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Penske’s Moves: As Daily Variety Prints Last Edition, Adds Critic Foundas, Reduces Movieline

Penske's Moves: As Daily Variety Prints Last Edition, Adds Critic Foundas, Reduces Movieline

Variety lovers are feeling mixed emotions. On the one hand, Penske Media Corp CEO Jay Penske is making changes that were long overdue. He has pulled down the firewall, modernized the website, added a troika of editors–LA Times import Claudia Eller (film), and Variety’s Cynthia Littleton (TV) and Andrew Wallenstein (digital)–to run the online and print weekly trade, and ended publication of the print daily. The March 19 issue will be the last print daily after 80 years. The revamped weekly, which started back in 1907, will publish Tuesdays starting on March 26.

That March 19 Daily Variety is a collector’s item. In it is the news that peripatetic film critic Scott Foundas, who got his start freelancing for Variety, has become its chief film critic. Three years ago, when Foundas left the Village Voice Media’s LA
Weekly to join the Film Society of Lincoln Center as associate
programmer, I was disheartened that one of our most
gifted critics was leaving his clear
avocation. And I was delighted when he returned to the Village Voice as their lead critic just six months ago. 

He told me that he couldn’t resist the siren
call of writing about film for a national film outlet like The Voice: “That was one way of supporting films and getting them to an
audience. But it was on a smaller scale than writing for
millions. This is a dream job. It
would be foolish to pass up a chance to be a national critic with this
kind of influence and reach.”

Well, at VMG, Foundas’s hire was supposed to herald a new commitment to film coverage. Earlier this year
LA Weekly film editor Karina Longworth, who took over for Foundas and
had become the newspaper chain’s most high-profile film writer, stepped
down to focus on book-writing. Who will fill that hole? UPDATE: “This offer from Variety was too tempting to refuse,” explains Foundas in an email. “It reflects absolutely nothing about my feelings for the Voice, which has been unfailingly generous to me in both of my incarnations there. Working there was an incredible platform for me, as I’m sure it will be for the next staff critic(s) to come… After meeting with Jay Penske and Claudia Eller, I was excited by their clear dedication to rebuilding revitalizing Variety from the ground up.”

Foundas will remain based in New York and will work closely with Variety’s senior film critics Justin Chang and Peter Debruge in LA–who are bound to be crestfallen, as they were promoted after editor-in-chief Tim Gray let go of their one-time boss, chief film critic Todd McCarthy, who eventually found his way to Variety’s reinvigorated rival The Hollywood Reporter. Foundas’s hire is a repudiation of that policy.

It also sends a loud message to THR’s Janice Min and other competitors in the increasingly crowded entertainment trade realm: Penske believes in stars and is willing to pay for them. Wisely, he recognizes that Foundas’s name on a review will mean something. Just as he figured out that poaching newshounds Michael Fleming from Variety and Nellie Andreeva from THR would make them must-reads at Deadline.

“The addition of Scott to our existing team of critics — including chief television critic and media columnist Brian Lowry,” Variety publisher Michelle Sobrino said in the Foundas announcement story, “reinforces Variety’s commitment to being the authoritative source on film, television and theater reviews.”

Meanwhile, not nabbing much attention is the sorry state of online movie magazine Movieline, which was one of the first properties Penske acquired–along with Hollywood Life, which he gave to Bonnie Fuller to run–as he started building his online entertainment media assets. Once robust Movieline is down to one editor, ex-NY Post and Vanity Fair reporter Frank DiGiacomo, and is now posting reviews from Variety, trailers and video interviews, as Penske pushes his ENTV YouTube Channel.

UPDATE: DiGiacomo writes in an email: “Movieline is in the process of transitioning to an all-video site,
probably in mid-April. The plan is for me to become PMC’s New York-based
editor at large when that changeover occurs.”

Say goodbye to the Movieline film lovers magazine. What went wrong?

In February 2009, Penske gave Movieline to a trio of bloggers leaving Nick Denton’s shut-down Defamer: Stu VanAirsdale, Seth Abramovitch and Kyle Buchanan, who started out strong with their vision of a smart movie magazine on the business and culture of Hollywood, “away from the machine and the constant churn,” says VanAirsdale, but soon ran aground on traffic imperatives as Penske put a series of general managers in charge and focused on turning new acquisition Deadline into a profit center. That he did when he added Fleming, Andreeva and awards blogger Pete Hammond to the Nikki Finke equation.

“We were the red-headed step-child after that,” says VanAirsdale, who wishes that Penske had been willing to sell ads across the network. Movieline briefly supplied interviews for Deadline’s print awards editions. But that didn’t last. “I dealt with it until I couldn’t. Movieline was such an afterthought. It breaks my heart what Movieline could have been. It kills me. We could have had something so powerful and influential.” He left in July, 2012.

All the original Movieline gang have moved on. See the masthead from early 2011 listed here. Buchanan went to Vulture, Abramovitch is Deputy Editor of THR.com and VanAirsdale is teaching journalism at Cal State Sacramento (and writing a new column for Tribeca’s Future of Film blog). The others on that masthead, including high-profile critics Elvis Mitchell and Stephanie Zacharek, have gone on to various jobs at MTV, Vanity Fair, Huffington Post, NPR, LACMA, and the Village Voice among other outlets. Recent Movieline staffer Brian Brooks now covers the specialized box office for Deadline, while in January Movieline stalwart Jen Yamato joined Deadline as a “general assignment reporter,” according to her Twitter account @deadlinejen.

Like the late lamented Cinematical, Movieline never found the right way –at the right cost point–to cut through the noise in the mainstream movie space and match smart content with the right eyeballs. That’s the trick, and it remains to be seen if Penske can pull it off at Variety.

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