“A dizzying tale of rumor and denial!” raved the New York Post last week, touting the season’s most captivating melodrama— an incestuous and keenly observed love triangle with two ill-matched suitors wooing a scrappy up-and-comer. Where’s Nora Ephron when we need her?
On one side, you’ve got Jay Penske—automotive scion; prep-school lacrosse legend; rich, handsome, polished. A hard-charging mogul whose expanding stable of titles at the Penske Media Corporation includes Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, Rolling Stone, and Billboard, as well as IndieWire, GoldDerby, and TVLine. Think James Spader, but less oily.
And on the other? Rumpled journo Richard Rushfield—irascible, curmudgeonly, but shrewd. A Peter Falk type, who parlayed a possibly unhealthy obsession with American Idol into a series of gigs editing entertainment coverage for Los Angeles Times, Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Yahoo! News, then launched the Ankler, a sardonic newsletter for studio insiders.
Caught in between them is, yes, a woman. It wouldn’t be fitting to call her the love interest, since it wasn’t her affections these suitors were vying for, but her scoops. Tatiana Siegel (Sandy Bullock? Connie Britton?) is a longtime investigative reporter, known for a series of town-shaking takedowns—Scott Rudin, Kevin Tsujihara—in the Hollywood Reporter, where she served most recently as executive film editor.
It all came to a head on December 14, when the New York Times reported that Rushfield had teamed up with editorial golden girl Janice Min (Awkwafina meets Laura Linney) to expand the Ankler into a much bigger and more ambitious Hollywood media contender. Guess who their first hire was. Or so they believed, until Penske claimed otherwise.
But before we delve any deeper into the Siegel saga, some background might be useful because the squabble isn’t merely about a single Hollywood journalist (who actually lives in Rhode Island)—it’s an epic struggle for control of the twenty-first-century entertainment-media-industrial complex.
For most of the twentieth century, Variety was viewed as the paper of record—the only news source anyone in town really cared about. That began to change as the internet brought a slew of blogs—Harry Knowles’s Ain’t It Cool News, Nikki Finke’s Deadline, Sharon Waxman’s TheWrap—onto the stage. Then, in 2010, Min, former editor of Us Weekly, swooped in and gave THR a much needed glow up, turning the sleepy daily into a glossy must-read weekly. And now, in the early days of the 2020s, a new species of Hollywood media has arrived on the scene. Newsletters like Ankler and Puck (home to a well-read industry column by former Min protégé Matt Belloni), along with Insider’s new Hollywood service and a smattering of others, have opened a whole new front in the war for eyeballs in Hollywood: the email in-box.
To the casual observer, all this may seem a bit mystifying. After all, in a world where even Steven Spielberg can’t open a movie, and the colorful if monstrous figures of yore have given way to a bloodless new algorithmic priesthood, why would anyone care?
One answer, as always, is money. Even as ratings for awards shows continue to tumble, the market for For Your Consideration ads is as strong as ever.
“No one under the age of 35 cares about wealthy people giving themselves a pat on the back,” one top studio executive says. “Those days are over.”
But that hasn’t stopped industry newcomers Netflix, Apple, and Amazon (the Ankler’s launch sponsor, which has also bought ads for Belloni’s column) from dropping hundreds of millions every year to boost their contenders—especially in the ever-popular special issues. “If you’re not in them, it’s like, ‘How come every other movie was there except mine?’ ” says another veteran executive. “The trades play on those insecurities.”
Industry insecurity may also help explain why upstarts like the Ankler and Puck have been able to find an audience (even at the Ankler’s $17-a-month subscription price). Those boffo Spider-Man numbers notwithstanding, Hollywood is in crisis. Between an attenuated pandemic that may hasten the end of theatrical moviegoing and the implacable rise of the streamers, nobody knows what’s ahead. They just know it won’t be pretty.
But back to Siegel. News of her defection from THR left Penske “livid,” an insider says. And why wouldn’t he be? You don’t spend a decade stitching together a bona fide media monopoly—and put up with a side-eye from the Justice Department—to just wave adios as one of your prize thoroughbreds trots off to not-especially-greener pastures.
What followed was an unseemly tug-of-war, beginning on December 15, when the THR staff assembled on videoconference for a previously scheduled town hall meeting. After cheery presentations from the editorial and business sides, Penske beamed in from his ninth-floor office to smoothly address the elephant in the Zoom. Tatiana Siegel was indeed taking a new position. Only—plot twist—it wasn’t at the Ankler but at PMC’s own Rolling Stone.
This is the scene in the movie where Siegel looks down to discover that her ankles have been shackled to her office chair and we cut to a grinning Penske dangling a little key: Sources say her contract included a six-month noncompete. Though such clauses are rarely enforced in California, Siegel couldn’t have afforded a lengthy court battle with a man with seemingly bottomless pockets. (A Penske spokesperson denies the company ever threatened legal action.)
The following afternoon, on December 16, Rushfield and Min received an email. A reporter at Penske-owned Variety was writing about Siegel going to Penske-owned Rolling Stone, and would they like to comment? Less than an hour later, as the new team scrambled to formulate a response, the piece went live: “Janice Min Loses First Hire at Ankler Newsletter to Rolling Stone (EXCLUSIVE).” As if that dunking parenthetical weren’t sign enough that this round would be fought bare-knuckled, the story highlighted THR’s “big financial losses” during Min’s editorship and concluded by noting her brief association with Quibi (groin shot).
What Variety reporter Elizabeth Wagmeister didn’t include, curiously, was a comment from Siegel or Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman, nor any indication that she’d even sought one. The Ankler team smelled a rat.
“Publishing this incendiary piece claiming [Siegel] wasn’t coming to us might be part of their negotiation strategy,” Rushfield told Los Angeles, “but it’s not journalism.” (A PMC spokesperson replied, “To suggest that the story in Variety is anything but factual or accurate reporting on a Rolling Stone personnel matter is another example of desperation by the newsletter.”)
The next move was Min’s, via Twitter: “This is insanity,” she wrote, declaring the story “false,” and adding, “What say you, @noahshactman?”
But both the Rolling Stone editor and his supposed new hire didn’t utter a word for six suspenseful days, until Wagmeister’s Variety story was updated with words of mutual admiration from the two of them. Then Siegel tweeted, Solomon-like, that she was “joining Rolling Stone as a senior writer AND The Ankler as an editor at large.”
So, officially, Siegel now holds two titles and has multiple overlords—Penske and Shachtman over at PMC and Rushfield and Min at the Ankler. What that means exactly is still an open question.
“She’ll be writing for both of us,” Rushfield declares. “No one will be putting a meter on her time.”
Or will they? “Rolling Stone is thrilled to have Tatiana join their team as a full-time senior writer and reporter,” PMC insists, noting that her role at the Ankler is limited to a podcast.
So yeah, awkward.
Siegel declined to comment for this story, so we’re left to speculate on one key point. Why would she have even considered ditching a steady gig—thereby nuking her relationship with the most powerful publisher in Hollywood—to take a flyer with an iffy new venture? It can’t have been money. Although there’s a ton of awards-season cash sloshing around these days, Ankler Media is very much a shoestring operation. It received $125,000 from startup accelerator Y Combinator, along with an advance on earnings as part of the Substack Pro program. But that’s not enough to make anybody rich, at least not yet.
Instead, sources at THR believe Siegel was motivated by a tense relationship with Reporter stablemate Kim Masters, a legendary journalistic giant killer with more pelts on her wall than Don Jr. The relationship grew especially frosty, sources say, due to differing takes on actor Ray Fisher’s battle with Joss Whedon and Warner Bros. (Neither reporter would discuss the matter on the record.)
As for Penske, PMC staffers tend to speak highly of the owner, crediting him with investing in serious journalism and backing up his reporters when the legal letters start flying. But nobody we spoke to considered it healthy for one individual to wield so much influence, and many believe consolidation has dulled the trades’ edge. As one exec lamented, “there is nobody poking the bear every day and no one to be genuinely afraid of.”
If the inbox upstarts can reinvigorate that tradition of holding power players to account and providing truly thoughtful analysis, the industry as a whole will be the beneficiary. And few will profit as much as Jay Penske, whose fate is now tied inextricably to that of Hollywood itself. If E.T. bites it, so does Elliot.
Whatever the reason Siegel “ankled” her gig at THR, she’s certainly got the town’s attention. And who knows? Maybe her instincts were right, and the age of the in-box really is at hand.
“The truth is, everyone’s looking for answers,” a top studio executive says. “I think of it like, if you want to know if you have cancer, you can look at the trades. But if you want to know why you have cancer, you might look at the Ankler.”
Either way, the prognosis is poor. “There’s a reason that people slow down when there’s an accident on the 405,” the executive adds. “They’re looking to see if there’s any blood.”
Aaron Gell is a writer and editor. His 2018 story, “Did Brian Easley Have to Die?”, is the basis of the forthcoming feature 892, starring John Boyega and the late Michael K. Williams, premiering in the dramatic competition at Sundance.