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That’s Showbiz? Variety Cuts Full-Time Reviewers, Including McCarthy

The staff memo first hit the web yesterday by way of Romenesko, and now a day later, the fallout is continuing around news that Variety is doing away with several full-time film reviewers — including longtime chief film critic Todd McCarthy, who is probably one of the biggest industry names in entertainment media.

According to Variety editor Tim Gray, the change in staffing — a technically accurate euphemism as McCarthy, along with film writers Derek Elley and Sharon Swart, plus theater critic David Rooney, have been offered freelancer positions to continue their role — is due to a need to cut back on costs for the industry rag. Gray cites the economy and the need to cut costs; either way it’s clear that advertising revenue has dropped precipitously at the once-mighty industry bible. As LA Times “Big Picture” blogger Andrew Goldstein noted explained the situation in an earlier post:

As anyone who regularly reads the venerable trade paper has surely noticed, even at the height of Oscar season Variety has been thinner than most of the starlets who walked the red carpet Sunday night. In years past, the trade paper was so fat with ads in January and February that — at least in my house — a week-old copy of Variety was a perfect fly swatting machine, guaranteed to flatten the biggest house pest. But no more. Most of last week’s issues of Variety wouldn’t harm a flea.

Even with 10 films in the best picture race, the ads simply weren’t plumping up the paper the way they had in the past. It was inevitable that Variety would once again have to find ways to cut costs, though it was definitely a shock to see the paper get rid of its top critics, especially McCarthy, who after the death of Army Archerd and the departure of former editor Peter Bart is easily the most iconic presence at the paper.

Meanwhile, from Gray’s memo, this bit of head-scratching logic:

Last year we ran more than 1,200 film reviews. No other news outlet comes even close, and we will continue to be the leader in numbers and quality. It doesn’t make economic sense to have full-time reviewers.

Er, isn’t that exactly when it makes economic sense to have full-time reviewers? Put differently, a paper with that many reviews — never mind this paper with that many reviews! — that can’t afford an on-staff review team is a paper that is in serious trouble.

Or, as McCarthy told The Wrap: “It’s sad… It’s the end of something. You can say it’s the end, or you can say it’s the end of the way it’s always been done.”

Someone who remembers the way it’s always been done: venerable film critic Roger Ebert, who does not approve, and doesn’t plan to let this one slide. He gave this one a “thumbs down” in the definitive post on the matter:

I flew home from the Oscars to find half a dozen e-mails awaiting with the same unbelievable message: Variety had fired its chief film critic, Todd McCarthy. Its spokesman was hopeful Todd and its chief theater critic, David Rooney, who was also fired, could continue to review for the paper on a free lance basis. In other words, Variety was hopeful that without a regular pay check, McCarthy would put his life on hold to do a full-time job on a piecemeal basis.

…He knows everybody. He is known throughout the film world. He was Variety’s ambassador at film festivals, always the best-known Variety person there. He stood for Variety. We now discover it did not stand from him.

It’s a long piece which gives due to McCarthy’s decades-long tenure at Variety — but it’s also summed up by Ebert’s first reaction tweet: “Variety fires Todd McCarthy and I cancel my subscription. He was my reason to read the paper. RIP, schmucks.”

(In one more twist of the knife, Ebert recommended the Wrap’s take thusly: “The Wrap does the kind of story about Variety that Variety always wrote about others.”)

It’s hard to miss the significance of this move, especially coming as it did right after the Oscars (as Goldstein notes, “in showbiz, timing is everything”). If a must-read trade like Variety can’t hack it after a ten-best-picture Oscar season like this one, then where does the future lie? Is it yet a canary in the coal mine for entertainment publications — or for critics? (Lord knows they’ve both had birdcages worth already.) As Goldstein notes, “when you turn your chief reviewer into a freelancer, it certainly tells you, loud and clear, how little value the job has in today’s increasingly critic-unfriendly market.” Then again, new entrants into the market like The Wrap and the beefed-up Deadline Hollywood suggest there is still room in the market. Maybe, as Goldstein points out, there’s “economic reality” and the bad choices Variety has made within it.

So — maybe this is how Variety plans to innovate. Who knows, they’re not the first to go with the freelancer model. And if their coverage suffers as a result, well, there are always understudies waiting in the wings. That’s showbiz, folks. One hopes, at least, that Todd McCarthy will be waiting in the wings, too — to pen the perfect review.

Variety: This Thumb’s For You [Roger Ebert’s Journal]
Variety Drops Chief Film and Theater Critics [The Wrap]
Variety lays an egg: Is firing its critics really ‘economic reality’? [LAT]

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