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$400,000 won’t buy you a good review from Variety, but it will kill a bad one…

Far be it for us to gloat over the misfortune of a major industry publication, but this story of Oscar ‘payola’ caught my eye. Basically Variety has been accused of pulping a bad review for a film which provided the magazine with $400,000 worth of advertising revenue. The film is Iron Cross – don’t worry that you haven’t heard of the would-be Oscar contender. It’s only really claim to awards prestige is that it offered the last performance of Roy Schneider. However, that $400,000 has gone along way – a lot of film nerds now know all about the film, which wasn’t on the radar last week.

Variety sold

The story is essentially that the studio behind the film saw an opportunity after Schneider’s death to push the film for awards gold. They began pumping money into Variety, the industry magazine, for those “For Your Consideration” advertisements. Given that apparently the cost of an Oscar campaign is about $5,000,000, I’d argue they got off cheap – though that may explain why the film isn’t on anybody’s radar.

The other reason may simply be that it’s not very good, at least according to Robert Koehler in his review. The review which quickly disappeared from Variety’s website after it was published (but is still visible on Google cache).

In fairness, we’re still in the realm of conspiracy theory. There’s no obvious link between the money and the review. Except of course that Iron Cross has singled out the review for criticism, claiming that Koehler was unprofessional, and would have understood the film better had he read the publicity materials. Which is, one can only presume, where they had a brown paper envelope hidden. Here’s the defense from the producers of Iron Cross, which seems to confirm the story was ‘spiked’ in the parlance of the times:

Robert Koehler is in fact not a staff writer for Variety and his views on the film are not shared by anyone else at that publication. One of the top staff journalists had been assigned to do a review after the Oscars campaign, but Koehler took it upon himself to review the film first and managed to sneak it into the publication. You can imagine the absolute embarrassment endured by Variety bearing in mind we have worked with them for months to develop an effective Oscars campaign. If you do a search, this will confirm that Variety have now deleted the article from the database. This is because Koehler’s review was considered sloppy and grossly unfair and that he described the events in the film incorrectly.

Seriously? So what if he didn’t read the materials? I doubt you’re giving them out with regular tickets or including them with the DVD. And ‘sneaking it into the publication’? I can see a movie in the works already about one honest journalist trying to get a film review into his magazine against editorial mandate. Look, he’s either a critic or he’s not. It’s not like he hacked the server or is a guy from the mail room. Why is this particular review invalid? Simply because it offends an investor?

It just seems a little bit of a coincidence that a review singled out for criticism by a major investor should just vanish like that. Convenient, even. I don’t think we’ll ever get closure one way or the other on this one, but it is fun to wonder if Todd McCarthy – the resident in-house critic at Variety – would have seen his review go missing, or if it’s just freelancers who are up for sale.

The assertion that the general consensus is positive isn’t exactly true either. The one review listed in Rotten Tomatoes (from LA Weekly) is negative as well. Part of me wonders if he also failed to read his materials? Of course, one review at Rotten Tomatoes is hardly indicative of anything, but it does illustrate that Koehler may not be alone or misinformed as the producers claim.

Those familiar with pop culture history will hear echoes of the payola scandal in this. Payola say record companies paying radio stations to give airtime to certain songs in order to encourage the public to buy them. There was a huge scandal ad it doesn’t happen anymore – at least in theory. The similarities are obvious, particularly since that $400,000 bought Iron Cross a place on the Variety screening list, generally a list reserved exclusively for nominees.

Michael Bay is probably kicking himself now. If he got rid of those racist robot twins from Transformers 2, he probably could have bought some good reviews. I imagine that a lot of big budget blockbusters might start clearing space in their budgets for advertising space at Variety, if you know what I mean.

Part of me wonders if this story will damage Variety or if it will sink in under the radar. Let me be the first to assure you that my reviews have never been influenced by $400,000. Nobody’s even offered to bribe… I mean invest in this blog, because they know I’m a man of integrity. Yes, that’s the reason. They know I’m a man of integrity.

4 Responses

  1. hmmm, great tale. man, if only someone offerend me $400,000
    if only i did reviews

    • Amen… I imagine it would be easy enough to get that marketting budget approved.

      “What if, instead of spending loads of money wooing them at fancy galas and barbeques, we simply give them the money and they don’t publish a bad review?”

      I would go to the top of movie marketing. Well, that or prison.

  2. We were running into stuff like this when we were getting started with the show. We couldn’t be sure if us getting free advance materials meant we had to offer up positivity. Eventually we got a general understanding that we didn’t have to love everything we saw, but this one review we did for an independent release wound up getting buried because Brian and I didn’t both love it, despite the agreement we had in advance. We still get free stuff from various agencies, but I made it clear that we would be doing our reviews our way otherwise we’d take a pass.

    I don’t think people care too much about Variety, that’s probably why/how they found themselves in a payola type scenario. The ones with integrity know better than to wade in too deep with sponsors. Like they couldn’t see that coming.

    • Yep. I have actually been pleasantly surprised in my dealings with the studios. I offered a fairly negative review of the first film I saw with them, but they were actually really decent about it. I can imagine that, with the balance of power involved, it’s a fairly easy relationship to manipulate.

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