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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

A Quickie On Variety's Iron Sell-Out

I just thought I would add, as a friend of Bob Koehler, a hail and hardy “fuck you” to Variety and Joshua Newton.
First, to Variety.. not only for selling your editorial out for $400k – CHEAP! – but for not coming out an taking the hit for the bad behavior, defending a guy who has only been a “freelancer” because the company was too cheap to put him on full-time payroll, who was effectively the paper’s #2 or #3 critic for years as a “freelancer,” and who was forced to take a job with AFI Fest because cutbacks at the dying trade made the gig he lives for – serious film criticism – impossible to make a living doing for his longtime home. Ironically, he’s back doing some work for the trade after cutbacks at AFI.
If Variety ad sales was getting the job done, Koehler would have that full-time job with full benefits, as his efforts on behalf of the paper for many years suggest he deserves.
As for Mr. Newton… I don’t often agree with Bob about movies, but complaining that he didn’t embrace Rat Race is one of the oddest ways of attacking his taste available on the planet.
Let’s not forget… Variety panned The Hurt Locker. In fact, Variety has been responsible for first bad reviews of some of the very best movies of the last few years. The paper has become a completely unreliable reader of audiences and/or of the long-view of quality.
But Mr Newton? He’s just a john paying for a whore to tell him he’s beautiful. A scorpion on the back of a journalistic frog.
Anyway… God Bless Bob and his opinions. He is a serious man. And the slaps against him are unacceptable… most of all from the place that should be defending his honor and holding their heads low in trying to recover their own, Variety.
(EDIT for typo, 2/28, 4;30P)

22 Responses to “A Quickie On Variety's Iron Sell-Out”

  1. Notwithstanding the current scandal (I concur with pretty much everything DP wrote), I have to say I rather liked Rat Race. It was the last gasp of the classic ZAZ comedy troupe (Jerry Zucker directed it) and, it’s actually pretty amusing and has several solid belly laughs. I hate the gratuitous feel-good ending, but other than that, it does what it’s supposed to do.

  2. gradystiles says:

    $400K, not $40K. Not that that changes the “morality” of what they did, of course, but at least get the facts straight.

  3. LYT says:

    Koehler Rules. I make fun of his verboseness sometimes, but he is the man.
    And attacking a critic for not liking a popular movie is the lamest thing ever.

  4. a_loco says:

    I wonder if Joshua Newton is a Smash Mouth fan.

  5. John Wildman says:

    Also, the truth is that Koehler didn’t leave AFI due to cutbacks. That gives the impression he was laid off. Which is not the case.
    He left AFI after my departure and Rose Kuo’s and David Rogers’ exit because he didn’t feel that it was possible to shepherd through another successful and enjoyable AFI FEST under the current management.
    Frankly, he passed on a paycheck that was being handed to him because of his integrity.

  6. Josh Tyler says:

    No doubt this was a selling out of the highest and most obvious order.
    Yet is it really all that different from critics who befriend filmmakers and then choose not to review their films if they don’t like them? That’s pretty commonplace. More than a few have admitted to it.
    This seems like the logical, next evolutionary step in a practice which has been going on for some time.

  7. Scott, totally agreed on Rat Race.

  8. LYT says:

    “Yet is it really all that different from critics who befriend filmmakers and then choose not to review their films if they don’t like them?”
    Yes. Most critics are part of a team of at least two at any given publication, and reviews are apportioned all the time based on whatever each critic’s particular biases might be. If critics review a friend’s film, it is often considered suspect by the reader no matter what, so the other reviewer tends to get it.
    This about a piece being spiked after the fact…and the idea that a freelancer can somehow sneak something into publication without an editor’s knowledge is ridiculous…either that, or it speaks terribly of the paper.

  9. Glenn Kenny says:

    Mr. Poland, we are, for once, on almost exactly the same page. Koehler is a good guy, a genuinely serious person, a cogent thinker, and a solid, persuasive writer. This Newton fellow comes off not just like a massive twit, but as a fabricator of monumental proportions. And Variety screwed up. Big, big big time.
    Josh Tyler asks “Yet is it really all that different from critics who befriend filmmakers and then choose not to review their films if they don’t like them? That’s pretty commonplace. More than a few have admitted to it.”
    I’d say it’s plenty different. For one thing, they’re NOT writing the review. As opposed, say, to writing a falsely positive one and not disclosing the conflict. No harm, no foul. Secondly, they’re FRIENDS with the filmmaker, not recipients of $400,000 from the filmmaker. What part of that do you not understand?

  10. “Let’s not forget… Variety panned The Hurt Locker. In fact, Variety has been responsible for first bad reviews of some of the very best movies of the last few years. The paper has become a completely unreliable reader of audiences and/or of the long-view of quality.”
    *sigh*
    Come on, Dave. You of all people should know by now it’s not a critic’s job to be a reader of audiences.
    And, to be completely honest… no matter how good a film The Hurt Locker might be to you and I and many other people, it hasn’t exactly set the box office aflame. Hell, I’ve been playing the movie at my theatre for 26 weeks now, and I have encountered plenty of people in that half a year who found the film to be repulsive, excessively gory (yeah, I didn’t get that one either) and not all that sympathetic.
    We each look for different things when we go to the movies. Some people just want to be entertained, and find pabulum like Paul Blart: Mall Cop or Transformers to be more their style.

  11. David Poland says:

    Ed… Variety positions itself as being an arbiter of commercial taste. Every review offers an opinion about commercial viability. And it continues to insist that as “the” industry trade, it has a right to review first as a guide for the industry.
    So while I agree that it’s bad criticism, it is the reality of the situation Variety not only lives, but demands.
    In specific, Variety’s arrogance as a “movie killer” is a misfortune for film in general. How does it help the film world to have Variety come out slashing any Von Trier movie or Che’ or The Hurt Locker or The Road, etc, etc, etc and to be taken so seriously?
    Variety is not Film Comment. It is a trade rag… accent on the RAG.
    And the rank stupidity of distributors who Variety to be the key first voice on their films by not getting a wider range of voices into play whenever the first review is due is something I have written about before. Of course, some like to make it about me and what I want. But it’s not… not unless we are having that conversation. It is about the principle. No rave review in Variety or anywhere else can be banked. And a slam, when it is the only one out there, can be devastating… not because of the source, but because it is often the only voice being heard for some time.
    And again… the idea of diminishing Koehler’s relationship with Variety as “freelancer” is to be completely misinformed. Koehler was, until Variety pulled the rug out from him, a loyal, pretty-close-to-fulltime employee who was being shorted benefits.
    Is Dave Kehr a freelancer for the NY Times? Last I heard, technically he is. But he is the fourth most consistently printed critical voice on the movie side of that paper… or was… forgive me for not obsessing on where the Times is this week.
    Papers have been cutting critics and other writers from “employee” status ot “freelance” for years in order to save the cost of benefits and to be more free to abuse the employees who have few other options and actually love what they do without later paying a price if firing or laying them off.
    I don’t know if you, Glenn Kenny, were getting pull benefits as Premiere went down or if when you were leading their web effort. But that would be the classic scenario.
    From full-time to “full-time freelance” to “100 bucks for a review in a major outlet?… okay… it’s good exposure and I was going to write about the movie on my blog anyway.”
    I have no idea what Glenn’s finances were or are and it’s none of my business. But this is the slippery slope. There are plenty of high-profile critics out there looking to eke out a living in their long-held profession.
    Andrew Sarris was offered – I was gathered – a freelance role at The NY Observer after being cut for budget. Oh, those wacky freelancers!!!

  12. LYT says:

    From full-time to “full-time freelance” to “100 bucks for a review in a major outlet?… okay… it’s good exposure and I was going to write about the movie on my blog anyway.”
    My life of the past five years summed up in one sentence. Sighs.

  13. Come on, Dave. You know as well as I do Elley’s review didn’t kill The Hurt Locker’s potential. Variety only matters to a handful of people in this world, mostly here in Los Angeles, and even then most of us take those reviews with a grain of salt.
    Variety didn’t kill The Hurt Locker. The movie killed itself. It didn’t gross well for one major reason: it is an Iraqi war drama, and the public had already shown a number of times over the past several years they were not interested in movies that had anything to do with our current Middle East conflicts.
    Variety didn’t kill Che. Richard Fleischer’s Che! didn’t do well in 1969 and The Motorcycle Diaries didn’t do well in 2004. Even Evita, which featured Che as a major character, was a box office dud. The American public does not give a crap about Che Guevara on screen, including the self-ironic college kids who think wearing Che t-shirts make them counterculture.
    Variety didn’t kill The Road either. You want to sell post-apocalyptia to the masses? You need Denzel to be running through a movie version of Fallout 3, and even then, it’s still considering somewhat of a disappointment.
    And Variety couldn’t kill any Von Trier movie. Lars is full capable of doing that for himself.
    Variety can think of itself whatever way it wants. It desperately needs to sell itself as some kind of arbiter of taste, but most people see through that. I’m letting my own subscription lapse in a couple months, after more than thirty years of loyal readership. I miss the days of their being able to print the individual theatre’s grosses, with its detailed listings of capacity and house nuts, and the careful, market-by-market analysis. And those 500+ page AFI and Cannes mega-issues. Variety has changed, along with other trade mags like Boxoffice, to chase what they think their audience is. I don’t have much love for Boxoffice anymore either, which has gone from covering the entire exhibition industry through 100+ pages every week to being a monthly three-person cheering section for NATO and digital cinema.
    In the end, The Hurt Locker was never going to set the film world aflame. Both of my parents continually ask for my opinion on what movies they should see. I’ve been suggesting The Hurt Locker to them for close to nine months now, but they have no interest in it. Even when they’ve had the ability to see for free at my theatre in the past six months, including an exception digital projection presentation for the past month, and even after all the accolades. There are some movies the public simply does not want to see, no matter what. Maybe that’s why Summit never released it in more than 535 theatres at its widest.
    Derek Elley was right in this case about its box office potential, but he’s not the one who made it so. Maybe he simply noticed the grosses for Stop-Loss and Redacted and Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah and Rendition and all those other movies made since 2002 about this conflict and saw a continuing pattern.
    As for what they did to Koehler, it’s sad and stupid but hardly surprising. It’s SOP in our world where profits are the most important thing, even above the people whose content helped put you in the stratosphere you think you belong to in the first place.

  14. joyfoool says:

    HURT LOCKER…
    That movie unfortunately can’t live up to its own hype. A vocal minority has propped it up however the average viewer doesn’t give it the word of mouth it needs to grow an audience. The fact is the movie doesn’t have a narrative. It amounts to a few (repetitive) scenes cobbled together. The ‘star’ cameos are glaring (wtf is Fiennes doing in this – I half way expected Julia Roberts to show up in fatigues ala Valentines Day). All I can say is the screenwriter owes a great deal to K-Big’s vaj.

  15. Hallick says:

    For me, even to this day, the problem with the Hurt Locker has always been that everybody and their comatose girlfriend can tell you how awesome the movie is, but I have yet to see somebody SHOW ME that fact. The trailer and the television ads never did it. The clips on movie review shows didn’t it. The still images didn’t do it.
    Masterpiece of filmmaking though it may be, whatever it has going for it just doesn’t translate into its advertising. Even the complaining over the title itself, which I love as a title, just seems to feed into the point that something just fails to connect with the audience at large. I don’t know who to blame for it, but there it is.

  16. Glenn Kenny says:

    David: it’s true that in one sense my situation is nobody else’s business, but I don’t see the harm in answering a few of your questions, as the answers might have some illustrative value. I had begun the “In the Company of…” blog at the Premiere website in the late part of 2006. I felt at that time that certain writing was on the wall and that expanding my own web presence might be a smart idea across the board. Jim Meigs and I had been proselytizing for new media activity since we came on board at Premiere in 1996. But you know how it goes with corporate types…it’s “What’s a blog?” over and over again until it suddenly becomes, “How’s the blog coming along?” When the print version of Premiere folded in March of 2007, I was asked to stay on, as a staffer, full benefits and all. There was much hoopla as to how the web-only Premiere was going to be this grand venture for the parent company. Only we got almost nothing in terms of staff support and resources. Our immediate management dropped the phrase “Potemkin village” with alarming frequency. And so it went, until 2008, when they brought in the whiz kid from Dennis who, at a meeting where I dared drop the words “editorial integrity,” grinned at me and said, “But you see, that’s a print mentality.” So that gave me a pretty good idea of where I stood with HIM. But, yes, until I got the boot in May 2008, I was on staff. And yes, it’s brutal out there. The irony is I came to Premiere as an editor, working on pieces with John Connolly and David Foster Wallace. Once I became the chief critic in 1998, it morphed my professional profile…to the extent that it would be difficult for me to get a full time position as an editor. What incredible irony!
    In any event, keep the faith, such as it is.

  17. Cadavra says:

    Edward, Ebert loves to tell the story sbout how someone once called him and asked how “Cries and Whispers” was. Roger said he thought it was the best movie of the year. The man replied, “Oh, that doesn’t sound like anything we’d want to see.” Ebert didn’t know how to respond to that, and who could?

  18. David Poland says:

    Edward, I think we may be arguing past each other.
    There is a real dichotomy in all of this. Variety cannot, in fact, kill any movie or make any movie. Never could. And neither could any one outlet, even Kael.
    But Variety – or the industry vacuum around a bad review in Variety – can damage the movie’s ability to be sold or the enthusiasm of the bidding… not because it’s Variety, but because it’s first and often alone.
    And Elley was dead wrong about the box office potential. And you thinking that just because it didn’t do much business, it couldn’t do much business, is why that review mattered. Corliss raved not long after Elley panned… but it didn’t matter. And by the time they got to Toronto, it was “the Iraq movie.” And no matter how often many of us said that it was more than an Iraq movie… that it was about more than Iraq… it became a matter of trying to remove the tag, more than making an affirmative case.
    Of course Variety hurt Che’. All that CRAP about it being an unfinished film that should be turned into a 2.5 hour movie or a four HBO hours was repeated over and over. And it couldn’t have been more stupid. Selling it was hard and IFC did the best they could. But the reason it didn’t end up with Sony Classics or somewhere that could push bigger than is IFC’s gameplan is, in no small part, because of the negative tone around Cannes.
    I am not saying that there were not many who dislike the film or that they don’t have the right to feel that way. But you seem to forget that we are in a business of sheep and that the sheep often follow the first audience they can read (literally and figuratively), critics.
    Movies are not sold by how good they are… and of course, the opinions always vary. They are sold by money and marketing. And if your parents are uninterested in The Hurt Locker, not knowing them, it may well be how it was sold. I can tell you that the reason younger audiences didn’t find this film is because they were never invited into the tent.
    In the way you are arguing, you aren’t very wrong. But I would say that you are missing the bigger picture.

  19. David Poland says:

    Thanks, Glenn.

  20. If Todd McCarthy had first reviewed Hurt Locker, and panned it, then maybe I could see that as a harbinger of doom. But Derek Elley is not Todd McCarthy, or Roger Ebert, or Joe Morgenstern, or any of the other A-list critics still around. (And, yes, it pains me to call McCarthy an A-lister.)
    With all due respect, Dave, my insight comes from being in the trenches of film exhibition every day. (I don’t know if you remember, but the one time we met was when I stopped you as you walked by my then-work on the Third Street Promenade a few years ago.) At my theatre, I have a pretty good relationship with my patrons, who know I am always available to talk to them about not only the films I am currently playing but the films I hope to bring to the theatre. A few weeks ago, I heavily talked up the Red Riding trilogy to a number of patrons who asked about new films they should check out. At the time, I didn’t know whether I’d even be playing it, and when I finally did get it, a couple of those customers came to see it, but most told me they simply did not have the time to come see three movies in a row. I even tried to schedule the films at different times each day, to give everyone ample opportunities to see all three no matter what their schedule was like, but it didn’t matter. The films were gone in seven days, but over the last week, many have thanked me for the suggestion and said they’d try to catch it on video.
    I think that’s the same problem Che had. It’s easier for people to make one four or five hour commitment to see these films presented as one work, than it is to break up two or three days in order to catch each individual piece.
    And for the record, I am not missing the bigger picture. I am not discussing the part of your story about their lack of ethics, because I fully and completely agree with you. I am one of the many web-based film writers who has seen Variety (and the Reporter) report information broken on the web days before without any kind of attribution. It’s one of the many reasons I rarely do any news reporting on my site anymore. Why should I bust my ass to get the info right, when someone from Variety can make a phone call to someone higher up than I can get to and get one little nugget I didn’t have in my story, in order to print the story as if they were the first to get it.
    Remember Steve from Collider.com’s quest to nail Variety on every story first broken on the web and later printed by them without attribution? He eventually gave up on it, because it happened way too often and no one gave a damn.
    Hearing Variety torpedoed a negative review for a movie who was heavily spending on FYC ads in their pages was no shock to me. If I ever see something like “As first reported by Devin Faraci on CHUD.com” or “According to Ed Douglas on Comingsoon.net” in a Variety story, then and only then will I be shocked. Probably have a heart attack.

  21. David Poland says:

    Ed… again… I am not talking about the consumer market. No consumer gives a damn what Variety said when it comes time for distribution.
    I am talking about sales. Sales to companies that do more aggressive distribution. Distribution companies that buy movies and then undervalue them based on a trade review.
    It happens every single major market fest. Every one.
    Obviously, Che’ was a hard consumer sell. Not my point. IFC did okay with it, considering. Sony Classics would have been invested in a different way that may have led to a different profile for the picture. And liking the movie is not the #1 issue when that choice is made. When a distributor is passionate, great. But they don’t need to love a film to sell it… they only need to believe that they are not throwing their money away.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin