read in the trades is a lot more like gossip than news,” Brunetti tells me when I ask about his skirmish with Sneider. “It all feels out of control. It’s just so easy for information to get around because of all the new technology, but a lot of accuracy is lost along the way.”

Sneider remembers his introduction to the trades when he moved here in 2006. “You’d read about the done deals in Variety,” he says. “But then, as the competition increased, the bar got lower. It was all about negotiations. Then it was [someone in] early talks. Then it was the offer. Now it’s the meeting.” He rolls his eyes. “People report on actors taking a meeting!”

People like Sneider. In mid-October he posted a story about Josh Brolin being “eyed” for a lead role in the Steven Spielberg-produced 2015 film, Jurassic World. Sneider’s post was followed in quick succession by Variety and THR, whose Borys Kit acknowledged that “no offer has been made and there are no negotiations going on at this stage.” Is that really news? “Absolutely,” Sneider tells me. “You can have a lot of motion on a project without there being an offer.”

There’s nothing like fighting over scraps, it seems, to spur bloodlust. Deadline’s Fleming, who is 53, grumpily accuses his rivals of “stealing my stories as fast as they can type them.” In 2011, Deadline’s parent company, Penske Media Corporation, took legal action, sending a cease-and-desist letter to The Wrap that accused the publication of having lifted Deadline content so often (and without attribution), it had become “an institutionalized practice.” (The Wrap’s lawyer denied the claim.) Penske Media sued THR the same year, accusing the magazine of “outright theft of intellectual property, including but not limited to whole articles, content, software, source code and designs.” THR says they settled, but only for copying source code, and offered an apology. Afterwards, Jay Penske, the owner of PMC, celebrated the victory by gloating, “It’s never good when you’re admitting theft.”

Credit issues aside, the race to boost traffic is yielding the journalistic equivalent of junk food. I ask Claudia Eller, who is one of the three co-editors-in-chief of Variety and made her reputation breaking real news, how she feels about the cheesy link-bait headlines that often work in the name of a star who’s not even being considered for a choice part (like this one from The Wrap: “Daniel Radcliffe as Freddie Mercury? Another Casting Rumor Bites the Dust”). Eller, 60, could be a latter-day Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday—strategic, fearless, and famous for shouting at sources over the phone. She’s brought new verve to Variety’s film coverage since she arrived from the Los Angeles Times in April. “I’ve told my team to be more discriminating,” she tells me. “We don’t need to report on the fourth lead in some obscure film that’ll never see the light of the day. It’s too much of a time suck when we should be going after much more important stuff.”

But that didn’t keep Variety (or any other trade or mainstream outlet) from exploiting every angle of the Fifty Shades story. After Charlie Hunnam accepted the lead role of Christian Grey (he quit six weeks later), THR ran with “Outraged ‘Fifty Shades’ Fans Petition for New Stars.” At Variety it was “Is ‘50 Shades’ Star Charlie Hunnam Ready for Graphic Sex Scenes?”

Over at The Wrap, Sneider posted “What’s the Deal? Stop Trying to ‘Change’ the ‘Fifty Shades’ Castings—It’s Pointless!” He laments to me that he is putting all his energy into casting stories. “But casting gets hits. Whether it’s Miley Cyrus, Ben Affleck, or Dakota Johnson, it’s all about getting that name in a headline.”

Which should lead anyone who believes information is power to ask a basic question: In an era that often values “stickiness” and the almighty click-through more than accuracy, analysis, or context, has the race to be first put meaningful entertainment journalism on the endangered list?

One reason for all the fussing and infighting is the incestuous nature of show business journalism. Cynthia Littleton spent years at THR, ending up as its editor before departing to be one of Variety’s three chiefs. Andrew Wallenstein, who rounds out that triumvirate with Eller, was previously THR’s online editor. Lynne Segall, now THR’s publisher, had a string of epic turf battles with Finke during her brief stint as publisher at Deadline. After Segall left, Finke accused her of meddling in Deadline’s journalism; whenever Segall crossed the line, Finke posted, “I told her to stick it where the sun don’t shine.” In April Stacey Farish, who’d worked in ad sales under Segall at the Los Angeles Times before becoming publisher of The Wrap, jumped to Deadline, where she oversees its print magazine, Awards-line. Publicity-wise, The Wrap is now repped by Adam Schiff, a high-powered New York flack who served in a similar capacity for THR when, in 2010, the daily trade relaunched as a glossy weekly.


This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now

I could go on, but I won’t—except to acknowledge my own tangled history with everyone involved. Before taking a buyout last year, I spent decades writing about music, pop culture, and the movie business for the Los Angeles Times, with my last dozen years devoted to writing a column called The Big Picture. I knew Segall when she oversaw the Times’s lucrative Envelope awards section. She would shoot me exasperated e-mails whenever I’d ridicule Hollywood’s endless fascination with the Oscars. Most of her missives would begin with “Why do you have to be so-o-o-o-o-o negative?”

I first met Waxman when she was a Washington Post reporter and wrote what was perhaps the most devastating exposé ever of the hapless Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the group behind the Golden Globes. Since she left The New York Times to found The Wrap, she’s talked to me about writing for her (I haven’t). In 2010, when I was still at the Times, Janice Min, the new editorial director of THR, offered me a job just before she put out her first issue. After I’d left the Times, she had her managing editor ask me to write about DreamWorks Animation’s new deal at Fox. I passed only to find out later that DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg himself had suggested me to Min. The only one of the four that hasn’t made a professional overture to me (or I to them) is Variety, which has taken more than a few potshots at me—and I’ll admit I’ve given as good as I’ve gotten. When the trade was being shopped around in the summer of 2012, I called it a “rusty relic” in print. Since then much has changed for the better, including the arrival of Eller as co-editor. She, too, was a colleague of mine at the Times, where she often scored more scoops in six months than most reporters do in a lifetime.

Finke and I have been friendly for years. In fact, when I got a job offer from Time magazine in 2007, she played the role of consigliere, advising me on how to negotiate a nice raise to stay at the Times. But when her Deadline site took off later that year during the Writers Guild of America strike, we had a falling-out. I’d been a staunch supporter of the WGA. Because Finke had built her traffic in part by painting every media outlet but her own—especially the trades and the L.A. Times—as tools of the studio bosses, she was invested in proving herself right. After I wrote a column advising the WGA not to boycott the upcoming Grammy Awards, she pounced, labeling it a “venomous screed” against the writers when it was anything but. We barely spoke until I left the Times, when she did an about-face and glowingly described my work as “thoughtful, knowledgeable and deeply sourced.” I figured that could mean only one thing: She wanted to hire me. She’s made me several job offers since, but nothing concrete ever materialized.

Of all the combatants in the trade wars, Finke is the most notorious—and, oddly, the least understood. She loathes her image as a cranky recluse, though it is well earned: She spends much of her time in Hawaii and, when in L.A., is never seen in public, not even at freebie industry screenings or Deadline’s own “The Contenders” events. (Gawker once offered $1,000 for a Finke photo, a reward no one collected.) Not long after we’d had a lengthy conversation about her image as a bag-ladyish hermit, I picked up the phone to hear Finke bellowing at me, “I HAVE NO CATS!” If Finke has a credo, it is that the best defense is a good offense. When I asked her to respond to a critical remark about her erratic behavior, for example, she fired off an e-mail to the person I’d named as my source, with the subject line: “YOU’VE SLANDERED ME TO PATRICK GOLDSTEIN. PREPARE TO BE SUED.”

For months, when it came to her future at Deadline, she would be feisty one moment, tearful and despondent the next, depending on the state of her War of the Roses-like relationship with the man who’d reportedly paid her millions for her site, Jay Penske. In Finke’s mind (which is prone to seeing even the grayest scenarios in stark black and white), Penske had been lavishing more attention on Variety than Deadline. So she kept threatening to pack up her marbles and go home.

As this story was going to press, Finke took to Twitter to announce that she was quitting Deadline and building a new site, NikkiFinke.com, which she would unveil in the coming year. She told me she was mulling offers from several potential investors, including one who wanted to plunk down $5 million-plus and give her a five-year contract. When I raised the fact that she was already under contract with Penske until 2016, she laughed and burst into song, crooning à la Taylor Swift, “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together again! ”


This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now

I could only laugh when in late October Mark Harris, the prolific film writer, tweeted a reference to an HBO pilot that didn’t get picked up a couple of years back: Tilda, starring Diane Keaton as a shrill showbiz blogger modeled on Finke. “Moment of silence,” Harris wrote, “for how much fun season 3 would’ve been.”

In early November, after a tumultuous day of mediation in which Finke and Penske—who, according to Finke, have never met face to face—sat in separate rooms and communicated via intermediaries, Penske released her from her contract. “Jay Penske has just told me I am free to leave,” Finke tweeted. “He tried to buy my silence. No sale.”

In the face of this invective, Penske—the 34-year-old son of billionaire automotive and racing magnate Roger Penske—stayed quiet (as he did with me; among the players in this internecine saga, he alone refused to grant an on-the-record interview). He had learned what many in Hollywood already knew: In life, as in print, Finke displays a brazen willingness to eviscerate anyone, friend or foe. To her, ex-NBC-Universal chief Jeff Zucker was a “kick-ass incompetent,” while Viacom’s Sumner Redstone was a “crazy old coot.”

Finke relishes opportunities to bludgeon those who abuse their power (or simply get on her nerves). She is indeed a brawler, and that makes her a perfect fit for the Web, where tumult and controversy play better than sober analysis. But she’s also something most journalists aren’t: adept at business.

Finke discovered early on that the Web was especially hospitable to entrepreneurship. In 1998, when she found herself between jobs, she kept herself “afloat financially,” she says, by selling discontinued Cartier pens and wallets on eBay. The key, she found, was the way she positioned her product. “It’s how I learned to market myself online,” she tells me. “I had to teach myself how to write computer code and post photos, but when I started selling those suckers, it was the most fun ever. Soon I was awash in cash, even though at that time nobody wanted the kind of truthful reporting that I did. Back then you needed someone to hire you to be able to write. But this taught me that if I relied on myself, I’d be OK.”

She couldn’t have launched her site at a better time. In 2006, Variety was still presided over by Peter Bart, a New York Times reporter turned studio exec turned editor who treated the trade paper as his personal fiefdom. He regularly watered down hard-hitting pieces about his pals. Once, when Paramount (the studio he’d previously helped run) complained about a Variety critic who’d panned a number of its films, Bart simply assigned Paramount films to someone else. Later a profile of Bart in this magazine revealed that as editor-in-chief, he’d shopped a script to the studios Variety covered—a clear conflict of interest. He was suspended, but not for long. THR hadn’t fared much better in the ethics department. In 2001, when David Robb, the paper’s labor expert, wrote a tough piece about THR’s own gossip columnist lobbying for screen credits to qualify for health and pension benefits from the Screen Actors Guild, the publisher had it killed—prompting Robb and the magazine’s two top editors to resign in protest.

Into the void stepped Finke, who was fiendishly eager to upend the cozy relationship between Hollywood machers and the compliant writers who covered them. To the extent the Web’s impact on journalism exemplifies a disruptive technology, Finke was that disruption in human form. Having bounced into and out of countless jobs in traditional media, she didn’t hesitate to bet on herself online. She turned her print-only column at the L.A. Weekly into a digital phenomenon a year before the convulsive writers’ strike roiled Hollywood. That’s when Finke saw her daily page views triple from 350,000 to nearly 1 million. Readers flocked to her, largely because she made industry reporting seem like a WWE death match.

At Deadline, particularly in the early years, Finke filed stories at all hours. Her work ethic helped build her brand, but what cemented her success is her cunning grasp of showbiz psychology. Hollywood is filled with people who, whatever their accomplishments, are so desperately insecure that they root for their enemies to fail—and their friends to fail, too.


This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now

"America's most exciting industry [was] being covered in the least interesting way by the world's worst media," says Janice Min, editorial director of THR, which, like rival Variety, became a glossy magazine.

Then, as now, she also prevailed through fear and intimidation. Until Finke’s rise, exclusives usually went to the reporter with the best relationships or the outlet with the most readers. “But after Nikki and Deadline arrived, it all went upside down,” says John Horn, an entertainment reporter (and former close colleague of mine) at the Los Angeles Times. “Deadline didn’t get scoops because it had the best reporters or the biggest audience but because of Nikki’s tactics. She got scoops because she was the person that people were the most afraid of.”

I’ve seen evidence of Finke’s threatening maneuvers firsthand, when—more than once—executives handed me their iPhones at lunch and let me read her e-mails, which were often punctuated with profane language. When I confront her about this, she doesn’t deny it. But she insists that other journalists behave the same way.

“There isn’t anyone in town who doesn’t do it,” she says, referring to her brass knuckles style of reporting. “I’m just the one who everyone loves to point to.” Actually she’s wrong. Finke’s rivals may be pushy and obnoxious, industry folks agree, but they don’t typically resort to demanding what they want—or else (which for an uncooperative source generally means payback in the form of negative pieces). So why does Finke use threats? “Eighty-five percent of the time it’s on behalf of my staff—I’m being an asshole so that my staff doesn’t have to be,” she says. “Ten percent of the time Deadline has been disrespected in some fashion, and I just want equal treatment.”

What about the remaining 5 percent?

Finke laughs when I ask. “It’s me being an asshole. Maybe my sugars were bad from my diabetes. Maybe I had a bad day. I’m not perfect. A lot of times I’ll call and apologize afterwards.”

////

It’s clear that Penske has been caught in the crossfire between the two entities he owns: Variety and Deadline. He’s also failed to make a credible case for why he’s operating two competing Web sites, both aimed at the same audience. Finke began crying foul after Penske announced that she wouldn’t be running Variety’s editorial operations; she exacted revenge by gleefully mocking the magazine at every opportunity. In April she accused Variety—whose print circulation was 42,000 in September 2012, the time of its last audit—of soliciting “creepy obit ads” after Roger Ebert’s death.

Finke wasn’t the only one lobbing grenades. After Runner Runner—a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake—bombed at the box office in October, Variety’s just-hired New York film editor, Ramin Setoodeh, wrote an opinion piece headlined “Why Justin Timberlake Should Stop Acting.” In it Setoodeh claimed that the singer-dancer-showman “will never be a movie star” and advised studios to “please stop sending him scripts.” (The piece was, to my mind, inane. If every actor who made a lousy movie was drummed out of the business, where would that leave Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, and Russell Crowe, let alone Channing Tatum?) But it was custom made to generate Web traffic, its provocative headline chosen to be search-engine friendly.

Fleming was outraged. “The last time I read something troubling and reactionary like this, it was when some genius wrote on Newsweek.com that gay actors like Sean Hayes should not even try to play straight characters because they just can’t pull it off,” he wrote on Deadline a few minutes after Setoodeh posted. “That seemed hurtful and kind of homophobic. Then it hit me. Same genius wrote both articles.”

When I ask Fleming why he took a whack at a writer from a sister publication, he says, “I hate stupid, self-important coverage. There was no malice intended. I just looked at it and thought it was really dumb.” Variety’s management wasn’t amused by Fleming’s scolding. As Eller told me, “To say I didn’t like it would be an understatement.”

But comparatively speaking, Setoodeh got off easy. After The Wrap’s Sneider posted an “exclusive” recently about the talent agency CAA promoting several low-level agents, Fleming filed his take on the story, dismissing Sneider as “an attention-starved douche.” Fleming justifies the snarky aside, telling me Sneider had badmouthed Finke on Twitter (something Sneider has done so often, he says, laughing, “that I can’t remember what I did that time”). “I’m very protective of Nikki,” Fleming told me in early October. “To see him disparage her really annoyed me. He hasn’t accomplished enough yet to criticize someone like Nikki.”

But by late October Fleming himself was fed up with Finke. After she went on her anti-Penske Twitter tirade, he took her to task on the site she’d founded. Finke, he said, had “turned an internal matter, her dissatisfaction, into a public spectacle.” Aligning himself with Penske, Fleming said the site was “on course” to exceed $10 million in ad revenues this year (as compared, he said, with $100,000 the year he came aboard). The message was clear: With or without Finke, Deadline would survive.


This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now

Finke and Waxman have fought Gladiator style since The Wrap first entered the fray. In a post earlier this year Finke, who routinely calls Waxman’s Web site “The Crap,” wrote: “Sharon Waxman and her revolving-door staff have been writing inaccurately about me for years, and doing it to drive traffic to her failing website.” Waxman has responded in kind, tweeting: “Nikki Finke is so wildly jealous that everything she writes about The Wrap is like opposite day, as in—the utter reverse. Threatened much?”

I visited Waxman in her office above a Starbucks in West L.A. Outside her door the newsroom is populated with about a dozen of the Web site’s 30 employees. Waxman has had a string of high-profile hires who didn’t stay long: ex-Newsweek columnist Johnnie Roberts, TV writer Josef Adalian, and former L.A. Times editors Lisa Fung and Jon Thurber. Waxman’s site has also been accused of cutting journalistic corners. Just ask George Clooney. In early October he did an interview with Waxman about his hit film Gravity, in which he mentioned—ever so briefly—that he was still trying to find the right tone for his upcoming directorial effort, The Monuments Men. Later that month, after the release of Monuments was postponed until 2014, Waxman ran an “exclusive,” using Clooney’s old quotes to explain the film’s difficulties. Her headline: “George Clooney Struggles with Tone of ‘Monuments Men’: ‘It’s Been a Bit of a Dance.’”

Clooney wasn’t happy, and he got on the phone with Deadline’s Fleming to call Waxman out: “She writes the piece that the movie is in trouble over tone. She doesn’t call me, and it’s absolutely ridiculous.” Of course Fleming worked the star’s name into his mischievous headline: “Clooney Sets Record Straight on Tone-Deaf Journalists.”

When I raise this with Waxman on the phone several weeks after our meeting, she is adamant that her two-week-old, out-of-context Clooney quote could still be labeled an exclusive (“Because the information was, to me, still exclusive!” she barks). As for Clooney’s saying he was misquoted, she says, “He wasn’t. I didn’t take anything out of context.” In person, she is barely more restrained. When I’d asked about the time Finke accused Waxman of pummeling her sources as much as Finke does, Waxman almost levitated in her black swivel chair. “I’m not going to dignify her with a response,” she growled. “Not everybody in this town operates like a mafioso. The day Nikki Finke gives me journalism lessons is going to be a cold day in hell.” (What does Finke say to that? “I am very proud that my boss nicknamed me ‘The Don.’”)

Waxman’s built-in conflict—serving as The Wrap’s top editor and chief businesswoman—has led to charges from studios that she browbeats them about buying ads while she’s also reporting on their films. “It’s a really uncomfortable situation,” says one studio executive. “One minute she’s pumping you for a story, and then suddenly she’s pumping you about advertising. At least at Variety it’s not the reporter who bugs you about advertising all the time.”

Waxman insists that she is always clear whether she’s acting as a reporter or a rainmaker. “I keep the editorial and business conversations very separate. I wear many hats in this organization, and I do it for the people out there,” she told me in her office, pointing at her employees. But isn’t it challenging to write tough stories about studios when those same studios are shelling out money to serve as promotional “partners” to Wrap events? At this she began to levitate again. “That’s completely ridiculous,” she snapped, dodging the point of my question while glaring at me. “This is a competitive business. If you’re not out there competing for the business side of the pie, you’re not going to get it.”

The Wrap has been “profitable for the past 18 months,” Waxman says, but it’s virtually impossible to tell which trade is turning a profit and which is disguising its losses. In terms of digital traffic, The Wrap comes in last of the Big Four, with 3.5 million unique visitors a month, according to the October Quantcast numbers. Variety and Deadline each averaged 4.3 million that month. The revamped THR site, which does not report to Quantcast, consistently leads them all with more than twice that number, according to other analytics. Digital traffic has real value; THR’s publisher, Lynne Segall, says it is projected to make nearly $10 million this year from digital advertising, or five times what it made two years earlier. But traffic doesn’t always reflect profitability.


This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now

THR certainly is spending money, using A-list photographers to shoot its covers and making scores of high-level hires since being bought by Guggenheim Partners in 2010. The person making those hires is Janice Min, who previously was best known for shaping Us Weekly into a financially successful bulletin of everything-you-didn’t-really-need-to-know about celebrities (“They’re just like us!”). Petite, driven, and fashion savvy, she says that when she first began reading THR’s back issues, she had to tape her eyes open to get through them. “No one had been reporting on Hollywood lifestyle,” Min tells me about the old trades. “It felt like low-hanging fruit: America’s most exciting industry being covered in the least interesting way by the world’s worst media.”

If Finke has an uncanny ability to capitalize on Hollywood’s intrinsic paranoia and jealousy, then Min has shown equal brilliance in exploiting showbiz vanity. The way she sees it, the old trades were so out of touch that they never connected the dots: The money that industry people were making was being spent on oversize mansions, expensive cars, and lavish vacations. Upon her arrival, Min figured that showbiz folk—being competitive and narcissistic—wouldn’t want to keep all that wealth a secret. She was right. Almost from the moment she accepted the job, the same power brokers who whispered scoops in Finke’s ears began lining up to pose for glamorous photo spreads in THR.

Min’s magazine vacillates wildly between serious reporting and what might be called showbiz porn. A September issue featured news about Warner Bros.’ J.K. Rowling deal and an arresting commentary by filmmaker John Singleton on whether a white director could make a great black movie. But a few pages away was a feature titled “Armored Cars of the Stars” along with a story headlined “This Is What a $700,000 TV Looks Like.” “Consumption is embraced by the culture here, much more than in New York, where CEOs actually ride the subway,” Min says. “It felt like a no-brainer: Let’s do a magazine that not only Hollywood executives would obsess over but so would their wives and friends.”

If THR ever turns a profit, much of the credit will go to publisher Segall, who makes the cutthroat closers in Glengarry Glen Ross look like schlubby amateurs. Having spent decades in the trenches, with two stints at THR bracketing stops at the L.A. Times and Deadline, Segall has a wizardly knack for conjuring ad dollars from Hollywood as well as from the luxury brands that increasingly peddle their wares in THR’s pages.

To hear her tell it, when she was at Deadline Penske was so consumed by Min’s new baby that he would snatch every issue of the magazine out of Segall’s hands. “Jay is very smart,” she said to me over lunch, before offering a backhanded compliment. “He must realize he has a magazine being edited by newspeople, while the Reporter is being edited by a real magazine editor.” (I must say, Segall handled our interview with masterful aplomb—staying on message until after lunch, when we were standing outside waiting for our cars. Only then did she lose her cool. Seeing her BMW idling in the back of the valet line, she stepped off the curb and began waving impatiently. “Will you hurry the fuck up?! ” she hollered.)

THR has seen a recent uptick in ads for Armani, Valentino, and Jimmy Choo; Gucci sponsored its online Emmy photo galleries this year. But even though Segall boasts that the magazine is “on track” to make a profit, with its advertising income up nearly 22 percent over last year, Hollywood marketers, having seen other shiny magazines come and go, are skeptical of its long-term prospects.

THR’s circulation is at 72,000, though paid print and digital subscriptions represent barely half that number. As Penske’s corporate PR chief, Lauren Gullion, scoffs, “It’s clear that the nail salons are getting their free copies of THR.” Segall isn’t fazed by such sniping. She says that when Guggenheim Partners, THR’s parent company, was considering buying Variety, the magazine’s top brass said it would be smarter to pour that cash into the publication they already own. And so they did. “Guggenheim’s not stupid,” Segall told me. “They wouldn’t be investing more money in us if they didn’t think we’d be profitable.”

In terms of print advertising, Variety appears to have the lead in overall revenues. Variety insiders say the magazine’s ad income is up 16 percent from last year. They also contend that it has sold 10 percent more advertising pages in 2013 than THR, although that number includes the first part of the year, when Variety was still a five-day-a-week publication. But Variety’s magazine is costlier to produce, with its heavier paper stock and more expensive binding method.

The trades also have sizable revenues from ancillary businesses. THR brings in $3 million a year in sponsorship deals such as its annual Women in Entertainment breakfast, on which it partnered with the likes of Audi and Gucci. The Wrap has TheGrill: Media Leadership Conference, which attracted a crowd of 250 people in September (some paid as much as $2,195 to hear speakers like ESPN chief John Skipper). Variety hosts similar conferences, such as its Sports Entertainment Summit while also deriving income from a data research business and Variety 411, which tracks below-the-line film and TV talent.


This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now

For all of Variety’s efforts to create new revenue streams, however, the magazine still makes money the old-fashioned way: via hokey ad-supported extras. Its September 25 issue had a “Ten Brits to Watch” pullout section with a cover that featured actors in front of a British Airways jet. The airline flew the actors to Los Angeles for a Variety event and distributed issues of the magazine to its first-class and business-class customers on London flights to New York and L.A. The pullout featured several stories about Carnival, which produces British dramatic fare like Downton Abbey, surrounded by ads congratulating—you guessed it—Carnival on its great programming.

The business model is true to the trade’s original DNA, which never has shied away from a little quid pro quo. When I ask Eller about the “Ten Brits to Watch” advertorial, she groans. “That’s not on us,” she says. “My editorial team had nothing to do with it.” But some of the stories were written by TV critic Brian Lowry and senior features writer Andrew Barker.

If this were just about infighting and cash flow, it would make sense to say “Who cares?” But it isn’t. It’s about the future of entertainment journalism. And that matters, any way you slice it. Movies and television are America’s most potent cultural export. As the entertainment business is being reinvented again and again, much is uncertain. What is going to happen to American films in a few years when China becomes the world’s largest market? Is a new generation weaned on iTunes and YouTube losing the urge to frequent movie theaters even as studios commit hundreds of millions to summer extravaganzas? What will happen after Netflix and Hulu liberate TV shows from mandatory running times and commercial-friendly cliffhangers? At a time when mainstream media is in retreat and providing less ambitious coverage, the trades should be in the lead when it comes to making sense of it all.

While the Web-based trades are mostly awash in instantly forgettable stories, the two magazines aim higher, occasionally offering the kind of impressive enterprise reporting that’s rarely seen anymore in celebrity magazines like Entertainment Weekly or the pages of the increasingly undernourished Los Angeles Times. For now THR is the best read. And although Variety’s glossy joined the race late, it is beginning to find its footing, making assertive creative choices that would have been unthinkable in years past. To illustrate a smart piece about pay cable’s embrace of sex and violence, the magazine put a nude man on its cover, his genitals obscured by a large boom mic. “The Hard Sell,” read the headline. Variety also put significant resources into a critical probe of producer Ryan Kavanaugh’s financial woes that was titled “Debt of a Salesman.”

“I want us to lead the conversation in Hollywood by analyzing and reporting on the industry’s most pressing issues,” Eller tells me. “We’re not afraid to be bold and provocative. Would the old Variety have put a naked man on the cover to illustrate the pervasiveness of sex in Hollywood? I don’t think so.” Eller, who started her career at Variety, says the magazine is more aggressive than ever. When it did a piece on Kickstarter campaigns, focusing on Zach Braff’s crowd-funding for his indie film Wish I Was Here, she says the actor refused to pose for the cover. This could have been a deal breaker at a publication intent on maintaining its relationships with stars. Variety did the story anyway.

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As humbling as it is to admit, the future of entertainment journalism isn’t going to be determined by veterans like Finke or Fleming or, for that matter, me. Rather, it’s a new generation of young writers—people like Sneider—who will set the course. Spending time with him, I learned he grew up far more infatuated by movies than reporting. He didn’t read much print then, preferring sites like Coming Attractions and, later, Ain’t It Cool News. Journalism school was not for him; he went to NYU to study screenwriting.

 “I do sometimes question why I’m writing about other people’s dreams coming true instead of mine,” he told me wistfully, acknowledging that he’d still love to make movies someday. “But it’s like what happens to actors who are typecast in Hollywood. They keep you in a box, and my box is breaking news.”

Finke doesn’t disguise her loathing for Sneider. She contends that after she nixed his efforts to get hired at Deadline, “he wrote me all sorts of threatening e-mails,” followed by “comments that started appearing on our site, including ones bodily threatening me.”

Finke traced the comments, which were made in February 2009, to Sneider’s Variety IP address and told him to stop or she’d go to the police. He denies making any threats. “She traced the messages to my computer, but this was after I’d left the paper—I was in Boston. The computer was in L.A. It was obviously someone at Variety using my old computer.”

Nonetheless, during his first stint at The Wrap, in 2010 and early 2011, Sneider had played a role in igniting the feud, staking out Finke’s apartment complex in the hope of getting a photo of the rarely seen writer. He is unabashed. “At The Wrap it was ‘Mission: Take Down Nikki,’  ” he tells me. “I dug up Nikki’s old college yearbook photo from Wellesley, which we ran [on the site].” I’ll confess that I found myself liking Sneider more than you might expect. He has none of his fellow journalists’ self-importance, and he isn’t so different from what I was like at his age—impetuous and often prone to self-destructive behavior. Luckily for me, I had editors who served as mentors, patiently nudging me toward a more grown-up approach to journalism. It’s harder to get that kind of guidance today, in part because of the pace of Web deadlines, in part because many of the stars in the trade firmament spend so much time dissing their rivals.

For now the job of mentoring Sneider falls to Waxman. As you try to judge whether that bodes well, consider this: When, sitting in her office, I told Waxman that studio executives I’d talked to say the trades have less influence than ever because of the constant chirp of “Exclusive!,” she bristled.

“The studios can criticize all they want,” she said. “But if you’re first, you get picked up on Google Search. If you’re not in the game, you’re not going to get the big Ben Affleck-as-Batman stories, which we were first on.”

Wait a minute, I broke in. Wasn’t that a studio press release? “Well, yes,” Waxman said. “But our story was out first.” But isn’t this preoccupation with traffic ultimately self-defeating? Waxman stared at me. “Getting traffic is what drives the business online,” she said. “You’ve got to be in the game, and to be in the game, you gotta be first.”

This article has been updated.  


Patrick Goldstein wrote about youth basketball promoter Dinos Trigonis in the October issue of Los Angeles. He tweets at @patrickbigpix.

This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now