Byline: Peter Braunstein
In the not-too-distant past, a bunch of crazy dreamers led by Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein envisioned a synergistic media complex in which magazine articles spawned books and feature-length movies in Fordian assembly-line fashion.
The failed experiment in shrieking, in-your-face synergy known as Talk magazine routinely featured Miramax actors on its covers, ran excerpted articles from Talk Miramax books and contained enough brazen cross-promotions for its corporate backers, Disney/Miramax and Hearst, to incite an industry. “Why not just retitle it Miramax?” asked the New York Post. To which then-Talk publisher Ron Galotti responded: “Synergy is not a dirty word. Isn’t it just wonderful when it works?”
By the time Miramax and Hearst pulled the plug on Talk this past January, Galotti’s sentiments were probably more aptly conveyed through a paraphrased slogan of Talk Miramax author A.J. Benza: “Synergy: Ain’t It a Bitch?”
But as the next three vignettes exhibit, synergy is as bold as ever in the post-Talk era — just slightly less brazen.
GRAYDON GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
First there was the CBS special “9/11,” hosted by Robert De Niro, where Graydon Carter and Vanity Fair editor David Friend earned executive producer credits for bringing the Naudet brothers’ World Trade Center film footage to CBS’ attention. Then on to the Academy Awards, where “A Beautiful Mind” producer Brian Grazer accepted the Best Picture Oscar and thanked, among others, Graydon Carter — who acquainted him with Sylvia Nasar’s biography of John Nash, excerpted in Vanity Fair, that eventually became the movie. Carter in particular — and Vanity Fair by extension — seems to have earned a whole new set of bragging rights this year. But Vanity Fair’s editor in chief seems more intent on concealing his synergistic ascent into the media-Hollywood complex behind a barrage of self-effacing disclaimers.
“I don’t think I or the company believes in synergy,” Carter said. “Our business is not about turning magazine articles into movies. We’re not some kind of petri dish for Hollywood.”
Yet, intentionally or not, Vanity Fair, owned, like WWD, by Advance Publications — has become just that: a synergistic cornucopia where articles spawn books and get optioned by major studios. Apart from Nasar’s book, Disney bought Marie Brenner’s 1996 article on tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand that became “The Insider,” starring Russell Crowe — winner of what could be called Vanity Fair’s first “extended Oscar” for Best Actor. Other films that grew out of Vanity Fair articles include “The Peacemaker” and “Proof of Life” — a somber acknowledgement that at the end of the synergy highway sometimes lies a really lame George Clooney or Meg Ryan film.
For most journalists, getting one’s article plugged on Page Six is the high point of the work week. But at Vanity Fair, the bar seems much higher. Do VF writers slump around with a sense of purposelessness if their pieces don’t prompt a phone call from Ridley Scott’s production company? Does depression set in if their feature articles sit on stands for a week and Random House hasn’t approached them with a book deal?
“It’s not a problem — yet,” laughed Carter. “We just happen to have a larger percentage of writers here who sell to movies, particularly Marie Brenner and Bryan Burrough, but I don’t want writers cranking out narratives just so that they can be optioned by a studio.” Nonetheless, Vanity Fair is fast becoming the Cliff Notes for time-pressed Hollywood directors and producers, who are finding ways of using the magazine for creative sourcing without having to actually read it. “‘A Beautiful Mind’ came about when I was having lunch with Ron [Howard] and Brian [Grazer], and they were like, ‘Hey, have you read anything good lately?”‘ recounted Carter. “I told them about the Nasar book and they optioned it the next day — they clearly hadn’t had time to even read it.”
Then there’s Carter’s own metamorphosis into a Hollywood producer with the documentary “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” about the turbulent career of Hollywood producer Bob Evans. “Documentary film is hardly seen as a high calling in the industry,” Carter affirmed in requisite self-denigrating fashion. “You’re really below caterers on the totem pole out there.”
Until now, the Vanity Fair Oscar party has been the epitome of the magazine’s close ties with Tinseltown. Carter, with the production of the Bob Evans documentary, has gone one better: marrying his own diversifying career with Vanity Fair’s fortunes to create a new hybrid form of personal-cum-corporate synergy. “We had screenings of the documentary at Bob Evans’ home,” said Carter casually. “It was no big deal. There were directors there like David Fincher and David O. Russell, and Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty showed up, and I also took the opportunity to invite some of Vanity Fair’s advertisers.” Allowing VF’s advertisers to mingle with Hollywood heavyweights while screening his own debut documentary at the house of a famous producer — can Carter just own up to the synergistic implications of that formation? “OK,” he finally relented. “I suppose that is the summit of synergy.”
PLAYBOY: THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE BUNNY
Playboy Enterprises chief executive officer Christie Hefner agrees with Martha Stewart that synergy is “hard,” but seems to consider Stewart a kind of rosy-cheeked freshman. “I’m a big Martha fan,” Hefner said. “But she’s still relatively new to the game. We’ve been doing this for 50 years.”
Back in the halcyon days of Playboy Enterprises, “Hef” made synergy seem so easy — and kitschy. Between Playboy magazine (whose U.S. circulation peaked at 7.2 million in 1972), the Playboy clubs, the “Playboy After Dark” TV series, the Playboy Mansions and the Playboy “Big Bunny” Jet, Hugh Hefner operated the perfect synergistic media empire long before the word “synergy” was even invented. One could also argue that Playboy peaked in the mid-Seventies and has been looking for a successful follow-up synergy apparatus ever since.
The daughter of “Hef,” however, considers the circa 1970 model of Playboy Enterprises to have been just an adult form of child’s play. “As ubiquitous as the Playboy name was in the Sixties and Seventies, it was actually very difficult to have consistent programming of the Playboy lifestyle until the advent of new technologies in the Eighties and Nineties: the ‘Net and cable television,” she argued. “In the Sixties, we could do the occasional syndicated TV show. Compare that to today, where we have two million unique Internet visitors a month, Playboy TV [pay-for-view and subscription cable network], as well as 18 foreign editions of the magazine drawing in close to 15 million readers worldwide.” (Circulation of Playboy’s U.S. edition has, meanwhile, halved since its 1972 apex to its current level of 3.15 million readers.)
Another ongoing challenge for Playboy is steering its middle-of-the-road course between laddie mags like Maxim that simply tease horny male readers and hard-core pornography that leave absolutely nothing to their imaginations. “We’re used to those challenges. Back in the Seventies, people thought that Penthouse would be the death of Playboy, but it turned out differently,” said Hefner, referring to Penthouse’s current financial freefall. “Maxim is like a Playboy clone, but for a less-sophisticated audience. Meanwhile, through our subsidiary Spice adult movie networks, we can tap into another position in the adult marketplace.”
When asked to visualize Playboy Enterprises circa 2010, Hefner pointed to fashion as Playboy’s next synergy node. “We’ve been building a significant business in branded apparel and accesories [where revenues totalled $10.8 million in 2001], and now we’re onto the next step: opening our first freestanding fashion retail store, this summer, in Tokyo,” said Hefner. “Clothing will allow people to relate to the brand in a tactile way. By 2010, TV and the ‘Net will be much bigger, but I still think the magazine will be number one.”
MARTHA STEWART: QUEEN OF ALL SYNERGY
In the eyes of many people, Martha Stewart wrote the book on how to build and maintain a synergistic media model — and Stewart isn’t about to disagree with that view. “The Martha Stewart Omnimedia model has worked extremely favorably for us, and many other companies are basically following it now,” she said in an interview. “We were the guinea pig, taking the magazine to TV. People warned us about content cannibalization, but the reverse happened.”
Could the aspirational lifestyle incarnated by Martha Stewart ever fall out of vogue? Stewart doesn’t think so, attributing her cultural staying power to her ongoing ability to redress what she calls “the void.”
“We addressed the void among upscale 38-to-50-year-olds first, then we skewed down to the 30-plus demographic, and now we’re seeing an even younger audience being pulled in.”
OK, but what exactly is “the void”? “The void is that we forgot how to take care of our homes; you did a room and it stayed that way forever,” explained Stewart. “Look at 9/11. After that happened, people started looking at their homes again and saying, ‘My God, my curtains are in tatters’ or ‘I need to get new sheets.”‘
Part of Stewart’s gravitas as the diva of domesticity could stem from the maturity that comes with age: Her career really took off after she published her first book, “Entertaining,” at the age of 41. Stewart, however, doesn’t agree. “I think I was too old when I wrote that book — I wish I had been 25,” she said. “My doctor said to me, ‘You’re a late bloomer,’ and it’s true. And I have so much left to do.”
She has clearly been giving thought to how the aging process will affect her company. “Walt Disney was a real person. He spawned an empire that continues without him, and no one is complaining. What we’re doing at Martha Stewart Omnimedia is building a company that will last; we don’t need my face on the cover of the magazine all the time.” [As opposed to Oprah, who still graces each cover of O, Martha Stewart hasn’t been on the cover of her magazine since the January 2001 issue.]
At a certain point in the life cycle of a media group, the main concern becomes less about expansion than about policing the borders. While Stewart focuses her attention on her company’s vital relationship with the troubled Kmart (Martha Stewart Omnimedia announced this week that first-quarter earnings fell to $2.9 million, or 6 cents per share, from $6.2 million, or 13 cents per share, a year earlier, due to the publishing ad slump and a new royalty structure with Kmart), her apparent success story has been subjected to strident media scrutiny in the recent unauthorized biography “Martha Inc.,” written by business journalist Christopher Byron. Byron uses a dime-store Freudian analysis to recalculate Stewart’s business success as personal failure. According to Byron, Stewart was raised by a demanding, tyrannical father and then “became” him once she got older. “In the celebration of the American women at her finest,” Byron writes in one representative passage, “Martha Stewart became the American businessman at his worst.”
“I haven’t read Chris Byron’s book, and I’m now working on a book of my own, which will be much more interesting,” she said, going on to comment on the aphrodisiac-like lure of biographies that purport to unearth the dark side of women’s business achievements.”There have been no catastrophic occurrences in my life that catapulted me either up or down,” Stewart asserted emphatically. “But all this attention is because I’m a woman. Men don’t have a clue. I couldn’t just sit at home and live off my money. [Growing up] I didn’t have any money. I just wish there were more women in business, more female ceo’s, so that less attention could be focused on the few of us who have made it there. It’s ridiculous. And I think that all women in business probably feel that way.”
And she closed out the synergy discussion with a patented Martha-ism. “Synergy is hard. It takes work, work, work, and, most importantly, good information.”