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From ‘it’ read to has-been

Times Staff Writer

Its stars were ruthless agents and powerful moguls, temperamental actors and megalomaniacal directors. It told stories of troubled productions and exploding box office to a readership of industry insiders, cineastes and a general public that seemed riveted by it all.

In its glory years -- from the late ‘80s to the mid-'90s -- nobody got Hollywood better than Premiere magazine.

But with the proliferation of entertainment coverage in the media -- including Entertainment Weekly, Us Weekly and paparazzo-driven celebrity websites -- Premiere lost its cachet.

So when it was announced this week by Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. that Premiere would shut down its print operation (it will still have an online component), there was sadness and nostalgia, but not surprise.

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Premiere reflected the industry it covered, an industry now in flux, uncertain of where it is headed, its flamboyance gradually being suffocated by corporate decisions over creative visions. The magazine chronicled the mushrooming influence of Michael Ovitz and Creative Artists Agency, the battles between Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein and Disney’s Michael Eisner, and larger-than-life Hollywood personalities such as producers Don Simpson, Brian Grazer and Joel Silver.

Today’s entertainment media are obsessed with celebrity scandal. Who wants another profile on CAA when Britney Spears is shaving her head and Anna Nicole Smith is dead? Premiere’s stable of writers went after different kinds of stories, unearthing nuggets about the men and women who make the movies, writing revealing accounts of visits to movie sets or runaway production budgets.

“Sometimes it does seem that that sort of excitement of the transforming power of movies has passed,” said Howard Karren, who spent two lengthy stints at Premiere as an editor.

Launched in 1987, the monthly magazine, with offices in Los Angeles and New York, was originally published by Rupert Murdoch.

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Its circulation had dropped some in recent years, from about 600,000 to 500,000.

Aggressive reporting

Peter Biskind, who spent a decade at Premiere as executive editor under founding editor Susan Lyne and went on to write bestselling books about Hollywood, such as “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” said one of the reasons the magazine was so good in its early days was because “we weren’t beholden to the studios. That gave us a lot of freedom to do hard-hitting, in-depth reporting.”

“Somehow, when we were covering [the making of] ‘Titanic,’ it was a huge deal that the budget went north of $200 million,” recalled Nancy Griffin, onetime deputy editor who is now West Coast editor of AARP the Magazine. “But now it seems like fatigue has set in. I heard recently that ‘Spider-Man 3' cost a huge amount, but I don’t know if anybody can get all exercised.”

In a pre-Internet world, Premiere would often break stories. “It’s amazing to imagine, but if a director was fired off a project or if something became an ‘Alan Smithee’ film [a term used to describe a director who has his name removed from the credits] ... you’d only read about it first in Premiere,” said Chris Connelly, a former editor at Premiere who today works as a correspondent for ESPN and contributing correspondent for ABC’s “20/20" and was last seen providing celebrity-laden red-carpet and backstage commentary at the Oscars.

Connelly credits Lyne with changing the way movie magazines wrote about the industry. Up to that point, movie magazines were designed for readers to imagine they were movie stars or dating movie stars. “The magazine came up with a fantasy zone that could be expanded. You could be the director, the development person, you could be the agent.”

The Hollywood power list is now a popular staple at movie publications, but they copied it from Premiere. Being ranked on Premiere’s annual power list was so coveted that publicists threw fits if their clients were left off -- or ranked too low. John H. Richardson, now a writer at large for Esquire, was on the team that compiled those early power lists at Premiere.

“The first couple of years it was a big deal,” Richardson recalled. “It was hilarious because we would go around and meet every studio head and we’d buy them a ridiculous amount of sushi. We had lunch with Ovitz in his private little dining room at CAA at a time when [lunching with him] was supposed to make your head spin. And we’d lunch with Peter Guber in his private dining room at Sony attended by his personal chef. People would scramble to get on the power list. It got us tremendous access in terms of gossip and what is going on.”

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It’s all about power

Things got so crazy that one time, Richardson recalled, “a very successful producer asked me, ‘What would you do if somebody offered you $50,000 to be higher on the list?’ ”

Kim Masters, who with Griffin co-wrote the book “Hit and Run,” about the turbulent Guber-Jon Peters era at Sony, joined Premiere in 1988. She worried at first that Premiere “would be kind of a fawning magazine that would flatter the brilliance of the executives in the industry” but found her worries short-lived when they published a piece she wrote about CAA’s Ovitz making a big fuss at the Palm because he objected to some agency defectors having four front booths at the restaurant.

In an e-mail this week to The Times, Ovitz said that if any such incident did occur, it was long ago and he doesn’t remember it, adding: “It’s hard to believe that with all that’s going on in the world, anybody would be interested in this.”

Those early years were a heady time for Premiere. Lyne sent Masters to London to cover the hush-hush making of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” even though the studio was refusing to cooperate.

Biskind went off to do an investigative report on the Sundance Film Festival. The magazine did oral histories on iconic films such as “Chinatown” and “Jaws.”

“There was an audience for people who wanted to know how things were made,” Karren said. “It wasn’t about gossip. It wasn’t about scandal. It was really designed for mainstream readers who wanted to know what happened and what you saw.”

Lyne, who today is president and chief executive of Martha Stewart Omnimedia, was traveling this week in the Far East but sent an e-mail commenting on why she thinks Premiere achieved such success out of the starting gate:

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“Premiere was really born as a result of the VCR. Suddenly, there was an adult audience for movies -- good movies, not just popcorn movies. With that came an interest in people behind the camera and in all the workings behind the scenes.”

After Lyne’s departure, Connelly became editor in chief in early 1996, and Griffin was his deputy editor. But the two top editors abruptly resigned in May of that year after publisher Hachette Filipacchi’s then president and chief executive, David Pecker, gave Connelly an order to kill Premiere’s California Suite column about Planet Hollywood, a celebrity-themed restaurant chain that had ties to billionaire Revlon owner Ronald Perelman, who was half owner of Premiere.

The order was the last straw in a series of decisions that Connelly and Griffin felt compromised the integrity of the magazine.

These included a request to publish a picture of Revlon models in a page of Oscar party coverage and the placing of Perelman’s then wife, Patricia Duff, on the masthead as editor at large. Pecker, in interviews at the time, denied the magazine was acting under any kind of pressure from Perelman.

Changing dynamics in the publishing industry helped doom Premiere. But the movie business itself also was changing.

“I think movies are going through a painful transitional period,” said Masters, who is now a correspondent for National Public Radio. “Studios are trying to figure out how to function in the digital world. I have to think the mogul classes today are not as attractive and larger-than-life. Eisner. Barry Diller. These were big characters who were running the studios. They were not so much suits as they are today. They were business guys, but they still had that old Hollywood [swagger]. They were not little cogs in giant machines.”

Now, she noted, the studio chiefs are more corporate and less outlaw.

And Premiere magazine has folded -- to be replaced by an expanded emphasis on the Web.

On March 18, former staffers will hold Premiere’s Irish wake, hoisting a glass to the power lists and players of what now seems a long gone era.

robert.welkos@latimes.com


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