Peter Bart: Min Goes Dim


The Variety of the ’90s would have run that brash headline to describe the end of Janice Min’s reign yesterday as leader of The Hollywood Reporter. To Hollywood, Min’s abrupt exit will likely signal a change in how “the trades” cover the industry. Meanwhile, the Variety of the ’90s doesn’t exist anymore, nor does its tough-minded business model.

In her almost eight-year run at THR, Min smartly transformed a stodgy business trade publication into a glossy, celebrity-focused, consumer-oriented weekly. This represented a scenario that was sharply different from the Variety business model of 1990-2010 — a jaunty and immensely profitable business-to-business formula. Newsy but irreverent, the Variety of that era registered profit margins of well north of 30% and generated acquisition offers of well over $300 million.

The owners of THR have never disclosed their financial results, but knowledgeable sources estimate losses of between $20 million-$25 million a year. A decade earlier, when Nielsen sold THR, it was in the black by $14 million.

Let me make this clear: I enjoyed reading Min’s THR. Many of its articles were smart and insightful, its photo spreads lavish. Young Hollywood was important to THR; so was the ongoing revolution in technology. The big question: Did this model make long-term sense financially? Further, did it serve the needs of the business of entertainment?

When I became editor-in-chief of Variety in 1989, the publication I inherited was delightfully crusty and curmudgeonly. It was the total opposite of THR; no photos, no color, features were frowned on, celebrity parties ignored. Yet generations of entertainers and agents were inspired and nurtured by its diet of data and hard-nose reporting.

Over the years major producers and distributors threatened and sued over its coverage, yet Variety survived. My objectives were to enliven and expand its scope, not to change its focus. It was still about the business of show business.

Having started in journalism at the New York Times, I had completed (and relished) an 18-year stint as a studio executive and my attitude toward the industry was clear-cut: I had a deep affection for it and (most of) its practitioners. To me, Hollywood was part carnival, part business. As editor, I wanted to pursue the facts but also preserve the fun. Variety’s headlines reflected these aims: Lizards Eat Arnold’s Lunch; Scribe Tribe on Warpath; B.O. Kicked in the Asteroid; Ruffled Hare Airs Rich Bitch; Katz and Mouse Game Over; and, of course, Buyer Beware in Japanese, announcing the Matsushita buyout of MCA-Universal.

Army Archerd
Army Archerd Associated Press

During this era, Army Archerd kept churning out his columns, often breaking important stories such as Rock Hudson’s battle with AIDS. While columnists for THR of that period defended the blacklist and took a hard-right stance on social issues, Variety steered an independent path. Now and then, the studios and other advertisers reacted petulantly to Variety’s free-wheeling attitudes, but under the skilled stewardship of publisher Gerry Byrne profits kept expanding as did community acceptance. Advertising during awards season and at Cannes was so profuse that lotteries had to be established to apportion space.

To be sure, the party had to end. Though Variety had established digital initiatives beginning in the late ’90s, the print epoch was over. The two print dailies met their demise and both Variety and THR reinvented their weeklies to accommodate new ideas. While a livelier Weekly Variety was keyed to business, THR decided to invent a new phenomenon: the celebrity trade, a magazine that consumers would covet as well as Hollywood insiders.

Some feel the genre of the trade paper as such is doomed long term, that reporting on the industry will become a digital blur, that the appetite for investigative journalism will disappear in a Trumpian blizzard of alternative facts. These dark forecasts may be true, but meanwhile, I greatly respect the initiatives of both THR, Variety and everyone else (including Deadline!) to fight the good fight. I regret that Min got Dimmed. We all need more light and less dim.

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