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EDITORIAL: Why Nikki Finke Got Variety (And It's a Happy Ending)

Photo of Dana Harris By Dana Harris | Indiewire October 9, 2012 at 1:42PM

It would be easy to position this as a David/Goliath narrative -- the scrappy blog that grew to take down the bible of show business -- but that's too reductive. And simplistic, to say nothing of flat-out boring.
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Variety Signs a New Lease
Variety Signs a New Lease

Nikki Finke got Variety.

Yes, it's the parent company of Nikki Finke's Deadline, Penske Media Corp., that actually made the purchase, which makes the Variety brand part of the PMC Network (Movieline. TVLine, Hollywood Life). Nikki Finke didn't personally buy Variety. It's not even clear how much input she'll have in how the new acquisition is run.

Whatever. We all know that Nikki got Variety. And here comes the heresy: Variety is lucky for it.

Full disclosure: I'm a former Variety employee who spent nearly 11 years there -- the bulk of my film journalism career. I spent much of that time working under then editor-in-chief Peter Bart with colleagues who included Mike Fleming (Deadline New York), Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter), Cathy Dunkley (head of corporate film, Freud Communications) Anne Thompson (Indiewire's own Thompson on Hollywood) and Claude Brodesser-Akner (Vulture), among others.

We all watched Nikki's rise, first dismissively, then with growing annoyance and finally grudging respect. And annoyance, and respect. Yeah, there's a lot to dislike in her manner, although it's been toned down of late. That's largely due to the contributions of reporters like Fleming and Nellie Andreeva -- writers who have all of her reporting chops and none of the bile.

In terms of what happens next, I expect layoffs and poaching; there will be overhauls in leadership and vision. And unless Deadline and Variety are somehow combined into a single property -- something that seems unlikely, at least in the short term -- there will be a wholesale redefinition of what Variety means to the industry. As it stands, there's too much overlap. The easiest lines of demarcation seem to be Deadline does breaking news, Variety does the industry-friendly stuff. You could use the Variety brand to seriously bolster the standalone issues Deadline produces for the Emmys and Oscar seasons, a product that could ostensibly provide competition for the invigorated glossy THR.

READ MORE: Penske Buys Variety for $25 Million

It would be easy to position this as a David/Goliath narrative -- the scrappy blog that grew to take down the bible of show business -- but that's too reductive. And simplistic, to say nothing of flat-out boring. We all know online rules the publishing world. And it's been a long time since anyone dismissed Deadline as "just a blog" (or for that matter, dismissed blogs). The simple story is that Deadline is a native creature of online publishing, one that wasn't saddled with the cost structure that comes with history or nostalgia, and it grew to the point that it could consume the property that once dwarfed it.

But the story is more complicated than that, and more instructive. The reason that Variety is now owned by Penske is because Variety fell prey to the same disease that infects much of the industry it covers: They believed their own publicity. And, perhaps because there was no publication as tightly woven into the industry, they also suffered from another shared malady: Variety (and its parent company) refused to believe in the essential need for change.

So many of Variety's decisions seem baffling to outsiders -- the paywall, the half-hearted website, the dedication to the print product. As with most things, however, there was a logic, however thwarted: for years, parent company Reed Business Information had the luxury of owning a very profitable and shiny property, albeit one they didn't particularly understand. (At one point, its sister trade publications included Farmers Weekly and Poultry World.)





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