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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Variety Becomes A Mail.com Property

You know how it sounds yicky to talk about movies as “product?”

Welcome to the new Variety… “a Penske Media Joint.”

I don’t live in Planet Penske, so I have no idea how Hollywood Life is doing. All I know is… I have never heard it mentioned by anyone or referenced online outside of when Penske is the story. Ever.

With due respect for the good folks that are still drawing checks from Movie|Line… does the site have any standing outside of the occasional link that pretty much every blog gets in the entertainment blogosphere? Has anyone living in 2012 rushed to Movie|Line to get insight into the latest story or movie?

TV|Line is a personal weblog with a lot of production value, right?

And Deadline, for all its endless self-hype and a personally desperate media happy to lap up the idea that they, toom might get paid some day, has never managed to scale its site into most than a single-sheet tabloid. The only clicks to additional content pages are driven by “More,” which is a narrow set of clicks for most of its content, and people reading comments, which seem, at times, more popular than the content of the site.

Make no mistake, the Mike & Nellie show works brilliantly in its context. Nikki is the ringmaster, but those two jump through the hoops and ultimately, that is the only reason a crowd still comes.

(It’s worth pointing out that in the hours since Nikki went on her “vacation,” there is no real difference in the amount or quality of content on Deadline.)

So what credentials does Jay Penske bring to the stewardship of Variety? He paid a relative fortune to enable a journalistic car wreck and then agreed to pay two trade reporters—the right ones—more than they ever had been paid to run free. That’s pretty much it. He also hired Lynne Segall, ad sales queen, who brought the profit center to Deadline… a print magazine that sparks Oscar Consultants’ sense of tradition of spending a fortune to put a piece of paper on voters’ coffee tables… which has always been said to have been fought by Nikki, who would, apparently, prefer to just spend Penske’s money without making any profit for him.

So what is Penske doing, buying Variety with a partner? The math is simple. He and his partner must be figuring that they can get their money back out, plus interest, in 6 or 7 years if they can maintain what exists. But they would prefer to cut overhead, making the existing entity more profitable, and perhaps even growing things. How? There is no sign of an actual idea there. And the trade business is in decline. It’s only going to get worse.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a business there. It’s just not a very big one.

And there is the BIG problem… which is, how do you differentiate, in a world that doesn’t care in the least where they link, between Deadline and Variety, especially when you have eliminated the idea of intense competition? The more Penske uses his lessons from Deadline, the more worthless Variety becomes as a unique brand. The one thing Variety does that Deadline really does not is criticism of film, TV, and stage. But Rotten Tomatoes seems to have that covered.

But this does remind us to wonder aloud whether Jay Penske is aware that Variety has already been cut to the bloody bone. This is not the fat, bloated, slow, cash machine that Peter Bart used to run.

The big piece of this puzzle that all of us Nikki obsessives have so far overlooked is Dan Loeb, who runs Third Point, the hedge fund that apparently has a major financial stage in this purchase. Loeb’s a 50-year-old right-wing, shareholder activist type. Third Point also owns 5.8% of Yahoo!, where Loeb is the guy who outed Scott Thompson’s resume lie, effectively shoving him out.

Penske is the face of this deal, but Dan Loeb is not the kind of guy who was going to invest more than $10 million and have Nikki Finke tell him how his business was going to work.

Was the NY Deadline event last week a chance for Nikki to audition for Loeb? Possibly. If it was, she clearly failed.

In the short run, separating Nikki from Variety means that Penske can, indeed, assess Variety as it now stands, with current staff neither jumping off the boat or being pushed off by Her Royal Craziness.

I see no sign of a big idea from Penske. But it could be that Loeb is looking to leverage this into something else altogether… like becoming a part of Yahoo! or becoming the FoxNews of Hollywood, a pedestal from which to preach a certain fiscal mindset to Hollywood.

And what happens when Nikki comes back to work? That’s the wild card. Will she play nice? Or will she become Penske’s Anjelica Huston in Crimes & Misdemeanors?

No idea, really. Does Finke have an out with Penske? She can surely find a funder/sucker if she wants to break it off. Where is Penske/Loeb’s “red line” on Variety revenues? How much will Variety dip into the Fleming of it all (as Penske pays him, not Nikki)? Will a dozen Variety reporters find a funder to the tune of $2m a year and out-Penske/out-Finke Variety?

The purchase of Variety opens the door for another entity to step up into the space. Sharon Waxman isn’t up to it. Some, like me, are not interested. The Hollywood Reporter is already being weighed down by its inability to get off the Oscar season industry crack pipe.

Interesting times.

The only almost guaranteed loser in all of this? Journalism. At least for now.

6 Responses to “Variety Becomes A Mail.com Property”

  1. CTR says:

    Come on, Poland, you’re sounding like a Republican longing for the good old days of Barry Goldwater… days that never existed.

    There is no real journalism in Hollywood. And truthfully, there never was. For real journalism to be possible, you would need a real world. Hollywood is a fabricated world created by businesses. In this world there is ONLY Gossip, Publicity and… less and less… Criticism.

    This merger is obviously the old business ploy of combining two powerful brands with the intent of slowly phase one of the brands out… probably the expensive, testy one with the natural expiration date.

    Now, when she bitches to her pals at the studios, the suits can say for the first time, “Hey, you guys need to work that out yourselves.”

    And then she’s done.

  2. Jason says:

    I don’t know what you’re mad at at this point, David. If they don’t change, you bang the table. If they do change, then you still bang the table. Succinctly and specifically…what do you want to happen? Tell us clearly what your point is.

    And you know Penske doesn’t have anything to do with Mail.com anymore, yes? They sold it awhile back. So I assume that’s an anachronistic jab at them. But I digress. David, the guy built a business. A successful one, Many good people decided to uproot their stable lives and go with him. That says a lot, yes? And as for “Oh my god, what is happening to journalism”…I am looking at Deadline now. Eight screen pages deep. Not one bad journalism item. Just news and releases. Like any paper/blog. No evil, no terrible-ness. Nothing. Just decent (as you point out) journalists doing work. Whereas, you have a lot of snark on some of your items.

    So now he comes in with money and WANTS to change the storied but stale Variety. So that’s a good thing, in my eyes. I don’t understand what you are crazed about. Again – be specific and tell us what you want. Three lines or less. Don’t be bloggy.

  3. LtotheG says:

    They should pony up 100k a year and hire LexG.

  4. David Poland says:

    I was going to respond to both of you, CTR & Jason, but then realized that neither of you seems to be responding to what I wrote today, but some idea of what I have written in the past.

    I am not angry about Penske buying Variety. I am saddened a bit. But I don’t know that any of the other potential buyers would do any better.

    The theme is not “poor journalism!,” but rather, “investing in a dying niche is bad business and doesn’t get better because someone is throwing another $25m at it.”

    Another theme is, “Now, there will be room for something better… but it’s unlikely to come from Penske based on his history.”

    I’m looking at the front page and it’s 18 press releases and one piece of shoddy analysis. Yes… thrilling.

    This is not brain surgery. And Nikki is mostly irrelevant to it. Variety being bought by Penske means there will inevitably one less trade outlet. There will be fewer jobs. There will be less thinking… and Nikki’s influence, driven by Penske’s money has already lowered the amount of serious thought in the last few years.

    I wish everyone with a job at Variety good luck. I am not rooting for anyone to lose their job. But I am a realist. And I can do math.

    Finally… Jason… telling me how to express myself can only be responded to by, “Don’t be asshole-y.”

  5. What LtotheG said.

  6. Christian says:

    Only a puppet can save journalism now.

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