The “Journalistic Integrity” of VARIETY

In Daily Variety, editor Peter Bart talks about the disappearance of Michael Ovitz… as if anyone misses him. But the most interesting thing about the article is what it reveals about Variety’s editorial policy.

I argued that Variety would lend him the audience that he most wanted to reach, including, no doubt, some of the people he perceived as having brought down his company. Our paper would certainly not endorse Ovitz’s charges, but we could offer him a chance to vent. The decline and fall of Michael Ovitz, after all, was a damn good news story.

Understandably, he responded that Vanity Fair offered him a vastly wider audience. Over lunch at Ago one day, I decided to try one last tactic. “Look, Mike,” I said, “you’re out of control. You’re saying some wild things.”

“They’re all off the record,” he protested. “You and I have known each other a long time. I can speak freely…”

“If you say these things to Vanity Fair, they’ll kill you. If you want to do an interview in Variety, I will see to it that your direct quotes will be read back to you so you can verify their accuracy. You can’t, of course, read the article ahead of time.”

In other words, if Ovitz talked to Variety, they’d protect him, they’d make sure he wouldn’t say anything he’d regret later (how reading his quotes back to him is any different than reading him the article ahead of time is beyond me). The Ovitz-vetted article they would have written wouldn’t have been the scathing expose Vanity Fair wrote, it wouldn’t have truly depicted the “damn good news story” of Ovitz’s rise and fall. Bart would have seen to that…

A few days later I got word that he’d decided to talk to Vanity Fair. Predictably, the story contained all of the Ovitz “crazy talk” — the paranoid diatribes about the “Gay Mafia,” plus accusations against Eisner and against his lethal enemies (and former proteges) at CAA. “They wanted to kill me. If they could have taken my wife and kids, they would have…,” he ranted.

The net effect of all this was inevitable: Ovitz had punched all the self-destruct buttons it was possible to punch. He had instantly isolated himself from his Hollywood power base. He’d totally blown it.

In seeking out his story, was I trying to protect Ovitz from himself? I suppose so, on one level.

Gee, I wonder if Pete would do the same for me… or anybody else in The Industry who doesn’t have $100 million in his checking account. The editorial policy at Variety is clearly to kiss up to execs and stars and not say or do anything that could possibly offend or embarrass anyone in a position of power. Remember, Bart used to run a studio himself…and no Variety reporter wants to damage their chances to become a screenwriter or studio exec.

This is why nobody takes Variety seriously…and why the only real reporting about the Industry is done in the LA Times business section. There was a time when Variety was more than just a collection of press releases… when they did real reporting. But that time, sadly, seems to be long gone…

(If you want a clear example, just compare the stories the LA Times and Variety ran about Mindy Herman, the ex-CEO of E!)

Where No Writer Has Gone Before…

Gerald So reports on his blog…

In last night’s season finale, the Enterprise destroyed a key sphere, saving the Xindi homeworld in the Expanse while Captain Archer destroyed the Xindi superweapon that threatened Earth. Finally, in a Planet of the Apes-style turn, Enterprise ends up in the midst of WWII, with a badly burned Archer found by Nazi Germany. For the last shot, the camera pans up to a sinister blue-faced alien. Ooh.

Oh, indeed. This entire season has been a desperate effort to save the show itself from a UPN superweapon — cancellation. While the stories were better (its hard not to improve on exciting episodes like… “Capt Archer spends a night in sick bay worried about his dying dog”), most of the plots still felt like re-heated left-overs from previous Star Trek series. The attempts to sex the show up — with backrubs, showers, and a visit by a bisexual alien who “x-rays” humans with heavy petting — seemed to have been written by horny teenagers who’ve never been laid.

But the ratings stayed lousy, and the future must have looked bleak to the producers…why else end the season with a ridiculous nod to Planet of the Apes? My guess, and its strictly a guess,. is that they figured the show was over, anyway… so why not?

That’s why we blew up the hospital in a season finale of “Diagnosis Murder.” We didn’t think the show was coming back… (and if it did, I wanted to shoot new hospital stock footage and this was one way to force the studio to pay for it).

Hell, I would have preferred if all the Nazis *were* apes… at least it would have shown some cheeky humor on the producers’ part.

What’s more amazing is that network execs looked at this episode and said “hey, let’s do more!”

Actually, not really.

The studio that makes the show just happens to own the network.

A Scary Story by Madison Goldberg

My eight year old daughter Madison enjoys going to my signings so much, she’s decided to write books herself. Last year, she wrote, illustrated, published, signed and sold two books — “The Adventures of Kitty Wonder: Lots of Killing” and “The Adventures of Kitty Wonder: Robots Fighting” — at some of my signings for $1 each. She was thrilled.

She just wrote her first short story — one she warns will scare you TO DEATH — and insisted I post it here on my site. So lower the lights, grab a blanket to hide behind, and prepare yourself for:


There were two girls named Tia and Jenny. Tia had brown hair and was tall. Jenny was tall and had glasses. Jenny came for a sleepover at Tia’s. She arrived at five. Tia answered the doorbell. Tia and Jenny were playing for a very long time and then had a good dinner. It was time to go to bed. When they were in the cozy bed, Tia told scary stories!!

First she told one about Frankenstein who kills a little girl!!!! The story goes like this: “The night before Halloween, a little girl named Ally went in the cemetary.”

Tia paused, “If you want me to stop telling the story, it’s okay. I understand because my sister told me the same story and I got scared too!!”

Jenny said, “You can go on with the story.It’s not so scary.”

Tia went on with the story. “Ally went in the scary cemetary. She saw Frankenstein. She was screaming for a minute. Suddenly Frankenstein killed Ally by ripping her in half and all the blood came out of her body. Frankenstein went to his house near the swamp. He went in this big tunnel carrying Ally. Frankenstein brought Ally dead, with all the blood dripping on the hot ground. Frankenstein saw all his friends, Ghost, Goblin, and Pumpkin. Frankenstein put her in a big pot to cook her and have her for dinner. Frankenstein and his friends were playing and they just let Ally sit there being cooked. Frankenstein and their friends were looking for dessert.Since their friend Pumpkin is a pumpkin, Frankenstein and his friends caught him and made pumpkin pie for dessert!! Frankenstein and his friends went to check on Ally the dead girl. Ghost got out the napkins and the forks, spoons and plates. Ally the dead girl with her blood made a terrific sauce for…. Ally The Meat!!!!!!! The monsters had a–“

Jenny stopped the story and said “Please, stop this story, I am getting too scared.”

Tia said, “It’s okay, don’t be scared, if you want me to stop telling the story, I will.”

Tia’s Mom said “It’s time for Jenny to go home.”

Tia said “Okay.”

Jenny gathered all her stuff and said bye to Tia. She walked out the door and left. They both had a very fun time. But Jenny was still scared!!!!


Selling Yourself

I sent an email to my editor the other day, listing the events I’ve got scheduled to promote my book and the ones in the works. He wrote me back saying how pleased and impressed he was that I was working so hard to support the book.

I can’t imagine an author who wouldn’t do the same thing… but, apparently, there are.

The way I look at it, writing the book is only half the job… you have to sell it to. Unless you’re already a bestselling author, or can afford a high-powered publicist, you have to go out there and sell yourself.

A lot of people cringe at the idea. Sell myself? How tacky.

The idea of promoting yourself, of actually selling your work, can make some authors hyperventilate.

But if you want your books to sell, you have to write booksellers, call booksellers, go out and meet booksellers… months before your novel actually comes out. You need to convince them, first and foremost, the stock your book… and then, perhaps, invite you in for a signing.

If you’re a new author, or a mid-list author like myself, you probably ask yourself why anyone would bother booking you for a signing. Who the hell is going to come to see me? I’m not Elmore Leonard.

But I learned a valuable lesson years ago… it’s not the books you sell at your signing that counts, but the books that are sold in the days and weeks after you leave. And you can’t beat the advertising a signing gives your books… without an event scheduled, you’re just six copies, spine out, on a shelf among thousands of other titles in the store. If the store is having you for a signing, you get a highly visible display of dozens of books, cover out, for days in advance of your appearannce… as well as days afterward. Think of it as in-store advertising. You will stand out in a way you wouldn’t without booking the event, whether a single person shows up or not. More importantly, you will get to know the bookseller who, if you’re lucky, will like you and your novel enough to recommend it to shoppers ie “hand-sell” it to customers.

I did a signing once where no one showed up… I sat in the store for two hours chatting with the owners and signed all the stock. A month later, they drop-shipped another box of books for me to sign… they’d sold out of their stock. (Of course, you want people to show up… that’s the best thing of all!)

It isn’t enough to simply schedule a signing… you have to let people know it’s happening. You need to promote yourself as well as sell yourself. Especially now, in this rough publishing climate. That means sending out mailings… establishing a website… and sending out press releases.

You also need to just get out there and network… that means going conventions, book festivals, and events in your genre (MWA events if you’re a mystery writer, for example).

Of course, you can go to far… and get the rep as a blatant self promoting whore. It’s a fine line… but one any writer who hopes to stay in print has to walk.

The Long Report

Rob Long is a sitcom writer who also wrote the amusing novel CONVERSATIONS WITH MY AGENT a few years back. Now’s he’s got a radio gig that could be very interesting for folks curious about the TV biz…

New commentators during the NPR’s All Things Considered & Weekend Edition.

June 2nd, meet veteran TV writer Rob Long. Each week he’ll share a behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood life with Martini Shot — a four-minute weekly commentary heard during KCRW’s broadcast of NPR’s All Things Considered. It will air Wednesdays at 6:44 pm, beginning June 2nd. Rob Long’s career began as a writer on the long-running TV sitcom, “Cheers” and he served as co-executive producer in its final season. He production company is currently based at Paramount Studios. He’s a contributing editor of National Review, and Newsweek International and writes occasionally for the Wall Street Journal.


My latest DIAGNOSIS MURDER novel, “The Shooting Script,” is coming out on August 3, so I am starting to line up signings and speaking engagements. Here’s the schedule so far, with more in the works…

Saturday, Aug. 7, 2:30 pm Mysteries to Die For, Thousand Oaks, CA
Wednesday, Aug 25, Rossmoor Auditorium, Walnut Creek CA (more info to come)
August 27-29, 2004 East of Eden Conference, Salinas, CA Keynote Speaker, Panel Participant
Saturday, Sept. 18, 10-4 pm Men of Mystery, Irvine, CA
Sunday, Oct. 3, 2 pm Sisters In Crime, South Pasadena Public Library
Oct. 7-10, Bouchercon 2004 Toronto

Van Helsing Slays Itself

Long before VAN HELSING was even released, Universal was already treating it as if it was a boxoffice phenomenon, planning movie sequels and even an NBC TV series called TRANSYLVANIA.

Then the movie was released.

Here’s the thing about exploiting a big hit movie… it needs to be a big hit movie first. It also helps if the movie is good.

Now Variety is reporting that the ambitious plans for the VAN HELSING-inspired TV series have been scrapped.

“Transylvania” may live– but don’t look for it at NBC.
Nine months ago, the Peacock pacted with Universal Network Television for “Transylvania,” a drama set in the universe of Universal Pictures’ “Van Helsing” and exec produced by Stephen Sommers. Hopes were high that a pilot would be in this month’s upfront lineup and that the nascent series could benefit from a summer’s worth of movie promos.

It turns out, however, that NBC quietly cooled on “Transylvania” just a few months after the project was announced

Network execs claim the decision has nothing to do with the fact VAN HELSING was a boxoffice dud and a critical bomb (because, as we know, networks clamor to do TV series based flop movies.. THE NEW ADVENTURES OF GIGLI is going to be big at ABC, don’t you think?)

“The box office has no bearing whatsoever on our plans to move forward or not,” says NBCU entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker. “It’s a creative decision based on content and concept. We just want to make sure it has the right network home.”

“Transylvania” may still walk among us: Other networks outside the NBC U universe are said to be interested in the show.

We’ll keep our eyes open for it on PAX.

I Should Have Gone in the Furniture Business

My late grandfather always thought I was foolish to be a writer. The job market was too uncertain. Furniture, he said, was a safer bet. “Everybody has to sit,” he liked to say. According to an article in Variety about the current TV season, I probably should have listened to his advice. The networks are programming fewer comedies and more reality show…and scrapping the practice of airing primetime repeats (goodbye fat residuals!) on anything that doesn’t have CSI or LAW AND ORDER in the title…

For one thing, replacing repeats with original fare is going to add tens of millions to the nets’ programming budgets. But webheads figure they have no choice: If they don’t do something to stop audience erosion, they’ll ultimately lose far more due to declining ad revenue.

All of this comes as more bad news for TV’s beleaguered scribe tribe, particularly those who toil on sitcoms.

It’s become a cliche to bemoan the fall of the funny, but the numbers tell the story: For the upcoming, the nets have scheduled just 36 sitcoms — down nearly one-third from 50 last fall.

“Comedy is in a challenged state,” admits NBC Entertainment topper Kevin Reilly. “The best way to get comedy on the schedule right now is to keep it off in the short term.”

Combine that with a rise in reality skeins — as well as several new primetime improv laffers — and it’s a safe bet that agents all over town this week will be scrambling to find work for a slew of scribes. By one estimate, there’ll be 100 fewer staff positions available for sitcom writers.

The picture is a little rosier for drama writers… but not by much. Staffs are smaller, and more and more primetime real estate is owned by the same folks… (have I mentioned CSI and LAW AN ORDER?) who hired from within their own camps. The trend in drama is also to recruit the screenwriter of last summers big tentpole movie or cheapo horror film hit and give them a series… and pair the TV newbie with a wizened old timer (someone say in their early 40s) to help them run the show… and deal with the devastating realization there are actually 21 more episodes to write after the pilot.

I’m hedging my bets by writing books as well as TV shows…but books dont pay nearly as well as TV, unless you’re in the Connelly-Grisham-Grafton-Evanovich ballpark.

Maybe I should invest in a furniture store after all….

Flop Pilots

I’m fascinated by flop pilots…I have been since I was nine, when I started writing my book UNSOLD TELEVISION PILOTS. That fascination hasn’t ended now that I’m an adult and in the business myself. Zap2it was kind enough to do an overview of some of the high-profile unsold pilots this season…

“Jessica” (ABC, comedy): Simpson’s media assault was to have continued in this show, where she would have played a bubble-headed pop star-turned-correspondent for an “Access Hollywood”-like show. Proving that ABC just has issues with that family, the network shunned “Hot Mom,” in which husband Nick Lachey co-starred with Gina Gershon. ABC opted instead to order a few more variety specials featuring Nick and Jessica pretending to be themselves.

“The Catch” (ABC, drama): Greg Grunberg (“Alias”) was to have starred as a bounty hunter in this long-in-development midseason show from J.J. Abrams, with Orlando Jones and Don Rickles co-starring. It sounded like a good idea to us, but the fact that “Alias” got pushed back to January may have something to do with it getting bounced.

“Dark Shadows” (WB, drama): Maybe The WB didn’t want to put another vampire show on the air right after canceling “Angel.” Or maybe it was too expensive. Whatever the reason, it’s a bit of a surprise that this show, produced by “ER” maven John Wells and starring Martin Donovan, Marley Shelton and Blair Brown didn’t make the schedule.

“The Robinsons: Lost in Space” (WB, drama): The WB paid big bucks for the rights to this remake and hired John Woo to help the pilot. Either the pilot didn’t seem to have the young adult male appear the network was craving, or else it looked like a potential franchise bomb in the “Birds of Prey” or “Tarzan” mold.

“Beck and Call” (UPN, drama): Set in the fashion world and starring Vanessa L. Williams, “Beck and Call” was for a time rumored to be in line to get paired with “America’s Next Top Model” on UPN’s schedule. Instead, the network went with “Kevin Hill,” leaving this Lisa Kudrow-produced pilot in the cold.

“Sudbury” (CBS, drama): Kim Delaney and Jeri Ryan play beautiful women who are also witches? It’s like “Passions” for primetime. Or it’s like “Practical Magic” for the small screen (complete with producers Denise DiNovi and Sandra Bullock). Up until the days before the CBS upfront, it was considered at least a favorite for a midseason slot. Instead, Delaney will get the chance to appear on the final season of “NYPD Blue.”

“Untitled Andrew Secunda Project” (UPN, comedy) and “Untitled Tarses/Wrubel Project” (NBC, comedy): We’re not sure that either comedy really sounded like a good idea, but without “Buffy” and “Angel,” we need a dose of actors from the Whedon-verse. However, these two comedies — starring Charisma Carpenter and Alyson Hannigan — failed to make their network cuts.

The fact is, the vast majority of pilots made in any given season are scrapped… never to be broadcast. There were 120 pilots shot this season, of which maybe thirty will get picked up as series. Of those thirty series, maybe five will survive to celebrate their first birthdays…

Even more pilots never make it past the script stage… among those this season were two of ours… “The Cleaner” for NBC and “Proof” for Lifetime. But there’s hope… several of the pilots this season were rejected scripts from last season, including NBC’s “LAX” (which was picked up as a series), Fox’s “Mr. Ed,” ABC’S “Gramercy Park” and CBS’s “Ricki Lake” sitcom.

So there’s hope… today’s flop pilots can become next year’s flop pilots, too.