Journo’s Boffo Lingo: The Slang of Daily Variety, Part III

(This article originally appeared in Verbatim, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring 2005.)

Those who for the first time open up Daily Variety, the trade paper of Hollywood and the American entertainment industry, are often baffled and stymied by the paper’s use of language. Variety employs a number of grammatical tricks and jargon terms, which it dubs “slanguage,” to achieve its distinctive style.

Oscar season brings its own set of slang terms to the fore. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the Acad; “Acad voters sometimes overlooked big studio pics in favor of smaller films” (28 Jan 2004, p. 1). The best films of the year receive nods; “Aussie Naomi Watts, who garnered a nod from the Acad for her perf in ‘21 Grams’” (28 Jan 2004, p. 23), or noms; “New Line’s ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ led the charge with 11 noms” (28 Jan 2004, p. 1). Before the Oscars are awarded, all the nommed films are distributed to Acad members in the form of taped or DVD screeners. The annual broadcast of the Academy Award ceremony is the Oscarcast and the other various award shows that are broadcast in the Spring are generally dubbed kudocasts. The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction prompted this headline about concerns of FCC fines for misbehavior at the award shows: “MORE NIPPLE RIPPLES Kudocasts scramble; pols eye increased fines” (6 Feb 2004, p. 7).

The production process garners its share of slanguage too. Studios evaluate potential projects by giving them a script-see; “Luhrmann’s bigscreen return, ‘Alexander the Great’ for U and DreamWorks and starring Leonardo Di Caprio (his Romeo+Juliet star), gets another script-see in February” (15 Jan 2004, p. 1). If the studio likes the script, it may greenlight the project. The person charge of the business side of a film or TV production doesn’t just produce it, they exec produce it. Once the business groundwork is laid, the real work begins and the film is lensed; “U.S. producers will lense thriller "Genesis Code" in Brazil” (Variety.com, 10 Mar 2004).

When a film is finished it is released for sneak previews or sneaks, “‘Bad Boys II’ arrested a beefy $621,000 on 83 [screens] in Sweden and $469,000 on 66 in Norway, including sneaks” (16 Sep 2003, p. 27). Shortly after sneaks, the film bows or has a preem, premiere, in the theater chains, or circuits; “Loews Cineplex is partnering with marketing company BrandGames on a promo to mark the circuit’s 100th anniversary” (16 Jan 2004, p. 12). Circuits are also known as distribs, distribberies, and exhibs. There are many different types of theaters where the films are unspooled. A hardtop is an indoor movie theater; compare that with the drive-in ozoner, “Noncompeting pic will unspool in the Swiss town’s giant Piazza Grande ozoner” (Variety.com, 28 Jul 1999). There are the arthouses. And film festivals are dubbed sprocket operas by the paper, “There’s that strange but unmistakable whiff of evolution in the air as the world’s best-known sprocket opera, the Cannes Film Festival, enters its 52nd edition” (Variety.com, 10 May 1999).

The goal of all this activity is to have a megapic, or big-budget motion picture; “inspired by scribe-helmer Stephen Sommer’s monster megapic” (16 Sep 2003, p. 1). The hope is to make lots of money at the box office, or B.O., “Oscar’s famous B.O. bounce applies primarily to best-pic nominees and winners” (28 Jan 2004, p. 22). A movie that carries with it high income expectations for the studio is a tentpole; “Universal’s summer 2004 tentpole ‘Van Helsing’ won’t open for another eight months” (16 Sep 2003, p. 1).

After the theater run, the film is released to homevid; “Lorber Media has joined forces with U.K. distrib 3DD Entertainment to launch a U.K. homevid-DVD label” (28 Jan 2004, p. 6). And if the film is really successful, it will succumb to sequel-itis; “Increasingly, survival in movies and TV is going to require similar foresight, not just the regular bouts of ‘sequel-itis’ to which networks and studios have grown accustomed” (28 Jan 2004, p. 2).

Instead of B.O., television toppers are primarily concerned with demo, or demographics; “‘Idol’s’ appeal stretched to viewers outside the 18-49 demo” (28 Jan 2004, p. 12). Some programming is aimed at children and those in that demo are called anklebiters;  “If its auds are limited to anklebiters, the ‘Pet’ opening could be capped at the single-digit millions over three days” (16 Jan 2004, p. 43). Anklebiters typically watch TV on Saturday in the ayem, or a.m.; “Its ayem kids block bowed Saturday” (17 Sep 2003, p. 15).

One of the major factors in determining the ratings for various demos is the sked, which can also be a verb; “The independently financed production is skedded to begin next year” (28 Jan 2004, p. 5). Shows that are on in the early or late evening are fringe, from their position in relation to prime time; “Stations are quickly adding Ryan to their highly visible early fringe time slots” (16 Sep 2003, p. 5). TV series are skeins or, if the show is aired daily, strips; “Show had the usual halo affect [sic] on the Fox sked as new unscripted skein ‘My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance’ opened big on Monday” (28 Jan 2004, p. 12). The individual episodes in a skein are segs; “No word yet on how many segs the actor will appear in” (15 Jan 2004, p. 14).

New skeins are either rookies or frosh; “After a strong start last week, Stephen King’s frosh drama ‘Kingdom Hospital’ suffered the Nielsen version of a cardiac arrest Wednesday night, losing a horrific 35% of its premiere audience” (Variety.com, 11 Mar 2004). The collegiate metaphor is continued in shows that survive their first year, which are called sophomores or sophs.

Successful shows hope to cash in on the lucrative syndication or syndie market; “Warner Bros. is busily working on upgrades of its syndie sophomore ‘The Ellen DeGeneres Show’” (16 Jan 2004, p. 38). Shows that aren’t successful are candidates for revamping; “The necessary revamp comes as ABC and Touchstone execs announced Tuesday that the show [...] will go on” (17 Sep 2003, p. 1).

Most people know that skeins begin with a pilot, but they may not know that Variety has terms for various types of pilots. A backdoor pilot is one filmed as a standalone movie, so it can be broadcast even if it is not picked up as a series. A busted pilot is one which the networks don’t pick up to become a series. If a show’s creator is lucky or a savvy negotiator, he can get a put pilot, one that carries substantial contractual penalties for the network if it is not aired—nearly a guarantee that it will be picked up as a series; “The WB has given one of its largest put pilot commitments ever to an autobiographical half-hour family comedy” (17 Sep 2003, p. 1).

Show biz is first and foremost a biz; it is not all stars and glamour, and Variety is not a glamour paper. At its heart it is a business paper, more interested, for example, in Ben and J.Lo’s box office than in their romance. Variety’s slanguage reflects this as well. All the entertainment companies, the congloms, seek to earn coin; “but it was coin—not the potential merger—that ultimately led to the Peacock landing the project” (16 Sep 2003, p. 29). Ducats is another term for money, but it is also used to mean tickets for a show (which is in some sense the same thing); “the skull and crossbones movie took in double the ducats ($70 million) its closest rival did on opening weekend” (Variety.com, 21 Dec 2003); “Ducats, sold online at vegas.com, allow patrons entry to the concert and provide front-of-the-line entrance to nightclubs” (Variety.com, 3 Dec 2003).

The total amount taken in by a movie is referred to as the cume, short for cumulative total; “Studio figures pic’s re-energized theatrical campaign could add more than $15 million to pic’s current $59 cume.” (28 Jan 2004, p. 22). To earn a large cume, a film must be both hotsy, strong at the box office, and have legs, a long performance run; “The long, not so hotsy, Good Friday weekend put a damper on 1994 grosses” (Variety.com, 4 Apr 1994); “Older-skewing pics usually don’t open big, but this one will have legs judging by its 11% soph sesh improvement in Mexico and its resilience in Australia” (Variety.com, 15 Feb 2004). Box office figures are often improved when a film is nominated for an award. When this happens, the film is said to have received a bounce; “Academy Award winners enjoy the biggest B.O. bounce from Oscar’s trampoline when they were released at the end of the calendar year” (28 Jan 2004, p. 22).

Hollywood is also a huge marketing and publicity machine. Variety refers to this as ad-pub, a clipping of advertising and publicity. Ad-pub attempts to boost, or promote, the studios’ products in an attempt to achieve boffo results at the box office. Ad-pub can appeal directly to theater-goers through television commercials, or blurbs, “Is blurb bang really worth Super bucks?” (headline, referring to Superbowl ads, 1 Feb 2004, p. 1). Or it can attempt to generate buzz indirectly by enthusing, “Mayor Michael Bloomberg enthused about the trio’s efforts to bolster the city” (15 Jan 2004, p. 36), to crix, or critics, and journos; “Crucified by local crix, film still managed a moderate first-week tally late February” (Variety.com, 7 Mar 2004. Those who do ad-pub work are praisers  and public relations firms are praiseries. Another term for ad-pub is tubthumping; “The pic’s helmer, Vadim Perelman, was back in the former Soviet Union to tubthump the Russian release of film” (Variety.com, 7 Mar 2004).

One should not think from all this that Variety’s use of language is sloppy or haphazard. The slanguage is a house style and the paper rigidly adheres to using its own, and only its own, jargon terms. It does not permit non-Variety slang to intrude. Where it does use a general slang term, like most other papers and journals it, somewhat ironically given its extensive use of in-house slang, uses quotes to denote that this is a non-standard word; “Skein, tentatively titled ‘The Player,’ will take an ethnically diverse group of young singles and test whether they have the ‘player’ skills needed to find love (or the reality TV version thereof) of mansions, expensive cars, and exclusive parties;” (16 Jan 2004, p. 5); “those who simply think they’ve got ‘game’” (16 Jan 2004, p. 5).

Variety’s slanguage marks the paper as one of the most distinctive publications in the English language. A few style rules and heavy use of a particular slang glossary creates the aura of celebrity and glitterati. By reading more like a gossip column than a business magazine, Variety brings zest and zing to the world of contracts and business deals.

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