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The Big Picture: Variety's future looks bleak

Once a must-read for Hollywood insiders, the 107-year-old trade publication has been bypassed by Deadline, Hollywood Reporter and the Wrap.

July 19, 2012|By Patrick Goldstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Variety, whose days appear to be numbered, is paying the price for its refusal to change with the times.
Variety, whose days appear to be numbered, is paying the price for its refusal… (Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles…)

I once asked a famous producer how he first became fascinated with Hollywood. His answer? "When I was 14, I got a subscription to Variety." And no wonder. For more than a century, Variety was the most trusted brand in the entertainment industry, the bible of showbiz.

But those days are gone. Media outlets everywhere are wrestling with how to generate revenue as readers have abandoned print for easy Web access to information. But Variety has been hit especially hard by its core audience's migration to the Internet. Hollywood deal makers are voracious consumers of information, but they expect it to be delivered as fast as possible.

They sift through email blasts, tweets and Google alerts, making snap judgments about what to read based on provocative, attention-grabbing headlines. When executives or agents come out of a meeting, they invariably check their BlackBerrys or iPhones, eager to see what they've missed. It's a Darwinian test of how well news is packaged; the email alert with the most sensory stimuli being the one that wins hands down.

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When it comes to adapting to this ultra-fast news cycle, Variety has been a laggard. For years, Hollywood's oldest trade publication treated bloggers with disdain. Now it's paying the price for its refusal to change with the times. Having lost most of its best-known writers, and having watched revenues drop dramatically from their 1990s highs, Variety is up for sale.

And in a sign of how far its star has fallen, the 107-year-old trade publication, which was valued at close to $100 million as recently as 2008, is now thought to be worth as little as $40 million.

According to recent media reports, Variety's parent company, Reed Business Information, has several bidders circling the property, notably supermarket magnate Ron Burkle; Sharon Waxman's online Hollywood news site the Wrap; and Penske Media, which owns Nikki Finke's website, Deadline.

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But after I spent a week speaking with Variety's natural constituency — a host of industry insiders — I'm not sure the publication has a future at all. For a prospective suitor like Deadline or the Wrap, the main reason to buy Variety would be to put a key competitor out of business and use the remnants of its print edition as a magnet for lucrative awards season advertising.

How did Variety sink so low so fast? The answer tells us a lot about the importance of innovation in today's turbulent media environment.

A decade ago, when Los Angeles magazine profiled Variety's then-editor Peter Bart, writer Amy Wallace said that "more than any other entity, Variety reflects and informs Hollywood's collective consciousness." But today, the paper has dramatically lost influence. Its online readership is well below its competition's; its print edition often goes unread. A surprising number of subscribers said they get the paper just to keep tabs on the awards-season ads.

As one studio marketer told me: "I only subscribe out of habit. I can't remember the last time I read anything in the paper when I didn't already know the information from somewhere else."

No one at Variety would comment for this story. But its key misstep seems to have come in 2010 — a year after Bart left the top editor's post — when it put up an online pay wall. That took the paper out of the breaking news game, allowing Deadline, which was already beating the trade to innumerable scoops, to fill the void. Folks in town got into the habit of going to Deadline and other free online sources for news. Deadline even stole Variety's top reporter, Michael Fleming.

Although it started charging for its website, Variety didn't do much to make it inviting. Its design remained almost mind-bogglingly old-fashioned — static for most of the day, hardly encouraging repeat visits.

Meanwhile, the print edition stayed a rusty relic; even the lingo is painfully retro — only in Variety is it still written that Steven Tyler is "ankling" his"American Idol" gig. The front page is full of stories that were online many hours earlier. Except for during awards season, ads are sparse. The only ones in Monday's edition, for example, were promoting conferences that Variety was associated with (such gatherings have become a sizable source of revenue in recent years). The last time its readership was audited, in 2009, Variety's weekday edition had an average circulation of fewer than 27,000.

Meanwhile, the Hollywood Reporter, which for years was the also-ran to Variety, reinvented itself in late 2010. It stopped daily print publication and adopted a weekly, glossy magazine format. It also overhauled its website — positioning itself as a broader, more celebrity-oriented outlet that appeals to industry insiders as well as consumers who read publications like People.

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