"Film Blogs Grow Up and Go Corporate"
[Note: This was originally Posted on Variety.]
When studios hit Comic-Con next month to talk up “Justice League” movies, “Avengers” spinoffs and “Star Wars” sequels, they won’t be pitching their wares just to the costumed fans in Hall-H. They’ll be dissecting how their presentations play with blogs like Slashfilm, CinemaBlend and Film School Rejects.
This story first appeared in the June 22, 2015 issue of Variety. Subscribe today.
How times have changed, both for Comic-Con and the people who cover it obsessively. The San Diego gathering was once viewed as a safe space for nerddom, at a time when geeking out over Captain America and Superman was viewed as a sign of arrested development. Over the past decade, though, comicbook culture has become the dominant form of popular entertainment, and like Comic-Con itself, film blogs have gone mainstream.
This year, three widely read blogs — Collider, Screen Rant and Latino Review — sold to deep-pocketed buyers Complex Media, Valnet, and former Chrysler and Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli, respectively. Meanwhile, more orthodox publications, such as Entertainment Weekly, have moved toward intensive coverage of superhero news.
“We won,” said Drew McWeeny, a blogger who wrote for Ain’t It Cool News before moving to HitFix. “The nerds took over.”
There’s a downside to social acceptance. In the early days, sites like Ain’t It Cool News were Internet renegades, posting reviews of scripts before they went into production, sharing purloined set photos, and reporting on test screenings well before studio-sanctioned embargoes had lifted. But studios that once viewed these sites as nuisances now see them as essential ambassadors. In turn, bloggers benefit from a powerful weapon — access, via set visits, promotional materials and media-screening invites.
That, and legal threats, have sanded off some of the blogs’ rougher edges, observers argue. “They were scared of us,” McWeeny said. “Now, they have absorbed us. They’ve co-opted and utterly won over the people they were afraid of by offering them the constant IV drip that keeps headlines generated and SEO bait flowing.”
Nobody goes into blogging to get rich. Editors on some movie sites earn $25,000 to $70,000 a year, and many freelancers have to contend with as little as $25 a post, if they get paid at all. And though a successful site can sell for more than $3 million and make $50,000 in ad revenue a month, many owners struggle to keep the lights on. Take Gordon and the Whale, a well-regarded site that closed its doors in 2011, when the roughly $1,200 to $1,300 it generated in advertising revenue monthly barely covered the $900 it was shelling out to run its server.
“I was at Cannes, and it hit me that we had gone about as far as we can go,” said Chase Whale, the site’s co-founder. “There was still no money. We had like 21 people writing for free, and it made me feel like sh-t that I couldn’t pay these people.”
For those still toiling in the trenches, it’s more difficult to stand out from the armies of pundits who keep cropping up.
“If I was starting a movie blog now, I probably wouldn’t do it,” said Neil Miller, the founder of Film School Rejects. “It’s so hard to be noticed, especially if you don’t offer clickbaits and salacious headlines.”
Major media companies including Gawker and the Los Angeles Times have snapped up or launched their own blogs, and their financial heft gives them a certain competitive advantage. “It’s a struggle to compete against corporate networks, because they can throw money at a problem while we can’t,” said Peter Sciretta, editor-in-chief of Slashfilm, which remains independently owned.
Although the majority of sites stick with an editorial mix of film reviews, interviews and looks at trailers and posters, some are making headway with breaking news. Take Umberto Gonzalez, a former Latino Review contributor who recently launched his own site, Heroic Hollywood. He’s built a reputation as an ace scooper responsible for casting exclusives on projects like “Suicide Squad” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“I’m breaking content, and they’re putting a spin on the news that other sites break,” Gonzalez said of his rivals.
What prompted Steven Weintraub, the founder of Collider, to join forces with Complex Media was a feeling that he needed more resources in order to get to the next level. The sale means Complex will handle the business side and ad sales, as well as offer Weintraub editing support for the videos he records with filmmakers and talent.
“The last couple of years, when we were operating like a real business with real overhead, were stressful,” Weintraub said. “This allows me to remove that stress and focus on producing content seven days a week.”
Still, while their sector of the media business experiences consolidation, some bloggers sound torn about whether or not to sell.
“Before I started Film School Rejects, I’d never really done anything significant,” said Miller, whose site remains independently owned. “The relationship I’ve had with my film blog is the longest and most significant of my life. To give that up would take more in my mind than what anyone is willing to pay.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the asking price for Screen Rant.