Lionsgate’s pre-Golden Globes party, held at the Chateau Marmont the night before the January awards ceremony, was an event designed to elicit maximum buzz. It succeeded: As the booze flowed and the smell of weed wafted through the air, actors, filmmakers, and execs mingled and made nice with the many members of the press. Among the stars in attendance were Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, and Chris Evans, the stars of Knives Out, which Lionsgate had released with film and TV production house Media Rights Capital. MRC’s track record includes the Netflix series Ozark and House of Cards and the movies Ted and Baby Driver. At one point during the evening, Knives Out director Rian Johnson told an editor for The Hollywood Reporter—the trade magazine that shares a parent company with MRC—that he was already working on a sequel. Ram Bergman, Johnson’s producing partner, chimed in, saying that Craig had a blast and “wants to do more.” The chairman of Lionsgate told THR he was eager to read a script. And why not? The 2019 film was a hit, grossing more than $250 million and was up for three Globes and would later earn an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In an exclusive posted online early the next day, THR reported: This “could be the beginning of a lucrative franchise.”
The title Knives Out was lifted from a Radiohead song about cannibalism. Soon after the THR story went public, the title took on new meaning as MRC eviscerated the paper’s editors for publishing the piece. A company executive confronted THR editorial director Matt Belloni at the Globes. The complaint: THR shouldn’t have reported news about the possible sequel ahead of an official announcement.
The episode was regarded by THR editors as another sign that the top executives at Valence, the entertainment company that owns THR and MRC as well as music industry paper Billboard and Dick Clark Productions, was ignorant or disdainful of the most basic tenets of journalism. In an industry in which conflicts of interest abound, The Hollywood Reporter, once the least savory of the industry’s trade publications, had spent the better part of a decade—and many millions of dollars—building up a reputation for independence and propriety. But last April, after a series of incursions into the publication’s editorial affairs culminated in Belloni announcing his departure, its reputation was in doubt.
If anyone was aware that hard-hitting journalism could force a person out of a job, it was Belloni, a 14-year THR veteran who ascended to the top of the masthead in 2017. Under his leadership, the magazine published a piece by Kim Masters detailing sexual harassment allegations against Amazon Studios chief Roy Price, who resigned five days later, and a sex-for-casting exposé, cowritten by Masters and Tatiana Siegel, that led to the resignation of Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara. So when the publication’s dogged reporting cost Belloni his own job, there were many Hollywood heavyweights who were happy to see him go.
As it turned out, the contretemps over Knives Out was not Belloni’s first battle with MRC’s brass. According to sources close to the situation, top executives at Valence repeatedly sought to soften or interdict THR’s coverage of the people and companies doing business with Valence. Modi Wiczyk and Asif Satchu, the co-CEOs of Valence, as well as Deanna Brown, a managing director, took issue with what they perceived as negative reporting on the company’s business partners, demanding to be alerted when there were stories about any entities doing business with any branch of Valence (an extensive “sensitivity list”). The executives sought to kill other stories outright.
Valence’s top executives tried to kill some stories outright, insiders say. When Belloni resisted, tensions mounted.
When Belloni resisted, tensions mounted. In a remarkable mid-March video conference call with the editorial team and a moderator from the journalism nonprofit the Poynter Institute, Belloni laid out a long list of incidents of Valence’s interference and alleged attempts to ax stories and called out the company’s vice president of communications for accessing a Slack channel meant for editorial eyes only (the VP has since said it was inadvertent). “People were pretty blown away,” says one source who was on the call. “While I was aware of some of this stuff before, when I hung up it was like, ‘Wow, this is bad.’ Matt carried on a pretty good poker face.” A little more than three weeks later, Belloni was gone.
Through a spokesperson, Valence declined all interview requests for this story and forwarded the same statement it had sent to various news outlets: “We are committed to our publications and to journalistic integrity. We are, and have been for the past 18 months, in the process of working with the Poynter Institute to follow modern best practices and maintain optimal editorial independence. We have implemented many of Poynter’s recommended changes and recently opened up the discussion beyond our leadership teams to all editorial staff.” The company had engaged Poynter in 2018 after a business executive at Billboard suppressed stories about sexual misconduct.
Belloni declined to comment beyond an email he sent to his staff announcing his departure. In that missive he called his exit “the result of a series of conversations I’ve had for a few months with Modi about the direction at THR. Some may want to read into that, but I’ll just say that well-meaning, diligent, ambitious people can disagree about fundamental priorities and strategies.”
For Belloni, those priorities included a critical April 2019 feature about Louise Linton, the controversial actress and producer who is married to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. With Valence reeling from losses of a reported $100 million to $125 million on its massive sci-fi flop Mortal Engines, it would seem to have been a precarious time to anger a powerful figure with so many connections in Hollywood finance. When Satchu heard from sources close to Mnuchin about the story, he contacted Belloni in an effort to kill it, Belloni claimed on the conference call. The editor said Satchu asked him how far along the piece was. Belloni told him it was already printed. Despite Satchu’s efforts, the story ran as planned, reporting on numerous allegations of questionable commingling of assets by Linton and Mnuchin, who financed films in Hollywood before joining the Trump administration.
Satchu and Wiczyk are relative newcomers to journalism. They were handed control of THR and Billboard in 2018 when billionaire Todd Boehly, a minority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and film distributor A24, reorganized his holdings into Valence Media, in which Satchu and Wiczyk have ownership stakes. The media-shy pair’s background is in finance—both attended Harvard Business School, and together they founded MRC in 2006.
Their first crisis of credibility at the new company came when Billboard CEO John Amato exited the magazine in the wake of reports that he engaged in sexual impropriety in the workplace and attempted to shield record executive Charlie Walk from allegations of sexual harassment. (Amato did not respond to a request for comment.) Satchu and Wiczyk responded by turning to a risk management company which brought in Charles Glasser, a former reporter turned attorney and media ethicist. Glasser is best known as a columnist for The Daily Caller, the right-wing website founded by Tucker Carlson that has been cited for misleading and false stories and publishing articles by white supremacists. Insiders say a few staff members at the magazine confronted Satchu about Glasser’s Twitter feed— which they claimed contained sexist and racially insensitive comments (Glasser rejects that characterization). Soon after, Satchu fired Glasser and brought in the Poynter Institute’s senior vice president Kelly McBride.
Shortly after the Linton piece was published in April 2019, Satchu and Wiczyk hired Deanna Brown, a well-traveled media exec who has served at seven organizations in the past ten years, to head up the Billboard-Hollywood Reporter Group (rebranded this April as MRC Media). Referred to by several sources as a “hatchet woman,” the hard-driving executive repeatedly clashed with Belloni over critical coverage. During the March conference call, Brown announced she was jumping off only to chime in 45 minutes later after staff members had spoken candidly in the belief they were conferring only with their editorial colleagues. That incident and the Slack incursions contributed to a general atmosphere of paranoia among employees, some of whom insisted on using encoded messaging apps and friend’s cellphones for sensitive calls. In multiple emails to Belloni, Brown lambasted the “ongoing negative coverage.” Late last year she was riled by the magazine’s roundup of the best and worst films of the decade, writing that “the glib sort of ongoing negativity here is exhausting and not part of our strategy.” Although the various entertainment roundups were some of THR’s most viewed articles of the year, Belloni reluctantly agreed to kill a companion package on the best and worst television shows of the decade. In the same email Brown complained that negative coverage threatened to overshadow a planned event honoring Reese Witherspoon. Brown also took exception to a January news article about Jennifer Lopez, who had recently returned as the face of Guess Jeans. The story referenced sexual harassment allegations made against Guess’s cofounder Paul Marciano. Citing Valence’s various business dealings with Lopez, Brown emailed Belloni: “We had an agreement that you would alert me to anything controversial—and this registers…as in the multiple touch points to JLO in the company.”
In meetings with staff, Wiczyk praised THR’s hard-hitting reporting, especially its #MeToo coverage. While the co-owners profess to honor the magazine’s editorial independence, “I think they have always understood it in the abstract,” says Poynter’s McBride. “When it comes to execution, they are working to find the appropriate boundaries.
“We had an agreement that you would alert me to anything controversial—and this registers.”
“Whenever they have approached that boundary and I have been involved, they have respected my recommendations,” McBride adds. She says she first heard of interference on the Linton story a year after the fact and was not asked to weigh in on the Lopez article. “I have advised MRC that it is ethical to influence editorial strategy,” McBride states. “It is not OK to advocate for MRC’s other business interests.”
For most of its 90-year history, The Hollywood Reporter was a decidedly unglamorous five-time-a-week trade publication, stuffed with rehashed press releases on the comings and goings of studio execs and the box-office tallies of various films. Overshadowed by long-established competitors like Variety and dish-laden upstarts like Nikki Finke’s Deadline and Sharon Waxman’s TheWrap, the publication seemed destined for the dustheap.
But its fortunes quickly improved in 2010 with the arrival of former-Us Weekly editor Janice Min. Bankrolled by a seemingly endless budget from private equity, Min added splashy visuals and embraced a buzzy editorial mandate that included stories on style and politics as well as real estate and restaurants. THR attracted top-flight writers and reporters, at one point counting six former editors in chief among its staff and freelance team, including the editor of this magazine. (This reporter has worked for THR as a freelance editor and writer, most recently in 2017).
The company spent lavishly on photo shoots, travel, salaries, and extravagant events. Min’s compensation, before bonuses, was reported to be $2 million a year. By the time she departed the company had reportedly lost close to $80 million. But during her tenure and beyond THR wielded an outsize influence that belied its modest circulation (never more than 80,000 copies), winning two National Magazine Awards for general excellence and being twice named a finalist for Magazine of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Editors, alongside the likes of The Atlantic, New York, and The New Yorker. Starting with Min and continuing with Belloni, THR operated on the principle that the best way to serve the hand that feeds you is not to bite it but to show its reflection, warts and all. Because of—and not despite—THR’s symbiotic relationship with the entertainment business, maintaining a skeptical distance was critical. “The atmosphere was always go—if you have a big story to chase, you have support,” says one former editor (who like most of the dozen current and former staff members contacted for this article agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity). “It was in that very elite fraternity and may be out of it now.”
A week after Belloni announced his departure, Valence conducted a massive round of layoffs across all its holdings, including THR. One of its axed employees, chief film critic Todd McCarthy, wrote a column for Deadline in which he lamented, “for a decade we had the best team of seasoned and skilled critics out there. Now it’s down to ground zero again, with owners of no journalistic background.” (Reached for comment, Min would say only: “I have my fingers crossed that THR has another great decade ahead of it.”)
The troubles at THR exposed the reality faced by all media outlets that cover the industry. The publications survive thanks to the ad dollars of the companies they cover; their writers depend on show business executives as sources. Studios and the trades “need and feed each other—maintaining editorial integrity is a delicate balance,” says one high-ranking insider who’s worked at multiple trades. “An outsider coming into this can end up being a bull in a china shop. You have to appreciate the nuance.”
MRC’s recent staff cuts purged the magazine of some of its most prolific writers. Valence insists the cuts were spurred solely by bottom-line concerns. Aggressive reporting is time-consuming and costly. Complicating any reckoning, insiders say, is the fact Valence offered free advertising to MRC and partners—including numerous pages to Lionsgate during awards season to promote Knives Out. According to sources close to the company, MRC execs would dangle the promise of free advertising to help close production and distribution deals, like a gift with purchase (sources at MRC deny this.)
More troubling than their attempts to tame THR is the possibility its parent company might point the magazine’s fangs at its corporate rivals and foes. Wiczyk has previously pushed information to editors that could be seen as an effort to drive negative coverage. Notably he gave staff detailed, highly academic presentations about Netflix’s lack of transparency in the platform’s viewership reporting. It’s a legitimate issue, and one that’s been raised by THR and other outlets. However the effort seemed curious to editors, who were aware that Wiczyk bore an unspecified grudge against Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos dating back to the early days of the streamer’s House of Cards.
To find a precedent for that sort of strident yellow press, one need look no further than THR’s past and its leading role in one of the darkest chapters in Hollywood history. In 1946, before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy railed against the Red Menace, THR’s founder, owner, and editor, William Wilkerson, began publishing names of alleged communists in Hollywood. He then actively helped prevent alleged communists and sympathizers from working in the industry. The names of those people Wilkerson had identified were known as “Billy’s blacklist,” or just “Billy’s list” when the moniker was shortened. “THR’s own role in fomenting the blacklist has long been overlooked: obscured by scholars and, out of shame, for decades never properly addressed in this publication’s pages,” THR wrote in a 2012 investigative feature into its painful past.
The unflinching article revealed that the publication’s journalistic misdeeds weren’t limited to the McCarthy era. Fifteen years earlier, in 1997, a reporter had written a long article detailing Wilkerson’s history and THR’s part in the Blacklist, but the story never ran. The editor in chief at the time, who also held the title of publisher and oversaw the business side, told the writer it was a good piece but would show the company in an unflattering light. The story was killed.