As one person put it to me, "It's nice to have a trade covering, you know, the trades, because we haven't really had that in some time." Indeed, it's fantastic to see our colleagues at Variety dig in and represent the industry as they are with the newly branded "Artisans" initiative, and it's a long, long time coming. It is and has been an underreported element of the business, but I've happily seen that slowly shift in the decade we've been diligently, sometimes obsessively, covering below-the-line here at In Contention.
From the word go, we made these artists a priority around here. They have an insight into the process that is always preferable to the soundbyte-prone "stars" of the circuit, and as someone who has always come at this work from that perspective, those chats are typically the most fulfilling to me. As we've forged ahead, we've witnessed other outlets on the scene take an interest, just as we've seen publicists take on more and more of these individuals as clients, recognizing another shade of the story to be told.
"Below-the-line has been unrepresented and undervalued, for that matter," cinematographer Greig Fraser ("Zero Dark Thirty," "Foxcatcher") told me regarding coverage of his and his fellow artists' work in the trades. "Anything that raises the specter I think would be brilliant, to see more activity."
Variety has always, of course, offered reportage on the crafts categories in the Oscar season. This new branding is a much-needed showcase of that work, however, with a far more amplified focus. With The Hollywood Reporter functioning more as a glossy consumer magazine with attention paid to CEOs and celebrities (though Carolyn Giardina still manages to get crafts coverage in there from time to time), Variety really would do well to distinguish itself in the space as an outlet dedicated to the nuts and bolts of the industry.
"The more people can look at all of these disciplines and get an inside perspective, it might open people's eyes," said 16-time Oscar-nominated sound mixer Greg P. Russell ("Transformers," "Skyfall"). "That's why I've always been supportive of In Contention; it's been a great platform for what we do. I'm all for anything that can better inform and educate not only the laymen, but also those in the industry. To this day there are filmmakers who don't understand the difference between sound design and sound editorial and sound mixing."
Funny he should mention that. "I am at a meeting now with the editors branch of the Academy to make the whole process of editing clear to members who are not editors," said Oscar-winning film editor and ACE (American Cinema Editors) President Alan Heim ("Network," "All That Jazz"). "I even made a film a few years back called 'The Cutting Edge' that was a teaching tool. Editors are very aware that we work in a vacuum. It's not like costume design or production design where people can see it. But editing is a deep, creative part of the film process, has been historically for 100 years, and people still don't know what we do. To get this out in Variety, theoretically a professional magazine, and make people aware, it's long overdue."
Five-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri knows a thing or two about not just public, but industry misperception of the work he does. He has been at the forefront of the rise of performance capture technology on franchises like "Avatar," "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings" and "Planet of the Apes," which have become whipping boys for artists and audiences alike who don't fully grasp the work being done.
"I think it's valuable [for the industry] to understand all the disciplines, particularly with so much of filmmaking now starting to rely on digital technologies of so many forms," he said. "What you've got now is an image and a performance that are no longer married together, as they would be if an actor was being photographed. It takes a little bit of thinking about that process to understand why it's beneficial to tell a story that way. And we always try to approach the work we do as a creative partnership, so it's fantastic that they're looking at the contributions of everyone associated with film. Film is the most collaborative art form you can imagine."
On the awards front, where The Academy is often under pressure to reduce the amount of awards presented on the annual Oscar telecast (Which categories do you think would be the first to get the boot in such a scenario?), this sort of elevated attention is of considerable importance. Russell mentions, for instance, that he and his colleagues in the sound branch are always working hard to maintain their two awards. "Obviously the lines are crossing, but these are still completely different disciplines," he said of sound mixing and sound editing. "It's tough to raise that awareness. We don't get the glory that the celebrities get, but we are making artistic decisions every day. It's just like brushes of paint. It's an art, what we do. Randy Thom said it best when he won for 'The Incredibles.'"
He was referencing, of course, a comment we have trotted out in this space countless times, from the legendary sound editor's Oscar acceptance speech in 2005. To wit:
"Certain Academy Awards, like Sound and Visual Effects and Editing, are sometimes referred to as technical awards. They are not technical awards; they're given for artistic decisions. Sometimes we make them better than others, and I guess we made a couple of good ones on this one."
The Artisans initiative was not, according to Variety Vice President and Executive Editor Steven Gaydos, met with much push-back at all from owner Jay Penske. One might expect coverage of this sort to not prove "sexy" enough in a business increasingly watered down for lowest-common-denominator consideration. But Penske purchased Variety in 2012 with a mind to differentiate it in the trade space, even from website Deadline.com, which he also owns.
"It fits Jay's vision from day one, which was, 'Let's not do what THR is doing,'" Gaydos said. "Let's double down on being the business' bible. Instead of writing about handbags and shoes, why don't we talk about women working below the line?' My job is to make sure this is not a loss-leader. But I believe there's $1-2 million a year in ad support for writing about production. There are technology companies, agencies who represent these people, locations, there's enough stuff there that whatever it costs us to produce every week, we can make sure we're in the black."
What more can you really say other than, "It's about time?" Heim's "long overdue" is one way to put it, but Gaydos went a step further: "I think the greatest saying about Variety ever said is that it's the toy car that bumps into all the furniture and eventually finds the door."
Variety will be celebrating the Artisans launch at their offices this evening, looking to spread the word to publicists and the artisans themselves.
For more on all of this, check out Brent Lang's cover story "Women at Work," focusing on female below-the-line artists, as well as a below-the-line impact report on a wide ranging field of craftspeople.