In case Entertainment Weekly canning a veteran critic while seeking out unpaid bloggers isn’t depressing enough, Mike D’Angelo has scanned the magazine’s movie sections from the past week and its 1998 equivalent and posted them to his blog, and the resultant picture of the publication’s, and the industry’s, shift is more than a little disheartening.
The movie section’s aggregate space has shrunk by a third, from nine pages to six, although it’s worth pointing out that a comparison between the relative calm of the first week in April and the blockbuster onslaught of mid-July, whence comes D’Angelo’s 1998 sample, isn’t entirely precise. But more than that, it’s what’s on those pages that’s worrisome. The space allotted to the lead review has shrunk as well, though not catastrophically: Owen Gleiberman had 800 words to deal with “Armageddon” in 1998; Chris Nashawaty has 650 for “The Raid 2” this week. But read on. In 1998, Gleiberman’s review was followed by Lisa Schwarzbaum’s 400-word treatment of “Dr. Doolittle”; in 2014, the next feature is “Life Lessons from Jeff Goldblum,” a sub-200 word featurette that still manages to take up two thirds of a page.
EW 1998 has two more longish reviews: 400 words on Vincent Gallo’s “Buffalo ’66” and 300 on Sherman Alexie’s “Smoke Signals,” and then a full page (!) interview with “Gone With the Wind’s” Olivia de Havilland, flanked by Gleiberman’s 200-word sidebar review. EW 2014 has a confusing charticle and a smattering of shorts, including Chris Nashawaty’s 15-word, single-sentence take on “300: Rise of an Empire.” (The online version, at least, is longer.)
Disclosure, of a sort: I, like D’Angelo, am a former Entertainment Weekly freelancer, although my association with the magazine was neither long nor deep enough for me to have any personal stake in its future. Although I don’t think anything I wrote for them topped 400 words, I’m proud of some of the pieces I wrote, some of which, like a plea to release Richard Lester’s “The Bed-Sitting Room” on DVD, I’m amazed I was able to get into a national magazine. I stopped writing for them for a number of reasons, first among them that my editor, Sarah Saffian, left the industry for a career in teaching. (Good call, Sarah.) Contrary to whatever views I might have held at the time about the inner workings of corporate behemoths, Saffian was one of the sharpest, most open-minded editors I’ve ever worked with; she’s the one who gave me the go-ahead on the Lester piece, after all. Her replacement was much less so; the first time we worked together, he took it upon himself to debate the substance of my review — not the way it was expressed, but my liking for the film, which he evidently liked less than I did. But on top of that, the magazine had recently been redesigned, and the DVD reviews, which were upwards of 200 words when I started writing, had been cut to 125, which was the difference between able to say a few things about a movie and being able to say one thing, max. It’s only gotten worse, to the point where there’s little point in the magazine employing great critics if they’re not going to let them do their jobs. Even the ghost child of Pauline Kael and James Agee couldn’t do anything noteworthy with a 15-word slot.
One of the things I loved about writing for Entertainment Weekly was discovering how many of my friends read the magazine, and read it closely enough to notice my byline on the capsule DVD reviews in the back of the book. Being on newsstands in Cleveland was pretty neat, but not neat enough to pump up my waning enthusiasm for attempt to cram insight into an ever-shrinking space.
My bias in the matter should be evident, but it’s hard for me to see how a magazine — or a website with an ever-thinning print organ attached — sustains a valuable brand while gutting the content on which it’s built. (This issue, by the way, is hardly unique to national outlets; I’ve watched the same thing happen at my local alt-weekly as well.) If you don’t give writers the space to do their jobs, there’s no reason to keep them around — and there’s no reason for anyone to keep reading.