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
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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’sglossy 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