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

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

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.)

So when the trade mag industry went into nosedive in 2008 and Reed Elsevier put all of RBI up for sale for $2 billion, Variety was screwed: That outsized sense of importance meant no one could or would meet the sale price. And when Variety couldn’t/wouldn’t be sold, individually or as part of the RBI package, the hard numbers of online publishing froze Variety in amber: How do you make a $50 CPM a more appealing business than, say, a $30,000 print ad? You can’t — unless you accept the fact that radical change is better than the alternative (i.e., death).

Internally, there was a lot of talk about change, and a lot of talk about how people didn’t give Variety enough credit for having changed. But if those are common topics of conversation, it’s all but assured that you aren’t even close to change. Real change is exhilarating, exhausting, and all consuming; if you’re really doing it, the last thing you’ll want is to talk about it or complain how others aren’t noticing it.

And here’s the real story, albeit one that everyone in publishing knows already: Variety not only failed to change, or to change to a sufficient degree, but to accept the painful fact that change, both seismic and small, must be embraced as a permanent condition. That means, there is no showbiz bible. That boasting about creating showbiz lingo will only make you look old — language itself is an agent of change and never more so in the age of urbandictionary.com. (Not to mention all that slanguage is gobbledygook for SEO.)

And — I think this was the hardest idea for Variety to accept — remaining relevant in the 21st century means constantly acknowledging, if not actually seeking confirmation, that your approach might be wrong. That mindset can be painful, both on the pocketbook and on the ego, and neither Reed Elsevier nor RBI nor Variety wanted to hear it.

Now that the Variety deal is closed, the attention will shift to Nikki herself. She’s yet to weigh in, although it’s hard to imagine she won’t — and easy to imagine that when she does, the tone will largely be determined by whether she’s allowed to have a voice in Variety’s future. (Also easy to imagine: A duck-and-cover civil war at Penske until it’s resolved.)

Could this have ended any differently? Sure. You can imagine a world where, five or 10 years ago, decisions were made to analyze the Variety business in the current environment rather than the one it formerly occupied, envision the cost structure and resources it would demand, then either take action to meet those goals or to exit the business with a realistic price tag (one that certainly would have been a lot higher than the $25 million-$30 million that’s been reported). But that vision requires a lot of fantasy, not to mention the clarity of hindsight.

However, the underlying lesson — change, die or risk being owned by the National Enquirer — is one that should have currency for every publication, including Deadline. No one, not even Nikki, can afford to claim or believe in their unfailing dominance.

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