Los Angeles Times
Ankler and Puck want to become essential Hollywood reads. Is there room?
It was June 2020, weeks after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, sparking Black Lives Matter protests around the world and a widescale conversation about race. In Hollywood, power players pledged support, money and change. Richard Rushfield, a veteran entertainment journalist, took note. Then he took aim, posting screenshots of the mostly white executives of nearly every studio, network and streamer under the headline “Class Photos” in his industry newsletter, the Ankler.
It was the kind of bold, no-holds-barred take that Rushfield set out to deliver when he launched the Ankler in 2017. Intended as a wry alternative to the soft touch and frequent gladhanding of the Hollywood trades, it began as an email Rushfield sent to his friends.
The self-described “newsletter Hollywood loves to hate and hates to love” soon garnered attention as a buzzy voice in a fast-changing industry; it recently moved to the digital newsletter platform Substack, a player in the growing inbox subscription journalism game.
In December Janice Min, the high-profile media executive who had successfully revamped the Hollywood Reporter after joining it in 2010, announced that she had partnered with Rushfield, becoming the Ankler’s co-owner, chief executive and editor-in-chief. In June, they picked up a $1.5-million funding round from startup accelerator Y Combinator and other investors, including Richard Parsons’ Imagination Capital, Axios reported. They plan to slingshot the Ankler into a more ambitious media business.
They’re not alone. Matthew Belloni, another former editor of the Hollywood Reporter and Min colleague — both insist they are not competitors and remain friends — began making plans with media stalwarts including Jon Kelly (Vanity Fair, New York Times) and Joe Purzycki (Vox Media, Medium). They also saw an opening.
In September, after several months in stealth beta mode and a $7-million investment from private equity firm TPG and Standard Industries’ media investment arm, Belloni unveiled What I’m Hearing, his subscription newsletter take on the entertainment business, initially as a free, invitation-only email.
Belloni’s column on
Hollywood is a cornerstone of Puck, a new digital media company covering power and money centers in Washington, D.C., Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Puck too has lofty plans.
For decades, Hollywood’s insider entertainment news has been driven by the two major trade publications, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, and, more recently, online publications the Wrap and Deadline. Now, two new media ventures are angling to be the authoritative source on Hollywood gossip and goingson, built around the personalities of veteran entertainment journalists offering their own — they say — unvarnished take on an industry that is obsessed with coverage of itself.
Ankler and Puck are just the latest upstarts in the Hollywood trade business. In 2006, as the trades remained largely a 20th century print species, Nikki Finke upended the market with her blog, initially called Deadline Hollywood Daily; it often set the news agenda with her rapid-volley exclusives and her in-you-face reporting that spared few. (Finke sold what became Deadline.com to MMC, the previously named Penske Media Corp., in 2009, parting ways with the company four years later.)
Analysts said it’s too early to say whether these new digital outlets will supplant the old guard, but both are making waves and seeking to capitalize on a period of upheaval in the media landscape.
The entertainment industry is being rocked by cultural and economic shifts. The once fiercely competitive rivalry among Hollywood trades has largely gone the way of the theatrical window, as longtime adversaries are for the most part cozily housed under one corporate master (P-MRC Holdings, a joint venture between MRC and Penske Media). With few exceptions, the weakening ad market has put financial pressures on all legacy media publications.
“I think we’ve seen with the endless convulsions of media, that scale is a really expensive game to chase,” said Min, who brief ly worked as an executive at the nowdefunct short-form video platform Quibi before leaving in 2019.
“What we like about the Ankler is it’s profitable, it’s small, we have a very direct relationship with the audience,” Min added. “And we could also create this very inside conversation when you know your audience that well.”
For his part, Belloni said: “I always knew that my play was going to be on the niche side. And I felt there was a hole in the coverage. Listen, I’m a guy who spent 15 years making the sausage. So, I know why the sausage is often missing key spices. With Puck, I am able to do a fullflavor product.”
Belloni’s dispatches are breezy with an all-knowing, all-hearing, enviable speeddial quality — filled with boldfaced names and a liberal sprinkling of “according to sources” or “I’m told,” reminiscent of the once feared, now largely quiet columnist Finke.
“It’s like you’re getting an email from your friend who is maybe a little more informed than you but is a peer,” Belloni said.
Take one of Belloni’s columns from March tucking into the ongoing tumult at Disney. “I was having dinner last Friday in Brentwood with Geoff Morrell…” — Disney’s then-new, and, it turned out, short-lived senior executive vice president and corporate affairs officer — “when he spotted a familiar face a few tables away. It was Bob Iger, the former Disney CEO, quietly dining with his wife, Willow Bay.”
At the same time, Belloni’s conversational tone can quickly give way to dart throwing, as when he called the “Star Wars” franchise a “disaster,” saying, “It’s Time to Take ‘Star Wars’ Movies Away From Kathy Kennedy,” referring to the president of Lucasfilm.
“I always think of my audience as insiders and people who would like to be insiders,” Belloni said. “And I think that really resonates in a media environment where everything seems like it has just been sanitized a little.”
Over at Ankler, Rushfield’s posts tend to be wonkier, more analytical but with bite. In recent columns, he took the industry to task as a major player in the “national fetishistic gun culture,” warned that “the elements that gave us Harvey [Weinstein] are alive and well; not just the serial sexual predator but the monster who terrorized, too”; and asked “Who Killed the Marvel Juggernaut?,” essentially eulogizing the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But there’s froth too. A scooplet about Endeavor chief Ari Emanuel’s summer wedding “A Very Ari Wedding,” featured in Ankler’s Hollywood Transom, teased, “We’ve heard invitations are out (are you an A or B-list Endeavor client? Guess you now know).”
Readers are privy to all of Ankler’s musings for a $17 monthly subscription (or $149 a year). The fee includes Rushfield’s columns as well as a growing menu of offerings from contributors, among them the Wakeup, former HBO exec Sean McNulty’s take on the business, and, of course, a podcast.
“Nobody says they need more information. They need better information. And that’s really our value proposition,” Min said.
Both ventures’ business models are based on subscriptions. Both are betting that readers crave intimate relationships with namebrand writers and their expertise and are willing to pay a premium to have that content delivered to their inboxes.
“If you produce great content and you know your audience really well, it doesn’t really matter if you are coming from a 100-yearold media brand or a newmedia upstart. If you produce great content with a well-defined audience, you can find an audience for that,” Belloni said.
Puck offers two subscription tiers. A $12.99 monthly fee, or $100 annually, gives subscribers all of the site’s columns, breaking news and podcasts as well as personal emails from Puck’s authors. The “Inner Circle” $250 annual subscription provides direct access to Puck’s “elite talent,” including in-person events and “off the record conference calls” with its authors.
NEW BUSINESS MODEL
At Puck, journalists are given equity in the business and, in addition to salaries, receive bonuses based on the number of subscriptions their work produces. They also receive compensation based on IP development.
According to editor-inchief Jon Kelly, Puck’s business model reflects the idea that content creators have real power in the economy and should be at the center of the business calculation. Puck has more than a dozen writers, including Julia Ioffe and Baratunde Thurston.
“They were the ones who were driving the engagement and the audience. And the closer you get to the actual creator, the closer you can get to a Matt Belloni, the more powerful the work,” he said.
“Journalists had become mispriced influencers in the market,” Kelly added. “New brands were going to be replacing old brands at an accelerated pace and a new business model had emerged.”
While neither outlet will divulge specific financials, both say they have far exceeded initial projections.
According to Min, between January and July annual subscription revenue tripled, with paid subscriptions doubling. She says the Ankler now has a total of about 25,000 paid and free subscribers, and that profitability is in the low seven figures.
Kelly and Joe Purzycki, Puck’s chief executive officer, declined to provide similar figures.
And while both entities emphasize the subscription model, they both also still rely on advertising and corporate sponsorships from the very studios and streamers they are covering.
Both say that by leading with subscriptions, and remaining largely free from putting out special issues and award season coverage, they can produce content without fear or favor.
The ad-supported trade model, said Rushfield, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, means “there are so many other things you have to keep in mind for your ad sales. Are you going to get invited to the junkets? Are you going to get invited to the premiere? Will they give you scoops? Will they retweet you? It’s endless.”
Still, questions remain as to whether the market is big enough to support multiple outlets in the long term.
“The people in this business that need to know already subscribe to so many different things,” said Gabriel Kahn, co-director of the Media, Economics and Entrepreneurship program at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “I’m not sure who the audience is that it’s not already overlapped with some of these other publications. I want to know how many are paying money for Hollywood coverage and not already paying for [the trades] or the L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and so forth. Which of those could they live without?”
The jury is still out, according to several industry insiders contacted by The Times. They cited fear of being “Anklered” or “Pucked.”
“They have become part of my daily reading,” said one prominent power agent. “I started because my clients mentioned it. I just skim them.”
Another insider cited the problem of information overload, saying: “It better be interesting and additive, otherwise no one is going to pay for this for long.”
In recent weeks, both outlets have begun to expand their offerings.
In July, Ankler began charging $250 a month for the Optionist, which provides information on available IP to option (Min said nearly a dozen projects mentioned in the newsletter have been optioned). Min and Rushfield are eyeing an international move with the addition of an Ankler U.K. and mulling broadening their coverage to sports and gaming.
“There are lots of different areas where we believe depth of information would be welcome. And a lot of that is in this newsletter format and trying to attach the right talent to what we believe is an audience with a market,” said Min, who along with Rushfield spent three months this year at Y Combinator’s “boot camp.”
Puck is further harnessing its talent.
Last month, Julia Alexander, an analyst at Parrot Analytics, became a regular contributor penning columns on streaming under the heading “What I’m hearing +.” The move followed Belloni’s bringing on board his former Hollywood Reporter legal reporter, Eriq Gardner.
Puck also is finalizing a deal for a multiseason documentary series with C13 Originals, Cadence 13’s audio documentary studio.
This spring, Belloni began what he hopes will be a quarterly invitation-only private dinner series. Culled from the ranks of Inner Circle subscribers and providing the opportunity for sponsorships, the first was held for 15 people at producer Jason Blum’s house; Belloni says guests included executives from Disney, Netflix, Hello Sunshine, Universal and the Blacklist.
Belloni plans to hold a reception in New York City with Hulu and the creators of “The Dropout.” “We’re going to have networking events and tastemaker events throughout the year,” he said. “That’s part of our strategy.”
Purzycki sees other major opportunities in tapping into Inner Circle subscribers. “That tier is almost 40% of Fortune 100 CEOs,” he said. One area they plan to experiment with this summer is booking consultation phone calls with Puck journalists.
“This is an opportunity for our subscribers to get closer than ever before to them as domain experts,” Purzycki said.