Variety's unflattering review of 'Iron Cross,' a film starring the late Roy Scheider as a retired cop plotting revenge against the man he holds responsible for the slaughter of his family during the Holocaust, predicted that the 2009 indie drama "will be remembered as Roy Scheider's swan song and little else."

But 'Iron Cross' may yet be remembered as the movie that destroyed Variety's film review section -- and perhaps the venerable trade paper itself, since its singular and comprehensive reviews have been the paper's cornerstone for 100 years.

When 'Iron Cross' producer-director Joshua Newton griped about the December review to Variety, arguing that the article (written by freelancer Robert Koehler) had killed the movie's chances for awards, scared off potential distributors and undermined the $400,000 ad campaign the paper had sold him, he claimed a staffer at the paper dismissed his complaint by telling him, "It's only one person's opinion," and "No one takes these reviews seriously."

As if to prove those contentions, last week, Variety laid off three of its staff critics, including chief film critic Todd McCarthy, who'd been reviewing films for the paper for 31 years. Variety's unflattering review of 'Iron Cross,' a film starring the late Roy Scheider as a retired cop plotting revenge against the man he holds responsible for the slaughter of his family during the Holocaust, predicted that the 2009 indie drama "will be remembered as Roy Scheider's swan song and little else."

But 'Iron Cross' may yet be remembered as the movie that destroyed Variety's film review section -- and perhaps the venerable trade paper itself, since its singular and comprehensive reviews have been the paper's cornerstone for 100 years.

When 'Iron Cross' producer-director Joshua Newton griped about the December review to Variety, arguing that the article (written by freelancer Robert Koehler) had killed the movie's chances for awards, scared off potential distributors and undermined the $400,000 ad campaign the paper had sold him, he claimed a staffer at the paper dismissed his complaint by telling him, "It's only one person's opinion," and "No one takes these reviews seriously."

As if to prove those contentions, last week, Variety laid off three of its staff critics, including chief film critic Todd McCarthy, who'd been reviewing films for the paper for 31 years.

Newton has since filed a lawsuit against Variety, claiming fraud and breach of contract. Meanwhile, in response to Newton's initial complaint, Variety editor Tim Gray pulled Koehler's review from its Web site; though it republished the review a few days later, the incident made it look like Variety was willing to censor its reviews to please advertisers. Of course, Newton's lawsuit seems to complain that Variety doesn't censor its reviews enough to please advertisers.

Through this whole imbroglio, Variety's treatment of its own reviewers has been baffling and troubling. The initial refusal to stand behind Koehler's review, the unnamed staffer's dismissal of reviews as something no one takes seriously, and the pink-slipping of McCarthy -- none of these seem to make sense for a paper whose standout resource for the past 100 years has been a movie review section known for its independence, breadth and completeness. And when critics aren't safe even at Variety, are they safe anywhere?

Reviews at trade papers like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter are different from most other reviews because the critics who write them evaluate not just a movie's artistic merit but also its commercial prospects. Variety reviews about 1,200 movies a year, many of them festival films that may never see the inside of a multiplex or get reviewed by anyone else. So Newton is correct to note that Variety's reviews carry special weight within the film industry. At a time when Variety faces increased competition for trade news scoops (not just from the Reporter, but from online upstarts like The Wrap and Deadline Hollywood), its vast and encyclopedic archive of reviews is also an asset that still makes Variety unique and valuable to its readers.

McCarthy's ouster is going to make that asset much harder to maintain. When the paper dismissed him and his colleagues last week, Gray insisted that the volume of reviews would remain the same, only they would now all be written by freelancers. (Before, the workload had been divided among staffers and freelancers; Gray defended the layoffs as a cost-cutting move.) It seems unlikely, however, that Variety will still be able to publish that many reviews without being able to depend on full-time staffers to write a large chunk of them. In fact, in an interview Sunday in The Wrap, Newton said he met with Variety publisher Neil Stiles after Koehler's review ran, and that Stiles said "he had a problem with his critics. And he said he planned to cease all reviews this year, in 2010."

Variety's top brass has long had "a problem with its critics." Gray's predecessor, Peter Bart, frequently complained in his column that movie critics (including Variety's) are film snobs who should be disregarded because their taste is often ignored at the box office. (Of course, if critics only echoed the populist judgments of ticketbuyers, why would you need their opinions at all?) Gray and Stiles seem to have taken Bart's grumbling to its logical conclusion; pointedly, they got rid of McCarthy the day after an Oscar ceremony that honored 'The Hurt Locker,' a movie kept alive by critics, while the Academy snubbed moviegoers' overwhelming favorite, 'Avatar.'

Maybe Variety's problem with its critics isn't that they have lofty aesthetic standards but that they aren't easily co-opted by publicists and can't be relied upon to shill for movies whose creators have bought ads in Variety. Gawker, which broke the story that Gray had pulled Koehler's review after Newton complained, reprinted an e-mail message written by Newton in which the filmmaker said that the freelance critic "took it upon himself to review the film first and managed to sneak it into the publication." The notion of Koehler as some rogue agent bent on sabotaging the film and the ad campaign his paper had sold for it seems ill-informed; there's no way Koehler's review wasn't assigned by and then approved for publication by a Variety staff editor. (It's also unlikely that Koehler, as a freelancer, was privy to any arrangement between Newton and Variety's business office, or that McCarthy or any other staff critic would have written a friendlier review just because 'Iron Cross' was an advertiser.)

'Iron Cross' Trailer



Yet Gray's yanking of the review suggested he didn't trust his freelancer either. When he pulled the review, he at first offered no explanation to Gawker or anyone else (including Koehler); eventually, Gray told the Los Angeles Times, he did so not because Newton had spent money with the paper but because Newton had complained about the review's accuracy. Gray himself had touted the film (along with about 60 others) as a potential Oscar contender in a column last summer, prompting Variety's ad department to pursue 'Iron Cross' as a client, even though Gray hadn't yet seen the then-unfinished film. After he pulled the review, however, Gray watched 'Iron Cross,' decided Koehler's review was valid, and republished the article. Still, the damage had already been done, both to the movie's awards and distribution prospects, and to Variety's reputation for editorial independence.

Whether or not Newton can prove in court that Variety promised him favorable coverage (or at least the absence of unfavorable coverage) in return for his ad buy, he certainly seems to have expected Variety's ad sales department to dictate editorial policy. And if he expected it, how many other advertisers do? And how often does Variety comply, even by such temporary measures as the scrubbing of Koehler's review? Really, once that wall of editorial independence has been breached, how can Variety readers ever be sure that the reviews aren't being skewed by advertising concerns?

Given the initial willingness to yank the review, the lawsuit that the review sparked and the paper's longtime dismissive attitude towards its critics that culminated in the canning of McCarthy, Variety may have decided that independent-minded critics are a luxury it can no longer afford. Certainly, it'll save a little money in the short term with the critics' layoffs, and it'll save even more money if, as seems likely, it cuts back on reviews when freelancers are unable to make up the slack -- or when (if Newton is accurately quoting Stiles) it eliminates reviews altogether.

Still, this sort of thinking seems penny-wise and pound-foolish. At a time when newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, stay relevant and provide unique services to their readers that they can't get from all over the Internet, Variety's comprehensive array of reviews should be considered a selling point, not a liability. Without them, what differentiates Variety from online rivals like The Wrap and Deadline Hollywood? (Not much, except for a print edition that creates a high overhead that makes Variety much more beholden to advertisers.) And without providing a unique reason for readers to subscribe, how will Variety survive?

Variety's campaign against its own critics does a disservice even to readers who don't peruse Variety. General interest newspapers and magazines have been discarding staff critics by the dozens in recent years. If the show business bible, a publication that once made a point of publishing more reviews than anyone else, now thinks critics are irrelevant and expendable, other publications will feel justified in following Variety's lead. And it's moviegoers who will suffer. As the Koehler incident proves, sometimes an independent-minded critic is all that's standing between a moviegoer's wallet and the hype generated by a movie's publicity campaign -- including hype that may come from the business office at a critic's own paper.