Long-form entertainment journalism pushed aside

When Premiere magazine announced last month that its April issue would be its last, the epitaph for longform movie journalism may well have been written.

After all, in a world where movie fans can read about movies, see pictures, trailers and video, and find their theaters and showtimes online, who needs a movie magazine anymore?

At a time when the likes of celebrity Web site TMZ.com, Defamer and People.com rush amateur photos of the Hollywood Hills brush fire and news of Mel Gibson’s latest indiscretion to the Web at the speed of thought, writers and editors who once specialized in crafting polished, in-depth insider features about Hollywood stars and filmmakers are learning the mantra of the Web: Write fast — and write short.

Even entertainment reporters at the L.A. Times are under increased pressure to file breaking news directly to the Web, as with Disney’s negative response to “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” star Keith Richards’ suggestion that he snorted a mix of his father’s ashes and cocaine.

When 30 or so ex-Premiere staffers gathered at a wake for the magazine at the Venice, Calif., home of Nancy Griffin, now entertainment editor at AARP Magazine, it was clear that the days of the longform insider feature about movies are gone. (The author was Premiere’s West Coast editor for seven years.)

While Griffin still books cover stories with the likes of Premiere perennial Kevin Costner for her bimonthly magazine targeting the aging babyboomer generation, Premiere’s other voices have been adapting to new formats and functions for the past decade.

Since he quit Premiere in 1996, editor-in-chief Chris Connelly has held down TV gigs at MTV and ESPN, and wrote and hosted this year’s Oscar preshow “The Road to the Oscars.”

In the 16 years since she left Premiere, muckraker Kim Masters signed deluxe contracts at Time, Vanity Fair and Esquire. But those magazines eventually lost their appetite for her barbed take on the inner workings of Hollywood. Keeping star handlers happy and chasing ad dollars were more important to Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter than upsetting powerful cronies in Hollywood. Masters finally found a safe harbor as National Public Radio’s entertainment correspondent. And she has bent to current trends, too, launching a blog for Slate called Hollywoodland (a rubrick once used at Premiere).

The edge of movie coverage is being blunted at other mags as well.

Newsweek senior writer Sean Smith says he’s grateful when he can get any story of a decent length into the magazine. While Premiere used to devote months to interviewing every player in Hollywood on background for its equally dreaded and coveted Power 100 list, Smith recently delivered a short but sweet Newsweek list on the top five actors in Hollywood. (Will Smith was No. 1.) Meanwhile, Newsweek.com absorbs longer stories that the print edition cannot accommodate.

These days movie coverage in the newsweeklies is either tied to gushy, star-driven cover stories or reads like haiku. (Time critic Richard Corliss now blogs from the Cannes Film Festival, because it’s tough to get his fest take into the magazine.)

Premiere — whose circulation in 2006 was 492,000, down from a peak of 616,000 in 1995, and which saw ad sales drop 25% in 2006 — died because the Hollywood studios stopped supporting it.

“There was no reason to advertise in Premiere,” says one Paramount marketing exec. “It used to be an early opinion setter and part of the buzz. But aficionados who read it already knew that a movie was coming. How do you cut through? My job is to make as much noise as possible so people feel an urgency to see a movie.”

Today’s cinephiles are finding out about movies in pre-production via leaked scripts, secret reports from meetings, message boards, the global blogosphere, and well-known Webmasters like AintItCoolNews.com’ Harry Knowles. The Austin, Texas-based cinegeek boasts close relationships with filmmakers such as James Cameron, who call him with news, but AICN passes along false leads and studio handouts, too.

In a universe where misinformation travels swiftly over the Web, Universal Pictures publicity executive Michael Moses would like to see studios enter the blogosphere and provide information directly to consumers.

“Studios like control,” he says. “But we’re not controlling anything now. We’re constantly responding. Nothing is a secret anymore.” Now it’s no longer about Steven Spielberg declaring his intentions for “Munich” in Time magazine. The Internet reshapes a movie’s message. “An ad in Premiere was not good use of ad money anymore,” says Moses. “We’re reaching fans in so many other dynamic ways.”

Paramount online marketing executive Amy Powell calls the folks who scour the Internet seeking breaking info Alpha Fans. She believes that the broader range of movie consumers today likes to watch trailers online via YouTube, MySpace or Apple Movies, at their own whim. Her recent MySpace “Transformers” contest asked fans to choose sides between rival Autobots and Decepticons. In less than a week the MySpace page got 1.5 million hits.

“It’s not just reading an article,” she says. “They’ve changed the way they interact with our materials. It’s an ondemand, pull environment. We’re not just reaching an audience with our TV spot. They’re becoming part of our movie, engaging, interacting, passing along, voting, organic. They build it themselves.”

The movie magazine niche as such is no more.

In 2003, Movieline morphed into the ad-friendly celebrity lifestyle book Hollywood Life, while other film niche survivors specialize in visual f/x (Cinefex), horror (Fangoria), sci-fi (Cinefantastique folded this year, but Starlog lives, both on newsstands and in cyberspace) or indie film fare (Film Comment, Filmmaker, Sight and Sound). Britain’s populist Empire remains robust, partly due to its jam-packed Web site, which posts plenty of breaking news. The brainy French critical review Cahiers du Cinema has inaugurated an online edition in both French and English, E-CahiersduCinema.com, which features a virtual digital edition with flippable pages and ads.

Before its demise, Premiere sold subscriptions to a digital version of the magazine, but the enterprise proved short-lived.

There’s little question that Hachette’s jump onto the Web came too late to save Premiere the magazine. By the time Hachette Filipacchi Media CEO Jack Kliger opened up the pursestrings to the Web site, its chance to become a Hollywood Web portal rich with celebrity content was past. So far Premiere’s traffic is too small to even measure via Nielsen net ratings.

Now there’s too much clutter in the online movie space to grab a toehold. How to compete with Rotten Tomatoes, the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb), E! Online, Fandango, CHUD, IGN Film Force, Yahoo Movies, Movie City News, Movies.com and AOL Moviefone, not to mention bloggers such as Perezhilton, Deadline Hollywood Daily, Cinematical, and Hollywood Elsewhere?

Still, Kliger is declining overtures from prospective buyers of Premiere because he wants to make a go of Premiere.com, which is now a lean, low-overhead operation led by Premiere film critic-editor-blogger Glenn Kenny that no longer pays outside writers $2 a word.

Hachette is counting on leveraging the respected brand into a bigger, better Web site that functions as a social community of movie lovers, says Hachette senior VP of corporate sales and marketing, Paul Turcotte, who is digitizing the magazine’s entire archive.

“In March our Premiere.com traffic tripled,” he says. “We believe Premiere.com has a good shot at succeeding online. People like to talk about movies and debate them. We haven’t pulled the switch yet.”

Meanwhile ex-Premiere staffers are setting up shop in the Web wonderland of other pubs.

Recent West Coast editor (and former Variety reporter) Tim Swanson is heading to the new Conde Nast Portfolio as a senior online writer in charge of the magazine’s entertainment blog.

While Premiere’s star feature writer Fred Schruers seeks assignments at the remaining monthlies that still — rarely — assign celebrity features, from men’s mags Rolling Stone, Esquire and GQ, to Vogue, Radar, Interview and Elle, he’s writing shorter stories for the Los Angeles Times, where former Premiere staffers John Horn, Rachel Abramowitz, Chris Lee and wine writer Corie Brown now hang their hats.

Ex-Premiere writer (also a former Variety reporter) Oliver Jones, now on staff at Time Warner’s People magazine, has learned to write short and file under deadline pressure for People.com; he posted live from the Emmys.

And Christine Spines delivers shorter features to Entertainment Weekly, the magazine most likely to gain from Premiere’s demise.

From its inception in the early ’90s, EW specialized in youth-oriented, snappy, accessible stories. “Keep it snarky,” was always the EW mantra.

But EW covers a wide swath of entertainment: If the magazine relied on movie content alone, it could not survive. In fact, music and television tend to dominate the mag’s covers and inside pages, and like many media companies, Time Warner is banking that the traffic (2.1 million unique visitors in February) attracted by its Web portal EW.com will someday generate serious ad revenue. (EW.com opened itself to free access in 2006.)

The question roiling the executive suites of media companies today: how will the inevitable migration of print to the Web yield comparable ad dollars? As more magazines like Cinefantastique, Premiere, Elle Girl and Life shut down, the online futures of other media outlets are far from secure.

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