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AOL’s Huffington Overhauls Online Brands Moviefone and Cinematical: Moviefone’s Chui Loses Job

AOL's Huffington Overhauls Online Brands Moviefone and Cinematical: Moviefone's Chui Loses Job

Online movie brands Moviefone and Cinematical are caught in the chaos brought on by new AOL media mogul Arianna Huffington and her new editorial lieutenant, ex-New York Times editor John Montorio, as they overhaul AOL’s entertainment coverage. Insiders say that AOL’s first round of Draconian staff cuts a month ago were made not by Huffington Post staffers but by outside numbers-crunching consultants who did not assess individual strengths and weaknesses. At Moviefone, many strong, experienced editors were let go. The plan was to stop using freelance bloggers and hire new and improved staff editors and writers instead, with some exceptions for columnists with expertise or film festival coverage. “It’s a mess over there,” says one former editor at AOL Moviefone. “Goliath bought David and is turning it over to David.”

Messy indeed, as Moviefone’s editor-in-chief Patricia Chui was fired Wednesday over emails she sent Tuesday to contributors who were faced with losing their livelihood (see email below). She first invited them to join their “non-paid blogger system” which not surprisingly yielded serious blowback.

She then backtracked. With Huffington already under fire for HuffPo’s policy of free blogging, this did not play well with Moviefone’s new bosses, who supplied this statement:

The decision was made by Montorio, Editorial Director for Entertainment, Culture, and Lifestyle, who believes it’s imperative that all Huffington Post Media Group editors are on the same page when it comes to our vision of building a great team of full-time editors, writers, and reporters – who are all clear that this vision doesn’t include asking freelance writers to become unpaid bloggers, something we have never done and will never do. He also wanted to underline our belief in the Chinese wall between editorial and sales.

Cinematical started losing steam when Moviefone folded it into its traffic maw months ago. The movie blog founded by Weblogs’ Jason Calacanis and nurtured and built by film critics Karina Longworth, James Rocchi, Ryan Stewart and Kim Voynar became indistinguishable from Moviefone’s steady flow of stories. The online cinephile brand is on its way out.

HuffPo’s message to Moviefone and Cinematical has been loud and clear: they were coming in to do a total makeover. But the question of what Moviefone will be going forward is still on the table. Some predict that AOL may keep the site’s valuable movie ticketing business, and fold editorial entertainment coverage (and 13 million uniques a month) into The Huffington Post. Spokesman Mario Ruiz dismissed that scenario:

Moviefone is a great brand, and we’re thrilled to be doubling down to make it even better, with more coverage, more video and connecting it more with other Huffington Post Media Group sites, content and engagement. On Moviefone, we’ll be using movies as starting points for conversations. For instance, Snow Flower, the upcoming movie by director Wayne Wang, will enable us to engage our users around themes in the movie, such as female friendship. As for Cinematical, we’ll continue to offer its hard core movie fans the movie content they come to Moviefone for.

Cinematical’s fate was sealed at Moviefone when, after years of debates, Moviefone merged Cinematical’s content and added its traffic to its own numbers. Cinematical accounted for about a third of Moviefone’s traffic, estimates editor-in-chief Erik Davis, although others put the number at closer to 1 million out of 13 million uniques.

In many ways, Cinematical illustrates what was possible in 2005 and is impossible now. Cinematical was an early model of a freelancer-driven blog that allowed passionate film writers to write fast for pittance pay, post by post, from all over the country, in quantity. Cinematical still averages about 20 posts a day, but after Calacanis sold it to AOL in October 2005, more emphasis was gradually placed on search engine optimization and traffic. It became less idiosyncratic, less original. But contributors still cared about movies, still showed the love. They weren’t just supplying replaceable fodder to a content farm.

“Original content means more than recycled content,” asserts Cinematical founder Longworth, now a film critic at Village Voice Media’s LA Weekly. “It’s not unique to Cinematical. It’s a problem a lot of sites have. A process started with the sale of the site to AOL that is coming to fruition now; it’s admirable that it took 5 1/2 years to happen. The thing I created in 2005 would never be able to compete with the kind of traffic people want now, it was too idiosyncratic and editorially eclectic, it would never do tens of millions of page views a month. It served a small audience well. When you serve a mass audience you have to dilute the quality.”

Veteran Cinematical contributor Scott Weinberg, the movie site’s managing editor and critic, was the first to leave, protesting Chui’s other unfortunate memo defending the suggestion that AOL-owned Tech Crunch soften a story, which led to her eventual firing. Weinberg was followed by senior editor Peter Hall, and then this Saturday came the resignation of editor-in-chief Davis, who turned down an offer to join the full-time staff. “I couldn’t take a full time job if I knew all my writers were going to be axed,” he said. In theory, the strongest contributors among the dozen or so Cinematical regulars could land staff jobs. But the Cinematical faithful are dispersing. Moviefone, which has a very different audience, will lose many of the brand’s devoted followers, at a time when it can’t afford to peel off readers. “I think it’s over,” says Davis. “When you concentrate on SEO, you lose your passion, and readers see that, they identify with you as a person.”

What fascinates me is why, having proven how an organically grown online editorial model can work with low-or-non-paid contributors, Huffington would then turn to an old-school New York Times editor and newsroom/editorial top-down models while overhauling Moviefone and Cinematical. Staffs cost more than freelancers. And young low-paid college grads churning out ten posts a day are less likely to blog passionately, knowledgably and swiftly about movies than the experienced, fast and efficient Cinematical corps, with its vast viral social networking and 22,000 Twitter followers. “They go out and cheerlead for you,” says Erik Davis, who will keep working for Fandango and Movies.com. “They have a squad mentality. They’ll scream their work from the rooftops. AOL never promoted the Cinematical brand. We had no marketing, no PR, nobody was promoting us. We had nothing but each other.”

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