Microsoft to ax biz site

Cinemania, one of the premier film-related sites on the World Wide Web and one of Microsoft Corp.’s most successful ventures into CD-ROM/Internet hybrid publishing, is being “disappeared” this week, with more than half of the staff being let go and the rest shuffled off to duties on Sidewalk, another high-profile Microsoft Network site-system, staffers said Thursday.

Even the site’s marquee name, “Entertainment Tonight” film critic Leonard Maltin, was among those pink-slipped by MSN executives late Thursday, and there was no immediate word from either MSN or Microsoft whether the company would continue publishing Cinemania as a stand-alone CD-ROM product minus its Internet-based monthly “updates.”

Cinemania staffers, including editor Jim Emerson, former lead film critic of the Orange County Register, averred Thursday that at least half of the site’s staff had been or would be terminated, though Emerson, deputy editor Chris Gyella and most management folk would be reassigned elsewhere within Microsoft. The exact timetable of the disappearance of the Cinemania site is apparently still under discussion, with an immediate disappearance being the least likely scenario.

The move surprised veteran Web watchers, who had praise for the site and for Microsoft’s now former commitment to it. Cinemania had competed against the likes of the Internet Movie Database and the All-Movie Guide in terms of its comprehensiveness, while also carving out a niche as a place for softer news and features about the industry.

Staffers contacted Thursday said that no columns or features would feature in any future metamorphosis of Cinemania, and that the site’s exhaustive review and information databases would likely be folded into the central (read: national) portions of Sidewalk.

In an official statement from its Redmond, Wash., headquarters, Microsoft’s spokespeople would not comment on the retirement of Cinemania, but said the switching of employees over to Sidewalk reflected “shifts in the (Microsoft Interactive Media Group’s) business strategy and … staffing needs” within the division.

“The Sidewalk business … is making some changes in staffing in order to better meet consumer needs,” continued the official company statement.

Sidewalk, hosted on MSN and featuring a number of local entertainment and access guides connected to a central informational backbone, is a major priority for MSN and for Microsoft generally. The software giant is intent on establishing its Sidewalk franchise for the 20 largest cities in America — and several others abroad — by the end of 1998, thereby seizing a growth market for Internet marketing: the local “what to do” guides.

Especially hard hit by the layoffs were Cinemania’s editorial and marketing staffs, which had been beefed up with lavish expenditure and considerable fanfare less than a year ago.

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