The well-documented slump in advertising dollars within the publishing business has had an enormous impact upon the print media sector over the last two years. Particularly brutalized have been the once-lucrative 'trade papers', notably the iconic 'Showbusiness Bible', Variety and its long-time competitor, The Hollywood Reporter.
From its humble beginnings as a New York-based stage paper to its current offices on Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of the LA film industry, Variety has been the voice the international film industry for over a century (as recognised by this website, which subscribes to Variety's international news feed). Until the ad market imploded in the early 2000s, the paper had always been a profitable enterprise, with its unbiased and fearless editorial content providing the integrity upon which its sales people can seek advertisers.
The newspaper's adherence to a strict 'church-&-state' policy with regard to its advertising and editorial content is legendary – editorial content can't be used to sell ads, and advertising sales representatives can't promise editorial coverage to prospective clients. It is a policy in which I am well-versed, having served as Variety's Asia-Pacific Sales Manager for six years (under Asia-Pacific Bureau Chief and fellow SBS Film contributor, Don Groves, who worked for Variety for three decades).
With the traditional Award-season 'For Your Consideration...' ad market continuing to decline and the international festival circuit looking to fresher forms of advertising than the traditional marketplace print editions, the last thing Variety needs at this point is to have their 'church/state' policy brought into question. Yet that is exactly what director Joshua Newton is doing in the wake of a failed US$400,000 Oscar campaign in the pages of Variety for his film, Iron Cross.
Newton was working frantically to finish his Holocaust-themed drama in time for Oscar consideration when he took a call from a Variety salesperson at his office at Calibra Pictures. As reported on industry website TheDefamer.com, Newton claims that the salesperson informed him that the paper's Editor-in-Chief, Timothy Gray, had listed Iron Cross as a potential Oscar nominee (the film was Roy Scheider's final appearance and told of Newton's father's experience during the Holocaust).
It was exactly what Newton wanted to hear – his deeply personal film was being taken seriously as an awards contender by the leading trade paper – and he was sold on the campaign, which included print ads and inclusion in the Variety Screening Series (Oscar-friendly showings of the film in LA, New York and San Francisco, accompanied by filmmakers Q&A's). Seems everyone was happy – Newton had generated much-needed buzz, and Variety had secured a princely advertising campaign.
Then Variety published its review of the film. Freelance contributor Robert Koehler, a respected and long-time reviewer, savaged Newton's work. He attacked the production's behind-the-scenes contributors – “Tech package aspires to the heyday of Europudding thrillers but doesn't hit the mark”; he denounced the plot as "hackneyed," "preposterous," "mediocre," "choppy," and "uncertain"; and had a shot at the director himself – “Newton doesn't know when to let up, and his habit of cross-cutting...devolves from a cinematic device into an annoyance.”
Joshua Newton admits that editorial consideration never came up in the selling of the ad space, but he is of the belief that a US$400k ad-spend should at least buy protection against any negative representation of his film in the paper. "We weren't just simply advertisers," he told TheGawker.com. "We did a joint venture with Variety to promote Iron Cross. It was not a decent thing to do."
It is on this point that Newton is wrong, and why the 'church/state' principles are so important. Quite simply, advertisers buy ad space, they don't buy words. In my past ad-sales function, I often had to tell prospective clients that, 'no, we aren't going to write a piece on your film/TV show/lead actor/whatever… the only influence you have over what goes into Variety is what you put in the space you pay for'.
Up to this point, and despite Newton threatening ongoing legal action, it would seem Variety had done nothing wrong. Timothy Gray's piece highlighting Iron Cross went to press prior to the sales division's reach-out to Newton, so it wasn't published as part of negotiations with Newton – it is and remains merely Gray's opinion; Koehler was just doing his job as a reviewer (the fact it was scathing surely indicates no collusion between ad and edit divisions); the Variety salesperson was following up on content that provided a sales lead, which is an entirely acceptable practice (if he/she hadn't, their competitor at The Hollywood Reporter would have; and what if Newton hadn't been given the opportunity to follow-up on the buzz Gray's column created for the film, and regretted not spending big ad dollars when it was too late to do so?).
But Variety did something very unusual when Newton cried foul – they removed Koehler's review from their website, Variety.com. Why? This act, more than any of Newton's sour-puss accusations, represents a muddying of the 'church/state' waters. No evidence existed that a deal had been struck between the ad salesperson and Newton to protect his film from negative coverage, so why back down? A newspaper that has proudly espoused journalistic ethics for over a century – in fact, has staked its reputation upon such traditional values – is now seen to be excising content because an advertiser is unhappy with it.
Variety publisher Brian Gott, a friend of mine and past colleague with a level of experience and knowledge that belies his young age, would only offer the comment to TheGawker.com that "Unfortunately, Variety does not comment on internal matters. I hope you understand."
TheGawker.com did access a long email from Joshua Newton that sheds further light upon his bitter disappointment at Koehler's review, but it does not implicate Variety staffers in any wrong-doing (though perhaps does rightly question Koehler's degree of research). The most distressing matter here is not whether advertisers should be allowed a free ride if they spend big, it is how big do they have to spend to sway editorial policy? In the grand scheme of Hollywood financing, US$400k is a pebble in the pond. If Universal or 20th Century Fox decided to pull a year-long campaign in light of a bad review, yearly projections would crumble and heads would roll.
In this crippling economic environment, when decades-old business models are being torn up and profit margins are unprecedentedly small, have the men behind Hollywood's business-2-business trade papers identified journalistic integrity as the first place to save money?