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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Chaos Reigns at What Remains of Moviefone

I’ve been hearing from a couple of insider sources, who I am keeping anonymous for their protection, that things around Moviefone — one of AOL’s most highly trafficked properties — are imploding at light speed.

Among other things, numerous inside sources have told me that when Patricia Chui was fired, her Moviefone colleagues were reading about it on the Internet before she even left the meeting to clear her personal belongings out of her desk.

Apart from the fact that this is just a shitty way to handle such a thing on a human level, it really does raise a relevant question: who among AOL/HuffPo management was aware that Chui was about to be fired, and who strategically leaked that information to the press before she’d even been told? And, more importantly, why would they do such a thing? It’s a relevant issue that speaks both to how HuffPo/AOL as a corporation treats the individual people who work for them, and the politics of corporate spin.

The answer to the second question, at least, I would speculate, is a combination of both the need of AOL higher ups to have a scapegoat to hang everything on, and the desire to get rid of an experienced, long-time editor for whatever their real reasons were, while satisfying HR and legal that they had just cause to fire Chui, to prevent any allegations of wrongful termination.

There’s nothing Chui has done here, from defending the Moviefone staffer who sent an email to TechCrunch asking a writer to “tone down the snark” of a pair of Source Code interviews, to sending an email to Moviefone and Cinematical writers seeking to clarify for them what was going on around there, that should have — in and of themselves — merited her being fired in a sane business environment.

In the former case, Chui wasn’t doing anything any differently than what’s always been business-as-usual around Moviefone: the business of maintaining good relationships with the studios who pay the bills. And in the latter case, she was doing what should have been going on all along around AOL: communicating information to the people being directly impacted by managerial decisions.

Most of the freelancers who’d worked their asses off for little pay and NO benefits for years were canned unceremoniously by a form email sent by former Weblogs lead Kristi Anderson — an email that didn’t even do the freelancers the courtey of addressing them by name.

Here’s the email everyone got, summarily showing them the door — after days of being left with no communication as to what the hell was going on:

Hi there –

Thank you very much for your contributions to AOL. As we have discussed on calls and in emails, going forward our editorial direction is to build a great team of full-time editors, writers, and reporters. To that end, we are reducing the scope of AOL’s freelancer program.

Per the terms of your agreement with AOL, this note confirms the end of your engagement for content services effective Wednesday, April 6, 2011. Rest assured, you will be paid for your content and services through this date, disbursed to you per AOL’s regular payment schedule in late May.

We greatly appreciate your contributions and are available to answer any questions you may have. Please email freelancers@teamaol.com with any inquiries.

So with all these people losing their jobs — both freelancers and staff editors alike — who’s running things around what’s left of Moviefone at the moment? A “senior programming manager” (read: bean-counting business guy) named Willy Volk.

Volk, who was business-managing a few blogs including Cinematical back when I got the hell out of there, has been put in charge of Moviefone (at least for now) in the wake of the unceremonious and questionable canning of Chui who, although she worked for Moviefone, which as a site I have practically no respect for, was actually experienced and passionate and cared about movies and the people she worked with. So now HuffPo/AOL has put a manager-type — not a movie journalist or editor — over Moviefone — a highly trafficked property about the movie business. What’s Volk’s background in movies? None, that I know of.

An email went out earlier today from Volk to what’s left of the Moviefone/Cinematical writers. This email, and the chain of replies to it, ended up in my inbox yesterday. It started with this email from Volk, helpfully titled “Moviefone Next Steps:

On Apr 7, 2011, at 2:49 PM, Willy Volk wrote:

Hi everyone. A few quick points —

1.) Brian, Gaby, Eric, Chris, Chris and I will help guide Moviefone going forward. If you have questions, please feel free to ask us.

2.) If you have dedicated columns that you “own,” please continue to write them. If you usually “pitch” work to the eds, please continue to pitch those ideas to Brian, Gaby, Eric, Chris, Chris, and me. In short: it’s business as usual.”

3.) We are currently looking for the following stories to be written. If you’re interested, please let us know —

* “New ‘Arthur’ vs Old ‘Arthur'”
* “25th Anniversary of the Bad News Bears”

If you have questions, please let me know, and I will do my best to answer them. Thanks.

Now, what’s particularly interesting about this email from Willy Volk is that he sent it to a bunch of people, including several who had already resigned and were no longer working for AOL/Moviefone. Folks were understandably a little confused.

Another writer (not putting the most of the names in the thread in here, btw), who apparently knows a bit more about movies than Volk, replied to the email to clarify that it’s the 35th anniversary of the Bad News Bears, not the 25th.

So then another writer, apparently the only person at Moviefone who didn’t read about Patricia Chui being fired before she was even out of the building, asked:

“And is Patricia still on board?”

Apparently Volk couldn’t answer that question himself, so HuffPo’s Nico Pitney chimed in with this:

“No, Patricia is no longer with AOL.

Nico Pitney
The Huffington Post Media Group”

…At which point someone else decided to clue Pitney and Volk into the unfortunate fact that this email thread was being sent to people who no longer work there (I counted at least five in the “cc” list, there might have been more:

“I’m fairly certain that a substantial number of the people on this mailing list are no longer with AOL.”

Then from a former Cinematical writer:

“I’ve watched my fellow team members get unceremoniously dumped, a respected colleague and editor fired, and have no interest in watching AOL’s continued chaos and lazily scant information. I resigned two days ago, as did many people on this list.

Please stop replying to all.”

… and this was followed by another writer:

“I turned in my resignation early in the week, with the (MOVIE TITLE DELETED) review (now scheduled in pending) being the last post I agreed to complete.”

And another one:

“In case my previous email wasn’t obvious, I tendered my resignation yesterday following the firing of Patricia Chui. Good luck to you.”

So. Things are obviously in a chaotic state around Moviefone. Morale, no doubt, is even lower than it normally is around AOL. People who don’t know the subject matter are being put in charge of sites so they can tell editors what to assign and writers what to write based on numbers and traffic.

Now I want to reiterate an important point here, for those of you who might be thinking, well, they were just freelancers, tough break, but no big: When we’re talking about people who freelanced for AOL, we are not talking, for the most part, about what many people think of when they think “freelancing.” This was not a situation where freelance writers would write one piece on spec, or pitch it and get it accepted, and then get paid as a one-off.

The freelance contracts with AOL specified how many pieces a writer was expected to write a day, or a week, or a month, and how much they were paid for short blog posts versus features (i.e. interviews, reviews, longer columns).

In addition, editorial people (aka “lead bloggers,” which sounds ever so much less professional even though the work they were doing was absolutely editorial) were also paid a monthly stipend. For many of Cinematical’s team, that site was their only job, and some of them (Erik Davis, Peter Hall, Scott Weinberg and Monika Bartyzel, in particular) worked pretty nearly full time, under daily pressure to increase traffic, while being told by people like Willy Volk that this or that topic was “hot” and “driving traffic” and therefore should be written about.

And while I’ve written mostly about the Cinematical freelancers, because I feel very deeply and personally for all of them in this mess, let’s keep in mind that freelancers across the board at AOL were affected. Here’s an excellent post by another former AOL freelancer that tells his story. I have no doubt, his experience speaks for the many.

Frankly, if they keep writing any original content around Moviefone at all for the long term, I’ll be surprised.

7 Responses to “Chaos Reigns at What Remains of Moviefone”

  1. Martin says:

    Does Moviefone really post movie reviews? That just seems so silly. There are hundreds if not thousands of web and print outlets for movie reviews, why would I care to read the reviews on a website designed to Pre-sell me tickets? God forbid I go to Rogerebert.com to read some reviews, and Moviefone.com to purchase some tickets. Stick with what you guys do best, make it easy to advance purchase tickets. Leave the film criticism to the countless other outlets that are not directly paid by movie-ticket sales.

  2. Keith says:

    I wouldn’t be so hard on Willy Volk. He does what he’s told by the brass, and he does it well. As far as I’ve experienced before with him at TV Squad, he doesn’t make these calls, and I’m betting most of what’s going on makes him uncomfortable.

    The fact of the matter is people need money to live, and the means of being paid doesn’t necessarily mean they like how they’re getting it. They can decide to stay where they are, because they’re afraid (or aren’t able) to find work elsewhere, or they’re drinking the Kool-aid and believe AOL kicks ass and has a heart of gold. Or, I guess, they’re hoping it’ll all get better soon — that there’s a light at the end of that tunnel.

    The thing is, it’s apparently one long fucking tunnel.

  3. Kim Voynar says:

    Keith, I hear you. People need money to live. I have a pack of kids to support. I’m not unsympathetic to that. But not liking how you’re getting your money, and doing something to change that? Two different things, my friend.

    Sometimes, you do have to draw a moral line and refuse to support something you feel is just wrong. Does one person alone make a difference in that? I don’t really care. What I do care about is that I personally will not support HuffPo/AOL any longer, period.

    The truth is, even many people supporting a boycott will not make a difference in whether the higher ups at AOL (like any massive corporation) will get million dollar bonuses, any more than some people choosing not to spend at the box office on seeing crap will not, in the end, likely keep Hollywood from producing lots more crap. Sad but true.

    But at the end of the day, it’s about the values you believe in, and how you choose to live your life. I choose not to support AOL/HuffPo any longer, and honestly, I don’t care if it has no impact on AOL’s bottom line. And you are perfectly free to disagree with me.

    What it boils down to for me is this: The only choices I can completely affect are my own. Other people have to make their own choices (or make a choice by not choosing). But we have a limited amount of time in this lifetime, and after going through life-threatening illness and divorce and plenty of other crap, what’s left is how I will look back on my life and the way I lived it when it’s truly near its end.

  4. Kim Voynar says:

    As for Willy Volk? If the decisions being made truly make him uncomfortable (and they very well may), it matters little so long as he supports AOL’s choices by staying married to them.

  5. Kim Voynar says:

    After sleeping on it and thinking over what you said, Keith, I think perhaps you do have a point. Is there any difference between Willy Volk doing the job he was paid to do, and Patricia Chui doing hers? I certainly defended Chui, at least to the extent that I feel she shouldn’t have been under the gun for doing the job Moviefone had been paying her to do all along. In the end, she did what was morally right in trying to communicate honestly, which is not something AOL values, and she got fired for it.

    So I guess I can’t blame Willy for doing the job he’s paid to do and doing it well. He’s good at deciphering traffic numbers and determining what stories should be written based on those numbers, and given that traffic, not quality, is always AOLs primary goal, he’s done that job quite well, while surviving in a harsh corporate environment. So more power to him.

    As for Patricia, I expect she’ll be happier no matter where she ends up. She’s a good person, and my hope for her would be that she’ll land working someplace where that’s actually valued. Thanks, though, Keith, for making me reconsider being so harsh on Willy for doing his job.

  6. Keith says:

    Kim — That’s really all I meant by my comment. What you said about Chui — or at least what I’ve heard about her — is a perfect parallel. Willy’s always been a really nice guy. I’m just saying his taking over things at Cinematical isn’t likely his decision, but that from people above him.

    Part of me wants to see the remaining people at Cine and TVS to stand up and walk the fuck out in rage, but I learned years ago that’s not the way it works. A lot of people just like to keep their heads buried in the sand because they’re being paid.

  7. Jane Boursaw says:

    Great rundown, Kim, and great discussion, Keith. What a complete disaster things are over there. When I parted ways with AOL last year, I was ticked off at how things were handled, but that’s nothing compared to what’s going on there now. I’m just glad I’ve been able to forge a work-life that no one can take away from me.

    I do understand the making-money thing, and sometimes ponder whether I’d have stayed at AOL for the money if things had turned out differently. I have to say, I don’t think I would. I just can’t abide by people being treated so badly and with utter disrespect. Maybe earlier in my career, but not at this stage of the game. It’s just not worth it, and rips me up inside to think of it.

    And yes, I support my family of four on my writing, so I’m not just talking out of my arse here.

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