A few weeks ago we told you here about a controversial story developing around the tattered trade publication Variety, in which they seemingly removed a negative review for the movie Iron Cross in exchange for $400,000 spent with them on an advertising campaign. In the weeks since, the whole thing has only gotten worse.

After taking heat for removing the negative review, Variety republished it on their website. And now they’re being sued. Contact Music says the producers of Iron Cross are now suing Variety over the publishing of the negative Iron Cross review, claiming that the publication’s sales reps “induced” them to spend money. They say Variety’s reps assured them that the movie had a real chance at earning an Oscar nomination, and then turned around and published a negative review which killed their chances. Just about all of that is entirely wrong in every way imaginable. Let me attempt to explain why.

First, anyone possessed of any passing association with the film industry knew that Iron Cross never had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting an Oscar nomination. For starters, almost no one had even heard of it let alone seen it. If Variety told them that they could be nominated, then they lied. In theory they’re one of the movie industry’s leading trade publications, if anyone knew the truth, then they did. Actually I find it kind of hard to believe that Iron Cross’s producers didn’t know it. After all, the movie never even found distribution. No one was going to watch it, let alone nominate it.

Second, let’s discuss the way advertising normally works on a reputable publication or blog. Here’s what happens: An advertiser decides they want to advertise a product or movie. They approach a website or that website’s advertising representatives and tell them they’re interested in advertising the film. A price is agreed upon. The ad is run for a specified period of time. Both sides do so with the understanding that the advertiser has no influence or input of any kind into the editorial content of the website or publication on which the advertisement appears. In fact, it’s a point that’s never even really up for discussion. The advertisers know the publication their ad goes on may dislike the movie being advertised, but they run the ad anyway because exposure is still exposure. In eight years of running Cinema Blend, no advertiser has ever asked me for any input of any kind into what we write or how we write it. They don’t ask because they know what my answer will be, and that answer is drop dead. The answer is drop dead industry wide. They don’t ask because every journalist and publisher and blogger of any worth has made the unspoken agreement with his industry brothers to deliver that same answer as the only acceptable answer. That’s how it works. That’s how it always works. Except maybe it doesn’t work that way any more at Variety.

There are two possibilities here. It could be that the people behind Iron Cross are completely clueless (they certainly seem to be) and under the mistaken impression that buying ad space gives you editorial control over the publication you buy that ad on. Under the current, standard advertiser/publication operating procedure that’s entirely false unless… Variety cut some other sort of deal with them. If you read between the lines of the lawsuit and put that together with what we know about Variety’s behavior so far, it seems like more than simply promising that Iron Cross would win an Oscar, Variety also promised not to run any negative reviews of the film. Otherwise why did they remove it in the first place, and then restore it when the industry caught them with their hands in the cookie jar (Variety claims the review contained accuracy issues and if you believe that I’ve got some beachfront property in Oklahoma I’d like to sell you)? If that’s what they did, then they not only deserve to be sued by the film’s producers, they’ve betrayed and screwed over their entire industry.

Here’s the thing: advertising only works the way it does because everyone has made this unspoken agreement to follow the same rules. Advertisers would love to buy positive reviews, however blogs and newspapers and other types of publications as a whole have decided they will not give advertisers any editorial control over their content in exchange for money. Since everyone follows those same ethical standards advertisers have no choice but to accept this as a fact of doing business, and they buy ad space knowing that the place they’re buying it may well still say something bad about it. That’s alright exposure is exposure, but if you’re an advertiser obviously, if you could buy positive reviews with those ad dollars you would.

The whole system falls apart if one publication (particularly a big publication) starts selling out by offering to let them buy control over their coverage, and when that publication is as respected as Variety, then advertisers are only too ready and willing to abandon advertising on ethical publications and will choose to spend their money where they’re guaranteed positive buzz instead. Those ethical publications are then faced with a choice: Play ball or go out of business, since you’re no longer able to obtain advertisers willing to work with you in an ethical manner. It’s like a line of dominoes. Once that first domino falls all the others must fall behind it. Variety is a really, really big domino and if this is really what they’ve done, then they’re taking the first step towards screwing over everyone, not just themselves.

The only person who can keep those dominoes from falling is you, dear reader. Variety isn’t the only publication which might like to sell out for a quick buck. In most cases it doesn’t happen, not because of some lofty moral code but, because they’re afraid of you. They’re afraid that if they do sell out, you’ll find out, and that’ll be the end of your readership. The day you stop caring is the day they start selling out. So do you care? It’s all up to you.
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