A H’wood fanzine bites tinsel dust

Inevitable perhaps — with the pressure of market forces and fattening competition, Variety will not be the spice of entertainment any more. News reports have screamed that Hollywood’s quintessential trade magazine is up for sale.
Alas! Another one bites the tinsel dust, despite its uncluttered layouts, smart reporting and the bankable movie reviews. It’s circulated among the Indian trade wallahs to a degree but is a must-subscribe anywhere for those curious about the who’s, why, and where in global showbiz. It is believed that it is read in as many as 60 countries.
Signs of stress were evident nearly a decade ago. Two of Variety’s top executives, sensing the spiralling importance of Bollywood films among NRI viewers overseas, approached an annual award event — Filmfare — for synergy. Result: A one-off splashy champagne do at the Taj Mahal Hotel’s capacious ballroom. Senior actors were honoured. Earlier in the day, the two execs had wondered if there could be more regular reviews of the new B-wood releases, and generally more zestful India-centric reports and analyses. When I mentioned The Hollywood Reporter, another trade magazine, offering killer competition to Variety, they had balked, “Oh, so you guys are aware of that!”
I never saw the executives again despite their Schwarzenegger-like threat, “We’ll be back.” From the look and sound of things, I may not see the printed version of Variety for too long. Sad. The mirror to Hollywood since 1905 has cracked. Incidentally its “slanguage” or inventive “Varietyese” was just one of its abundant pleasures. It called audiences “auds”, performance “perfs” and super-successful movies “boffo hits”. Its vintage headlines are legendary. Take two of them: when the stock market crashed in 1929, the front page of Variety screamed “Wall St Lays an Egg.” And when rural audiences began to thin out of village-themed pictures, the headline went, “Sticks Nix Hick Pix.”
Legend goes that Variety carried the first film review ever known to mankind way back in January 19, 1907, of a silent picture. So all those who carp about critics now know whom to blame. Coming to its full-page movie ads, an issue thickens considerably during the Oscar season, with hopefuls reminding jury members of their products, with the meek caption, “For your consideration”.
Undoubtedly, the early issues of Variety ooze nostalgia. Ditto another genre — ye olde fanzines of yore — which have now become a collector’s item. Hollywood fanzines would be displayed prominently at select newspaper stalls in the metros. Former royalty and helloo-society circles wouldn’t miss an issue. In fact, the fanzines even served as templates for the Indian movie magazines spawned during the 1950s-70s. None of Hollywood’s first bunch of fanzines has survived: Photoplay shut its shop in 1980 after wowing readers for 69 years, its most memorable columns being the vitriolic “Under Hedda’s Hat” and “Sylvia’s catty beauty tips”.
Its covers were coveted by every studio and star. And it was Photoplay which initiated the awards system, kicking off with a single honour — a gold medal to the producer of the year’s best film. The number of awards increased slowly till the Academy Awards arrived. Photoplay didn’t grumble about the intrusion; it celebrated it with exclusive photographs of the Oscar ceremonies. Sound thinking.
There was Movieland, too, which strived to be more homely and friendly but could never quite achieve the class or reach of Photoplay. And there was the aunty of them all, Screen Stories, which chose to speak and see no evil. It essentially outlined the plots of upcoming movies, punctuated with exclusive stills. After being around for nearly four decades, out it went in the Seventies. Readers didn’t want to know plot mechanics any more. In any case stories were no longer what they used to be, with the trend setting in of action and disaster flicks, led by The Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno.
Exposure to American and British (Sight and Sound) magazines have been a part of my film education. Today, there are Entertainment Weekly and Premiere which are high-profile, super glossy and packed with infotainment. And of course, there are a countless number of Internet sites to surf and get accustomed to. It’s all easy to access and infinitely cheaper on the wallet. Still that thrill of smelling the paper, smiling at a headline and soaking in a review from Variety can never be equalled. Sigh.

The writer is a journalist, film critic and film director

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