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

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