Free Film School #73: Boffo Variety!

Professor Witney Seibold gives a lesson about the history and dubious cultural influence of the ubiquitous industry trade magazine.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


I live in Los Angeles, California. I work, at least tangentially, in the film industry. I have interned for a movie studio. I have been inside many a film studio office. It’s likely that if you live in L.A., you have also, at least once or twice, been inside the office of a big film studio. Of course not everyone who lives in L.A. works in the film industry, but their chances of having brushed up against the film industry in some capacity are somewhat high. And if you’ve been in a studio office, actor’s workshop, post-production facility, or online film critic powwow, then you have likely seen it sitting there, unassuming, on a coffee table, on a toilet tank, in a magazine rack, or in the hands of the secretary. It’s even more ubiquitous than Highlights Magazine is in dental offices. No film office would dare operate without a subscription to Daily Variety.

Today’s lecture in CraveOnline’s Free Film School, I will be giving a brief lecture on the world-famous L.A.-based trade newspaper, and I will be analyzing how it affects the way we talk about movies in the modern age. Variety is a magazine for industry insiders, but it has, through its consistent output of content and quirky use of industry lingo, kind of made Hollywood insiders of us all. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing I shall discuss.

Variety began its publication run as far back as 1905, when it was an all-entertainment rag for the Vaudeville set. In the early days, it covered all forms of entertainment, including Broadway stage, radio, and even the then-nascent film industry. Since celebrity gossip and behind-the-scenes stories are interests human beings have had since time immemorial, Variety was a hit pretty much immediately, although it wouldn’t be until 1933 that Daily Variety would be launched, which was the film-only adjunct to the main magazine. Daily Variety, indeed released every day, was a magazine intended only for industry insiders, and often contained (and still contains) news of inter-studio deals, signed contracts, box office numbers, and the purchase of properties.

Although they did offer editorials as well; Variety, indeed, is credited for publishing the world’s first film review all the way back in 1907. It was a double review for the frothy comedy An Exciting Honeymoon and the western The Life of a Cowboy, both released in 1906. Any thorough public library should have back issues of Variety where you can read these reviews. I haven’t been able to find them online.

Variety is also a valuable resource for aspiring actors, as want-ads typically appear in the back of the magazine, trolling for talent. There are also sometimes listings of various film studios currently operating, and many issues contain contact information; I remember looking through the back pages of Variety, looking for studio jobs back when I was a young college grad.

The magazine, while available to everyone, was never really intended, I don’t think, for consumption by the everyday filmgoer. Because it offered nothing but oblique insider information, and rarely banked on celebrity gossip or glamor, it would only be of interest to people who are already deeply involved in the industry, or people who wanted to be deeply involved in the industry. To this day, Variety publishes yearly ads, usually around awards season, pleading Academy members to vote for their movie for the upcoming Academy Awards. If you can find an issue, open it sometime this coming December. Every other page will begin with the phrase “For Your Consideration.”

The magazine had its own insider language that looks bizarre to the casual reader of magazines. A famous headline (which ran back in the ‘30s) was “Stix Nix Hick Pix,” which was a poetic way of saying that people living in rural areas don’t like movies about people who live in rural areas. Variety is also credited for coining the now-common portmanteaus “sitcom,” “payola,” and “striptease,” as well as words like “sex appeal” and “boffo,” the latter of which is used pretty much by every journalist who has to write a box office report. “BOFFO B.O.” means a film made a lot of money.

Variety was also one of the first publications to publish box office reports. Studio heads could mull over what film was a high earner, and adjust their own release schedule accordingly. The mere publication of box office reports brings me to perhaps the most vital thing that Variety has introduced to the public. They have made the business side of making movies transparent to the world. This may or may not be a positive change.

Just this past weekend, Skyfall earned about $87.8 million. How do I know that? Because it’s everywhere. It’s a headline on every search engine website that has headlines. It’s printed in the L.A. Times. Box office numbers are pretty common facts these days. Anyone who follows movies even to the smallest degree knows where to find the top-earning film for any given weekend. The question I’d like to ask is this: Why do we care? Why does it matter to the average film buff, who does not work in the industry, how much money a film makes? Surely an audience member will attend a film because they read about it, or saw advertisements, and they will enjoy it or hate it according to their own taste. But why do they care how successful it is? Seriously who cares what film is #1 at the box office other than producers and filmmakers?

Well thanks to Variety, we all care. Somehow the inner dealings of film studios and how much money they are making actually matters to people who have no financial stake in them. There was a time when box office numbers were not published in every newspaper, and were usually only listed as footnotes in trade papers and maybe the L.A. Times. Now the numbers are everywhere. People are now interested – and perhaps even have an emotional investment – in how well certain films perform. There is now a sort of horserace mentality going on in the film world: it’s not enough that you love a film, it also has to beat other films. You need to have a dog in the fight. Indeed, this horserace mentality goes a long way to explain the thesis of last week’s lecture on quality vs. popularity; people will often argue – or at least feel validated in their arguments – that a film is perhaps of better quality if it performs well at the box office. How would these arguments go if no one knew how much money a film made? Surely this is knowledge we can do without.

As internet news has come to replace daily news, and 24-hour news cable stations have become more popular than nightly news broadcasts, the casual interest in insider information has only proliferated. These days, most websites (including CraveOnline) report on the tiniest detail on the making of a film that is not scheduled for release for several years. We have news as to who the screenwriter may be, who signed to play which part, which studio will be releasing it, which studios now own which properties. This is all common knowledge now. I think we all know the recent news that Disney acquired LucasFilm. It’s likely that we also all have opinions on it. I don’t work for Disney, and I don’t know George Lucas. Why is this significant to us? Because of the business. And we all love the business.

The lingering legacy of Variety, then, is that the public is now an industry insider. We now report on every minutia of every film long before its release. We know of plot details, see leaked photos from the set, know about all the casting and filming. After a while, it almost seems like seeing the film itself is a formality. This hyper-aware view of the film industry may, I posit, be harmful to the filmgoing community at large. Sure it’s fun to gossip, but all the money-laced, news-swirling information we have acquired about a film going in most definitely changes the way we see it. All this information becomes a form of aesthetic pretense, and we can no longer sit in the dark and enjoy a movie simply for what it’s giving to us. Many of us are now haring the voice of Harvey Weinstein whispering in our ear during the entire film. Box office numbers, reports, studio deals, actors’ salaries, and even reviews now declare whether or not it’s acceptable to enjoy a film.

I do think it’s nice that the public have at least some access to this kind of information, although I’m torn as to how important it really is to industry outsiders. Why do we look for rumors about upcoming film projects? Just our enthusiasm.

Ultimately, I’m going to fall back on my old critical adage of letting a film speak for itself. We may see the machinery working behind it, but the ultimate arbiter of how good a film is should be what is on the screen, and how it makes you feel. As a critic, I may have to comment on how popular a film is, and how that affected the lives of the public and the people who made it (that I often used the word “bomb” in my reviews shows the ubiquity of Variety speak), and I may even have to comment on how a film’s popularity seeps into the culture at large, but as a filmgoer, I have to look at just the film. I have to shut out the noise and focus. What studio put this out? Who made what deal to make this film? How much did it cost? How much will it earn? As critics, these should ultimately be of secondary concern to us.

Why do we care? Because, at the end of the day, we love that movie.

Homework for the Week:

Do you care about box office numbers? How closely do you follow film news? Does the information you’ve acquired change the way you see a movie? If you didn’t know how much a blockbuster earned, would you love it any more or less? Pick up an issue of Daily Variety, or visit their website. Get a feel for how industry professionals speak. Do you think producers want the public to see films differently than filmmakers? Is too much information a good or a bad thing?