End of an era for Daily Variety

Daily Variety has been a print publication for almost 80 years. Above, a Studio City newsstand has issues for sale.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Leslie Moonves has had the same morning routine for decades.

“The first thing I do after getting out of the shower is pick up Daily Variety and have a cup of coffee,” the CBS Corp. chief executive said. “It’s a 30-year habit.”

That habit is ending for Moonves and lots of other Hollywood power players, movie and television stars, producers and publicists and thousands of wannabes: Daily Variety is ceasing as a print publication after almost 80 years. Tuesday’s edition is its last.

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The decision shows that Daily Variety has had to grapple with the forces reshaping the industry it covers. Just as the entertainment business has had to adapt to changing media consumption habits, so have the outlets that cover it.

“They’re getting out of the buggy whip business,” said Stan Rosenfield, a veteran Hollywood publicist whose client list includes George Clooney and Robert De Niro.

So Variety is doing what all aging Hollywood stars do when they want to feel better about themselves: It’s getting an expensive makeover. The website has been redesigned and is now free to access. Starting next week, a revamped version of the 108-year-old weekly edition of Variety will make its debut.

The green-logo Daily Variety, the West Coast publication of the older red-logo weekly Variety, was long known for its catchy headlines and insider language such as “ankled” for an executive leaving a job and “boffo” for a big box-office result. Rising in importance as the film business came of age in Los Angeles and the music and TV businesses increasingly left New York, the trade delivered daily doses of box-office, ratings, casting and executive-shuffle news.

Daily Variety even became a Hollywood star itself. The paper often popped up in TV shows and movies, most recently having a cameo in the Oscar-winning “Argo.”

Getting a mention in Daily Variety was a sign that one had arrived. Moonves, who was an actor before becoming an executive, even once took out his own quarter-page ad to commemorate his guest-starring appearance on TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

“It was a huge investment in my future,” he cracked.

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With more readers getting their news from the Internet, the print version of Daily Variety has become passe and less profitable. Advertising revenue at the paper has dropped dramatically over the last several years, and a move to charge for Variety’s content online drove customers to the free websites of its chief rivals Deadline Hollywood and the Hollywood Reporter. Variety made about $6 million last year, a far cry from the more than $30 million it made in 2006.

“We were delivering a print product telling you stories you’ve already read on our website,” Variety Publisher Michelle Sobrino said. “Financially it didn’t make sense.”

Engineering the overhaul of Variety is Jay Penske, the 34-year-old son of auto parts billionaire Roger Penske, who acquired the publication last October for $25 million from Reed Elsevier. Penske first made a splash in Hollywood in 2009 when he spent several million dollars for, the entertainment industry blog edited by the hard-charging and vitriolic Nikki Finke.

Penske’s strategy with Variety is similar to the one employed by the Hollywood Reporter, which stopped publishing its daily print edition in 2010 in favor of a glossy weekly magazine and souped-up website.

Whereas the Hollywood Reporter tries to appeal to both show business insiders and those who love the glamour of Hollywood — a recent cover story was about stylists to the stars — Variety plans to keep its coverage focused sharply on the inner workings of the entertainment industry.

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“We want to dedicate ourselves to producing a print product that this industry wants to read,” Sobrino said. “You’re going to see Variety have a point of view and much deeper analysis.”

Sobrino has been giving sneak peeks of the new publication around town. So far it is getting a thumbs-up from those who have seen it.

“I get a sense that they are going to emphasize in-depth news stories and also increase their coverage of the digital space,” said John Solberg, a senior vice president at the News Corp.-owned cable channel FX. “It’s a nice layout, and the design really looks good.”

Good looks don’t guarantee a payoff. Although profits have shrunk at Variety, the daily edition was still able to command as much as $60,000 for an advertisement and had a circulation of 28,000. (The weekly Variety has a circulation of about 30,000.) Ads on its and rivals’ websites are much cheaper.

“That money has to be made up somewhere,” publicist Rosenfield said.

Sobrino thinks the new weekly publication will be able to carry the load. “We’re delivering a far superior product compared to anything we’ve ever delivered,” she said.

Variety has been beefing up its editorial staff both to make sure its website is competitive and to create fresh content for the magazine. Recent hires include Scott Foundas, the well-regarded film critic formerly of the Village Voice.

Although a case could be made for combining Variety and Deadline, since both are fighting for the same scoops and the same eyeballs, Sobrino said the two “will remain separate and distinct.”

Indeed, one would never know from reading that it and Variety are now owned by the same parent. Finke has never been shy about criticizing Variety and other Hollywood trades and when the plans to shut Daily Variety in favor of a bigger Web presence and the weekly magazine were unveiled, the story about it on Deadline bore the headline, “Can This Failing Trade Be Saved?”

Asked about Finke’s caustic coverage of Variety’s efforts to revitalize itself, Sobrino declined to comment.

Although much of Hollywood is now accustomed to getting its news on computers, tablets and phones, Wednesday will still be an adjustment for those used to starting their day with the industry’s last remaining trade daily.

“Being an old-timer, I still like to hold things in my hand,” Moonves said. “Now in the morning it’ll just be me and my BlackBerry.”


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