Helmers and Lensers

PEOPLE WORRY THAT America is degenerating into a country of slavering morons, but I'm optimistic--primarily because for all its ignorance, America is also a nation of know-it-alls. We like to be seen as experts, and fresh evidence of this can be found in the explosion of insider news on the business of Hollywood. In a perverse twist in our cultural history, otherwise sane and decent people have decided they like to play studio executive.

I confess I am caught up in the fever. Like many who keep tabs on show biz, I'm no longer content to merely follow who's sleeping with whom--I now need to know who's taking meetings with whom. I review movies in terms of their budgets; I monitor the rise and fall of star salaries; and I know who Edgar Bronfman, Jr. is. Fortunately, there is no shortage of source material. Movie magazines like Premiere and Entertainment Weekly have their "power" issues, and even less glam-oriented publications like Business Week are getting into the mix.

But when I need to know the hard truth behind the behind-the-scenes, I pick up a copy of Variety, which, along with The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, is the trade magazine of choice in the entertainment industry. Variety has been around for about 100 years, and is probably most famous for the charming private language of its headlines and articles. In Variety, a director is called a "helmer"; a cameraman a "lenser."A headline like "The President of CBS Quits his Job" becomes "Eye Web Topper Ankles."

What I like most about Variety is the integrity of its reporting--really. Unlike most movie rags, Variety refuses to pander to the studios or the stars. In fact, if your career is in deep trouble (a truth you're not going to hear from your agent, your manager, your publicist, your personal trainer, your chef, or even your psychic), there's a good chance the only place you'll read about it is in Variety.

Furthermore, since it's a trade magazine and not a publicity organ, the details of the industry coverage are more meaningful. Weekend box-office receipts may be fun to talk about at parties, but total domestic grosses are beginner's math compared to the Hollywood calculus of "prints and ads" and "foreign pre-sales" and other complexities of movie accounting. The reality of behind-the-screen life is that, like the rest of our worlds, it's an utter mess. Premiere would have you think that being a producer is all parties and power plays, but Variety reveals the truth: long hours filled with anxiety and uncertainty, where your talents and abilities are constantly questioned, and where the successes you have are always attributed to other people.

Ultimately, what I find most attractive about Variety is the way it demonstrates how completely outside the movie-making process I am. Where fluffier publications and television shows try to make me feel intimately involved in the action, this magazine for the realinsiders doesn't strive to make me feel anything. This lack of concern for satisfying my voyeuristic desires is sometimes sobering, but most often it's refreshing. It's nice to know there's a place to turn to get a little truth with your fantasy.

 
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