Editor’s Note: The sad unraveling of THR continues with tonight’s exit of Todd McCarthy, who was let go along with several other reporters and editors. After growing up at Daily Variety with him, I would say that McCarthy is a critic in the mold of Roger Ebert. I invoke Ebert because like him, McCarthy’s reviews exuded an intellect that far surpassed mine, but I never felt he talked down to me, or that was an elitist poseur or took gratuitous clickbait shots. Rather, he informed and entertained and considered what a filmmaker was trying to accomplish in his assessment. He could make a hard call, but it was honest. I am not in charge of their finances, but I think THR made a shortsighted move here. McCarthy passed us a column to commemorate his exit. Here goes. – Mike Fleming Jr
Jethro Started It: My Hirings and Firings
By Todd McCarthy
A month ago I was surprised, out of nowhere, to get a nice raise. Yesterday I got the boot. By guys I’ve never met. Apparently if you make over a certain amount, you’re suddenly too expensive for the new owners of The Hollywood Reporter, which has recently been reported as losing in the vicinity of $15 million per year. Dozens are being forced to walk the plank. It’s a bloodbath.
Then again, I’ve seen this all before. During my 44-year career at the trades—with occasional time-outs to write books and make documentary films—I’ve had two stints each at Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, each gratifying and exciting in their own ways. Twice I left voluntarily to pursue other projects, twice I was let go when management changed hands and Robespierres took over, and twice more I was courted by new editors whom I choose to consider highly enlightened.
I’d written film reviews in college for four years, had my first book, Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, published and moved to Los Angeles. I soon got a day job as Elaine May’s assistant on Mikey and Nicky, while at night I helped populate the party scenes for Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind at Peter Bogdanovich’s house while the owner was away shooting Daisy Miller in Italy. Life was good for a young kid getting his feet wet in Hollywood.
I was also able to get a sideline gig as second-string film critic at The Hollywood Reporter under Arthur Knight, a first-rate historian and teacher who long wrote for Saturday Review. Fortuitously, genial Arthur was very keen on hosting movie-based cruise ship excursions and was therefore out of town much of the time, leaving it to me to review lots of great and major films of the mid-1970s, beginning with Barry Lyndon and The Man Who Would Be King.
But it was good ol’ Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies who gave me my first lesson in the inner workings of Hollywood. In June of 1976, Warner Bros. was set to release Ode to Billy Joe, inspired by the hit Bobby Gentry song. I filed a dismissive review, which was published, but the next day got a call from my editor, B.J. Franklin, who conveyed the news that Jethro, otherwise known as Max Baer Jr., the director of the film, was not a bit pleased with my notice. Would I perhaps consider taking another look at it with an eye to revising my opinion upward?
When I refused this opportunity, B.J. proposed that I interview Max about the film. I politely declined. The next day I was informed that my services would no longer be required at the Reporter, and also learned that Max and B.J. were Bel-Air-circuit social friends.
That was the beginning of my gratifying but rollercoaster history with the “trades,” as they were more commonly referred to then–Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Although weekly Variety enjoyed a wider and international readership, for many years before the internet the trades were almost exclusively aimed at and consumed by the L.A. show business crowd and financed significantly by self-congratulatory advertising and others hoping to draw the commercial interest of the industry.
The offices of Daily Variety, which I joined in 1979, could not have been less prepossessing. Demolished only recently, the one-story brick-and-mortar structure at 1400 N. Cahuenga most resembled a bunker. The center of action was a large window-less open newsroom occupied by small desks, towering piles of papers, manual typewriters, carbon paper, glaring overhead lights and overflowing ash-trays to accommodate the chain-smoking habits of most of the old staffers who’d been there for decades. One of them used his waste-basket as a spittoon, especially after his double-scotch lunches at the Brown Derby, walking distance up on Vine.
For those of us deeply into newspaper traditions and lore, you couldn’t beat it, nor could you put anything over on the great and feisty editor, Tom Pryor, a former Golden Gloves boxer from New York and proud bulldog Irishman who was tough and always played fair. The only drawback was that film critics didn’t get by-lines on their reviews, only one-name “monickers” that reflected your actual name (starting his career at Variety, the future film critic of The New York Times, Vincent Canby, signed his reviews as Anby., while I used Cart., as Todd. had been taken by a previous staffer and Arty. was far too pretentious for a trade publication).
After a decade of this and loving almost every minute of it, I decamped to New York to write a film, meet the woman who would become my wife and, in 1991, be paged by new editor Peter Bart to rejoin Variety, but only under very different and liberal circumstances; I would only need to review films, not pound out news stories, and could continue to pursue my other writing. Peter, who had worked under Robert Evans during the glory years at Paramount and then moved onward and upward at other companies, modernized and energized the publication in all the right ways.
But in 2009 new owners arrived, Variety became listless and gutted and seemed very close to being down for the count. Bart was kicked upstairs and I was let go along with most of the great staff of U.S.-based and international critics we had put together over the decade. The trades looked to be on the ropes.
However, scarcely a year later, a super-smart and imaginative young woman named Janice Min turned up to jump-start and in all ways transform The Hollywood Reporter from the skinny doormat of a publication it was into an excitingly re-imagined trade full of in-depth pieces and striking photographs and layouts.
I had never met nor heard of Janice when she called me to have a coffee. But within an hour, not only had she offered me the newly created job of chief film critic, but also agreed to hire most of the great international staff of veteran critics we had carefully built up over the years at Variety but were now being disregarded: David Rooney for theater and film in New York, Deborah Young in Rome, Leslie Felperin in the U.K. and Jordan Mintzer in Paris. For a decade, we had the best team of seasoned and skilled critics out there.
Now it’s down to ground zero again, with owners of no journalistic background, cramped new quarters (which no one can enter anyway), severe staff contractions, enormous economic pressures and, for the moment, no new films being released or made. What were the bosses thinking when they gave me a raise last month? What on earth are they thinking now?
As I said to The New York Times when I was let go from Variety just over a decade ago, “It’s the end of something.” What the next something is—for everyone in our business–seems less knowable than ever.
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