"The Trades" - looking back at a magical but competitive time

  
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(Today’s edition comes with an audio edition! Listen to today’s nine-minute story by clicking the play tab above.)

A quick diversion from photography and my recent dive into family history today to take a minute and marvel at a news bite from this week. (There is a photo angle, but you’ll need to read all the way through to get there. Bear with me!)

Newsflash! Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the two longtime Hollywood trade publications, are now corporate siblings.

Wow! This is like Coke swallowing Pepsi. Or Toyota bringing Nissan into the fold. Hard to believe. The company that owns Variety snapped up THR as well. Read on and you’ll see why I think this is such a huge deal.

As you may or may not know, at an earlier time in my life, I was a THR reporter, at a time when Variety was king and THR was a very weak, No. 2. Competition was fierce, unlike anything I ever experienced anywhere else, at any other time.

Like heart-thumping, every morning intense.

Each night I would go to sleep, hoping I wouldn’t be scooped in the morning. I’d wake up, and that’s all I could still think about, with a pit in my stomach, on the drive into Hollywood.

I’d arrive to the offices on Sunset Blvd., in-between Hollywood High and the Corners of the World building, breathing heavily, and immediately grabbing what was awaiting me, on my desk. The latest issue of Daily Variety, already marked up in red pencil. The stories that were on my beat were highlighted, and the subtext was simple: why didn’t you have this too?

Because Variety and THR were so competitive, the Variety reporters told their sources that if they “gave” their story to us, they wouldn’t be noted in the Show-Biz Bible. And Variety played really hard. Sometimes, they gave an inch, and agreed to note the story. It would appear on the next to last page, as a two-to-four paragraph short.

It was that rough.

Variety, of course had the storied history that created such pieces of slang as the words “Boffo,” (for great) “Biopic,” (biography) and “Nix” (for reject.) The famous headline “Sticks Nix Hick Pix,” was immortalized in the George M. Cohan biopic, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” THR had the Rambling Reporter (and the late Robert Osborne before he became….that Robert Osborne.)

A Variety front page article, a mention in Army Archerd’s column, those were the places Hollywood power wanted to be. THR was an afterthought, but one they indeed wanted as well.

The two Trade papers had small circulations of around 15,000 each. But talk about influencers! Every subscriber was the ultimate influencer, from studio chiefs, to network heads, show buyers and schedulers, producers and other industry “pros” who wanted to be in the know.

My phone rang every morning between 9 a.m. and 9:15 with an intensity I never would see anywhere else in my career. Ever. The feedback was amazing and instantaneous, and the screaming was at high-level decibels.

My job was to get an exclusive. Or at least the same story, day and date.

My competitor was a crusty reporter, now deceased, named Morrie Gelman. He was a veteran with the best Rolodex in town, or so it seemed to me. I was young and learned on the job, by going to lunch with sources every day, and attending every industry function there was.

I didn’t care about anyone else than Morrie. If the LA Times got a scoop, it was irrelevant. If Time or Newsweek wrote about something, it was old news. Variety was all that mattered to me.

THR was founded in 1930 by Billy Wilkerson, a one-time owner of the Ciro’s nightclub on the Sunset Strip as his answer to Variety, which had begun in 1905 as a New York based weekly chronicler of vaudeville and theater. The L.A. version, “Daily” Variety, started up in 1933.

The trades were mostly about casting news, executive appointments, labor updates and “slate” stories. Like that Paramount was set to produce 8 new films in the coming year. It would go on to name them, and the attached producers and talent. But it was the exec appointments that were the lifeblood, because it told our subscribers who was in, and who was out. In other words, whom could they call on?

My beat was home video and pay TV, two areas that were brand new, at a time when new channels like MTV and Disney Channel were launching. HBO was becoming a force in Hollywood, and the studios hated them back then. I reported that, and HBO despised me.

I went out to lunch every day, pulling up to the valet in my white, beaten up and really dirty Mazda that was covered head to toe with bumper stickers. I arrived to fancy places like the Polo Lounge, Brown Derby, Jimmy’s, the Palm and other long gone industry hang-outs because that’s where the people I interviewed wanted to meet. Even with the THR/Variety rivalry, plenty of people were happy to talk to me. I just couldn’t reach the top caliber as often as Variety did.

Meanwhile, things were pretty crazy in the newsroom. Gina, Rena and Tina were three of the reporters, and every time one of their names was called out, they all turned and said, “Yes?”

One of the sales associates, Pat, was all over the newsroom, daily, urging us to cozy up to her advertisers and write glowing pieces about them. Especially during AFM time. AFM was the American Film Market, and it was a venue where cheap independent movies were brokered in suites at a Sunset Strip hotel. Producers got attention for their shlocky titles by buying full page ads in THR.

Menahem Golan and his Cannon Films was our benefactor. I didn’t write about movies. But I wrote about Menahem. It was mandatory. He was a big advertiser. He paid our salaries. (Some of his films included titles like “Hospital Massacre” and “Enter the Ninja,” along with some “Death Wish” sequels and a Sylvester Stallone vehicle about arm wrestling called “Over the Top.”

My first editor was fired after the publisher’s daughter requested to have her boyfriend installed as editor instead. They married a year later, and when they returned from the honeymoon, the publisher fired her new son-in-law.

No reason given.

I left soon after.

In recent times, THR engineered what seemed to be an amazing comeback, investing millions, switching from daily publication to online focus and producing a once a week glossy magazine that was like Vanity Fair with more of an industry bent.

Variety, meanwhile, lost its muscle and took a backseat to the two hot online “trades” of the internet era, Deadline and TheWrap. Meanwhile, all that money THR spent on expansion wasn’t paying off. The company had some big layoffs earlier this year, and now, it’s part of the Penske Media Group. Which also owns Deadline and Billboard too. The only independent left is TheWrap.

It’s all so sad. But at least the THR reporters don’t have to endure having their rivals stories circled anymore.

P.S. And speaking of the photo angle

In keeping with the Photowalk theme of this newsletter, where are my great photos of the newsroom?

I can only find one roll of Black & White Tri-X that was snapped during this time period, on a contact sheet. First of all, shame on me, for not being more proactive.

But look at how far we’ve come folks! Back then, you had a choice of pro-level 35mm cameras, which were hard to operate for most people. “Disposable” cardboard cameras began appearing in the 1980s, but they were only used for special occasions and places with great light.

So for everyday life, most of us never bothered. Compare that to now, where everyone you know has a camera in their pocket, and you can ask anyone to grab a shot of you with no issues.

And the smartphone cameras are so good, they can shoot in pretty much any kind of light.

Still, I would have loved to illustrate this post with historical images from the newsroom. For those of you reading, who may be in this position in a few years, some friendly words of advice. Take more photos, and back them up!

Song of the Week

Who’s a fan of “Dream a Little Dream of Me?” It’s one of my favorites to play on the guitar. Any requests for next time?

Today’s morning beach photo

Until next time, thanks as always for going down memory lane with me. If you enjoyed today’s newsletter, please let me know with a heart or a reply.

Jeff