I started reading weekly Variety around the age of 12, when I craved to read more film criticism and movie reporting than The Miami Herald and the late Bill Cosford could provide. The news stand brought some great discoveries: Pauline Kael, Film Comment, American Film, Cinefantastique and Fangoria.
There was also this magical, oversized, glorious newspaper called Variety, which was like an entire Herald devoted to Hollywood and the entertainment business. I could not believe this thing existed. A lot of the stories in it went over my little head, but there was lots of reporting about which movies directors were thinking about making, casting deals, a chart that let you see all the films that were currently in production (including who was going to be starring in them). Variety was also the first place in which I saw lists of weekly box office grosses, which today are inescapable, but back then were not really available anywhere else.
Today, of course, you can get all that stuff for free online with just a couple of clicks. The main reason why I've remained a faithful reader of Variety was Todd McCarthy, whose film reviews quickly became the thing I read first in the paper, and whose work I had continued to follow steadily all these years later.
McCarthy's reviews - he's usually the first to weigh in on every major film - followed the Variety template of accentuating a movie's box office potential and discussing its marketability (this is, after all, a trade publication). But McCarthy also wrote with an educated voice that brought his vast film knowledge to bear on whichever movie he was writing about, which made reading him such a treat. Like all of my favorite film critics, McCarthy accentuated the emotional impact of a film and the way in which the movie tried to engage the viewer. His reviews were industry-savvy yet also spoke to film lovers. His reviews were unique.
McCarthy has also written several books (including an excellent biography of Howard Hawks) and directed some movies of his own, including 1992's Visions of Light, an ode to cinematographers that is like candy for film buffs. I interview famous people all the time but I tend to get shy and tongue-tied around other film critics whose work I admire, so I've never met McCarthy, even though I quietly sat next to him at a Toronto festival screening of The Notorious Bettie Page.
Yesterday, Variety announced the staff positions of McCarthy and David Rooney, the paper's chief theater critic, were being terminated, because "it doesn't make economic sense to have full-time reviewers." If it doesn't make sense for Variety to have a full-time film reviewer on staff, especially one of McCarthy's status, then there really is no hope for the art of newspaper film criticism. Variety says they will continue to review movies with the same frequency they do know, using staff writers (including my pal Peter Debruge, who used to freelance for us until he got a full-time gig there) and freelancers. The paper also says they hope McCarthy will continue to write for them on a freelance basis.
I hope, for Variety's sake, that he does. Otherwise, they will have lost another longtime reader. The Hurt Locker made Oscar history last night partly due to efforts by film critics to remind Hollywood - and the world - about a box office flop nobody saw. Serious film criticism still matters, although maybe not at Variety.