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Variety’s Claudia Eller on Why the Veteran Pub is Adding Critics When Others Are Cutting Back

Why Variety's Hiring Critics

The long-running movie industry publication Variety announced yesterday that it’s promoting two of its top three critics and moving one to Paris: Peter Debruge, now Chief International Film Critic, will cover European film and foreign festivals from his new home in the City of Light, and Justin Chang joins Scott Foundas as Chief Film Critic. With the latter two based, respectively, in Los Angeles and New York (or, if you must, “Gotham”), Variety is, to quote its staff-bylined article, “establishing a dynamic trio of reviewers in the world’s three movie meccas.” All three are great critics, and the positions are well-earned, but the real news is buried in the following paragraph: “Additional staff announcements will be made in weeks to come as Variety ramps up its critical coverage domestically and internationally.”

Publications, as this blog’s readers are well aware, simply aren’t “ramping up” their critical efforts; they’re paring back, or else chopping off limbs. So Criticwire reached out to Claudia Eller, Variety‘s editor-in-chief for film, for further explanation via email.

Can you explain the thinking behind restructuring the responsibilities of Variety‘s critics? It seems like there’s a larger strategy at work.

The moves we made this week are designed to re-establish Variety’s longtime position as the industry leader in film criticism. We want Variety to be a place where critics aspire to work. Our boss, Variety owner Jay Penske totally supports our strong belief that this is a sustainable business, despite what other outlets have chosen to do. Investing in staff has been an integral part of this year’s massive re-launch of Variety, both in print and on the Web.

A lot of film publications have cut back on criticism, especially on staff positions and reviews of less high-profile films. With moving Peter Debruge to Paris to cover European film and the suggestion that you’re adding new staff positions, it seems like you’re headed in the opposite direction.

We are looking to build up our film criticism ranks behind Scott, Justin and Peter, a trend which does run counter to other publications and frankly is a reversal of a time when Variety dramatically cut back on its own resources. So, yes, I can say that we are proudly going against the trend by having three chief film critics aboard and by leaping into the breach left by our rivals. The sheer volume of reviews our team writes is tremendous — more than 1,000 a year. We do plan to augment our team in two ways: We plan to forge more exclusive, longer-term deals with some of our freelance critics around the world as well as add more reviewers over time. This will be a process and I’m not sure about the exact timing.

In addition to their titles, how are Peter Debruge and Justin Chang’s responsibilities changing?

Peter Debruge will be relocating to Paris in the first quarter of next year and will be better positioned to not only to review films and cover festivals but comment on the European culture.

Justin deserved to be promoted to chief film critic, alongside Scott Foundas, as a way to recognize his huge contributions to this publication, where he initiated his career nine years ago and where we hope he will remain for many, many years. His duties will not really change much. He already has tremendous responsibilities, which in addition to writing reviews, includes assigning and editing them.

What about critical pieces that don’t take the form of a review? That can be a way to draw audiences in that haven’t heard of a particular film.

Since I arrived in April, under the new organizational structure, I have encouraged our critics to extend their voices beyond the traditional review. My thinking was why should these guys who know more about film than anyone in the world be confined, boxed-in, to a format. I wanted them to break out of that box, which they’ve done. We innovated a new feature called Rearview, whereby one of the critics gets the opportunity to riff on a movie that opened over the weekend. For example, this week, Scott wrote a Rearview piece on why he thinks new film The Counselor is one of Ridley Scott’s best movies. (Rearview appears on our Variety.com website every Tuesday in concert with a mention on our Top Billing page in our weekly magazine.) 

We also came up with Three View, where all three critics weigh in on the same movie, obviously having different takes. How’s that for innovation? While it’s true that review of major movies draw the most traffic, Variety in no way is cutting back on reviewing the so-called smaller films.

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