PUBLISHER JOHN KILCULLEN KEPT SAYING for months and months he was looking for a “big, big name” to be The Hollywood Reporter’s new editor, a personality whose mere presence could stop the death rattle of the morale-challenged show-biz daily after a string of staff bloodbaths and betrayals. He even delusionally told job candidates he wanted someone “along the lines of Ken Auletta,” The New Yorker’s CEO pornmeister.
Kilcullen wasn’t joking. But it does seem like a mockery of the process that he’s now hired Elizabeth Guider, a spectacularly unimpressive choice who was passed over and demoted at Variety. (And Kilcullen inexplicably needed to hire not one but two high-priced executive search firms to choose an editor who was right under his nose.) In summary, this looks to be far less of a get and more like an also-ran.
What’s even more amusing about Guider’s selection is that she helped to worsen THR’s death rattle. While a Variety soldier, she regularly trashed the rival trade at every public opportunity, like at one USC entertainment-industry confab composed of show-biz journalists from the Los Angeles Times and the trades. “Everyone was surprised by the verbal grenades and utter contempt she had for The Hollywood Reporter.And it is all on camera,”an eyewitness recalled.“Good thing the trades don’t do TV ads.” Another insider told me, “Elizabeth over the years was particularly outspoken in her competitive feelings about THR. So this really is the loyal general switching armies.”
Guider’s selection continues the increasing “Variety-zation” of THR. It began with parent company Nielsen Business Media’s hiring of Variety publishing bigwig Gerry Byrne as a consultant, as well as Variety veterans Eric Mika as senior VP and publishing director, and Rose Einstein in the role of VP and associate publisher. How sad that the Reporter refuses to aim higher. But this is more of what I and everyone else have come to expect from the cultlike trades who ferociously guard their insularity and rarely allow new blood to infiltrate.
“It’s basically the same five people at the top. All they do is migrate from one trade to another and back again,” one vet of the trade wars remarked. Back in the trenches is Byrne, who retired as group vice president of Variety and Daily Variety after 11 years in that post and is now a so-called senior adviser to Nielsen, THR’s owner. “He’s the secret power with no official title calling the shots,” an insider described. I’m told it was Byrne’s behind-the-scenes handiwork that helped recruit the Reporter’s recent trio of ex-Variety reinforcements.
Among the 40 or so candidates for editor on Kilcullen’s original list was one-time THR editor Alex Ben Block (eager for another go-round), New York Times Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman (who had no editing experience), NYT movie editor turned Hollywood correspondent Michael Cieply (anxious to leverage the gig), THR freelancer Stephen Galloway (in search of a higher-profile slot), Los Angeles Times business writer Claudia Eller (older, wiser and uninterested in shaking up her career), ex-Variety staffer turned blogger Tom Tapp, and L.A. Times senior Calendar editor Lennie LaGuire (who appeared to be the leading candidate after she took the recent Times buyout).
But Kilcullen made clear to everyone inside the biz that he was looking for a softball editor to maintain the status quo, which consists of reporters never asking pesky questions of the paper’s advertisers and always running press releases exactly as written. As a result, Guider is not the firebrand sort to even try to retool the trades’ legendary type of journalism, which perpetuates show-biz spin and lies in order to prop up Hollywood’s most powerful.
Of course, Guider is not without her defenders who say she’s liked and respected. “At least she’s a mature woman who really knows the business, so I can’t argue with her selection,” one insider told me. “She’s a good journalist and a good human being.” But others maintain she’s an editorial lightweight despite her many years of experience, and claim her profile at Variety, while once high, had been lowered recently. She was long loyal to Peter Bart (he liked to call her by the nickname “Guido” while staffers called her “Blanche,” after Blanche DuBois, because of her Southern accent), and she often acted as his newsroom spy. Yet in 2005 Bart named a successor — and passed over her in favor of Tim Gray for Variety’s editor. Guider also moved off the important in-the-line-of-fire job of executive editor to the amorphous out-of-the-line-of-fire position of editor at large.
Guider’s expertise in the international arena, especially in overseas TV markets, is what sold her to The Hollywood Reporter, which yearns to be the international trade. Indeed, the PR announcement said she was hired to lead strategic editorial direction globally. But why? As one trade insider told me, “Of international, which they keep making such a huge deal about, there is little ad revenue and a lot of expense outside of the Cannes and Venice film festivals and MIP [the TV world conference and market]. Europeans do not buy the kind of advertising that is run out of this market. Different mindset: It’s like pulling teeth, and they all want deals.”
Instead, the Reporter, like Variety, makes 50 percent of its revenue from those annoying congratulatory-type ads, and 40 percent from those laughable Academy Awards “For Your Consideration” blowjobs, part of the $50 million award-lobbying ad market long dominated by the trades — which The New York Times and Los Angeles Times and now blogs are trying to infiltrate. “If it’s a weak season as it was last year, they suffer,” the expert explained. The only upside for the paper is its inventive imagination for new categories of business, including its seemingly endless appetite for special issues, no matter how unappealing the individual being glorified. For instance, Hollywood denizens had some bile with their morning coffee and THR recently when the publication straight-facedly honored Jon Peters with an “Icon” profile (which should be renamed, simply, “Ick”).
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But with little film experience, and even less digital knowledge, Guider could be handicapped. Online advertising is starting to get a foothold at the trades, especially during awards time, so Internet strategy is key to the future of both papers. But as her one-time colleague Tom Tapp recalls: “THR needs a visionary, and Elizabeth was never that at Variety. She was a hard-working managing editor type who kept the presses moving and often referred to computers and BlackBerrys as ‘gizmos.’ That hardly seems the mindset required to lead a print publication into the digital age.”
Guider gamely takes on the Reporter at a time when it’s still profitable but also losing the trades war. THR’s yearlong turmoil has unsettled Hollywood with its near-constant executive and editorial upheavals. (One trade wag likened the firings and layoffs to “picking people off with a shotgun from a water tower rather than gassing them all at once.”) The nadir came in March when the Reporter’s respected and recently promoted editor Cynthia Littleton grabbed a lesser position at Variety, which implied desperation.
None of the studios or networks or agencies want to see this become a one-trade town since Variety is arrogant enough already and even more money hungry than the Reporter, if that’s possible. (Within minutes of Jack Valenti’s death, Variety ad salespeople were inappropriately hitting up the studios for big ads in a special memorial touted as devoid of all editorial content — a first in people’s memories.) The result is that the town hoped theopen editor slot would be filled soon, and filled well. Kilcullen failed.
The only question now is how long before Hollywood sees the secondary trade as just a punch line.?