This month marks the 40th anniversary of my joining Variety, which sets off a number of thoughts.
The first is a realization: 40 years? I’m old! (This is startling, because for many years I wasn’t.)
The second reaction is how much things have changed. Occasionally, people will say, “Wow, 40 years at one place!” And I think, well, yes, but that requires a few footnotes. It’s always been Variety and it always will be. But as you may have noticed, a lot has changed since 1981, such as entertainment and journalism. And Variety is at the intersection of both.
As a bonus, both worlds have been revolutionized by technology. Variety has not only been my workplace for multiple decades, but now I’m beginning to see it as a metaphor for everything that’s happened in the past 40 years.
Variety was always niche, catering to a very small readership, averaging 30,000 subscribers. It was basically a small-town newspaper but with global readers — movers and shakers in entertainment around the world. Now, thanks to Variety.com, global readership is vast and growing. And the brand, aka the new name for what was once simply “the paper,” is expanding on every platform, from original video series and TV specials to podcasts and glitzy live events.
And while Variety was morphing, so was the entertainment industry. When the publication began in 1905, the average person had access to a few hours of entertainment every week. Now it’s 24/7, ranging from Imax to your smartphone.
Here’s what I think is the most significant story we have carried in the past 40 years: the Betamax decision, when the Supreme Court ruled consumers had the right to use Sony’s Betamax videotape devices to record copyrighted programs that aired on television (there were only three networks, PBS and some local channels at the time). The Variety banner headline on Jan. 17, 1984, reflected the studios’ apoplexy: “Hollywood Loses to Betamax.”
Throughout recorded history, the entertainment-provider always had control of when and how a person would watch a movie, TV show, play or concert, whether it was at a theater, music venue or at home. After Betamax, audiences could control what they wanted to see and when, and every entertainment option since then — streaming, YouTube, DVR, etc. — traces back to that decision. After its initial horror, Hollywood soon found the way to harvest billions of dollars a year from home video sales.
Conditions at Variety when I signed on may sound primitive today. We used manual typewriters. There was constant smoking in the newsroom among an all-white, all-male staff. But we had something that is rare in the 21st century: time. I was lucky to have newspaper veterans who took the time to teach me how to write headlines, how to trim a story for maximum effect, how to search for hidden dangers when editing a story.
I interacted with people involved in Old Journalism and Old Showbiz (e.g., publicists who would hand-deliver press releases to the office). I think of myself as one of the links between them and the future. I hope that someday a current intern will eventually tell someone from another generation, “I worked with a guy who used a typewriter!”
My career took me from proofreader (a job that doesn’t exist today) to editor in chief to my current role as senior VP and awards editor, which includes extensive film-awards coverage. The work also has entailed writing a book “Variety: An Illustrated History,” about how Variety covered world events (the Titanic, WWII, the Cold War, civil rights, Arab Spring, et al.) since it began in 1905.
For giving me the job, I need to salute Tom Pryor, the editor at the time (who was not a nostalgic person but who mentioned covering the Broadway opening of “Show Boat” in 1927). Other major influences were editor in chief Peter Bart, who taught me more than I can possibly convey; and Jay Penske, chairman and CEO of Variety’s parent company, PMC. I was among the Variety honchos who met with our suitors back in 2012 after we’d been up for sale for four long and hard years. I’m convinced that if anyone else had bought us, Variety would have closed its doors within a few years. Jay is a smart businessman and a decent person.
So thanks to them and to many, many others.