By Michael Miner
Will Screen Go Blank?
When Ruth Ratny hit bottom she pretended more amusement than she felt. “Shafted!” was the glib headline on the cover of her magazine last October. “SCREEN editor tells of harrowing elevator shaft dive and miraculous escape.”
The story proper allowed that Screen had long thought of itself as a “sitcom” and observed that “this year has produced richer material than ever before.” Ratny, Screen’s owner and editor and the chronicler of her own misfortunes, then proceeded to the particulars: “Just recently we experienced the meltdown of one of our writers, who gained at least 50 lbs in a matter of months and fell asleep during interviews….And there was the former employee who filed nine Dept. of Labor wage claims….And did I mention the employee who used my stolen ATM card to access $4,200 from my checking account and then sought unemployment benefits? Or the non-bookkeeping bookkeeper?”
This brought Ratny to her story’s capper–her plunge a few days before into the elevator shaft of the four-story brownstone on West Erie where she lives and puts out her magazine. She wrote that she fell half a floor “and landed on my back on the mechanicals, a tangle of electric wires and criss-crossed metal tubing….For 90 minutes I half-sat, half-lay, half-stood in the black, 3×5-foot enclosure, fingering with enormous frustration the recalcitrant cell phone.” The phone finally kicked in, and she dialed 911. “I am bruised, achey and frequently cranky,” she reported, “but I am alive.”
Ratny was attempting to shrug off a pretty serious accident. “She was hurt,” says Ron Ver Kuilen, managing director of the Illinois Film Office. “She was hurt bad. I saw the pictures.” Shirley Kelly, Screen’s office manager, says, “She was in bed two weeks. She had a bruise on one leg from the knee to her hip that was half the size of a very large watermelon–a tremendous hematoma. She’d work until she couldn’t and then go upstairs and lie down–and then come back.”
Aside from the troubles Ratny recounted were the ones that went without saying. Though the front of Screen continued to assert, “The Chicago Production Weekly,” Ratny had in fact cut back to biweekly publication months before. This was in response to the six-month-long actors’ strike that began last May 1 and all but shut down the commercial-making industry in this country.
“Oh, my God,” Ratny says, “it was a universal disaster coast to coast. The cost to LA alone was $330 million. Canada benefited by $2.8 billion in American commercials. It affected us immediately. Our business was cut in half. Our advertisers had no one to advertise to. Nobody was working.”
So even before her accident it was common knowledge that Ratny, who’d begun Screen as a mimeographed newsletter in 1979 and is now in her mid-60s, wanted out from under. She might sell the magazine. She might bring in a partner with money and a head for business. Or she might just stop publishing. “It wouldn’t have surprised me two months ago if Ruth had just shut the door,” says Ver Kuilen. “But she didn’t. Part of it is ego, and part of it’s her drive not to see Screen go away.”
She’s not alone in hoping that doesn’t happen. “Ruth has a reputation of sometimes not getting it right,” says Ver Kuilen. “But in the big scheme of things people respect the magazine, and I don’t know anybody who doesn’t read it religiously. It’s a part of the infrastructure.”
As such, Screen’s a great place for making show-business contacts, which is why writers such as Carl Kozlowski–who also writes for the Reader–liked working there. “Carl is an ever-aspiring screenplay writer,” explains Jane Burek, a former colleague. “He was on the phone to California two or three hours a day. He was constantly working his entertainment career.”
“I can’t deny that,” says Kozlowski, “but I always got the job done.” Burek has a script of her own she hopes to peddle. Even Ratny has been shopping around a couple of screenplays and an idea for a sitcom.
Kozlowski started at Screen in 1998. He left in the fall of ’99 to intern at the Tribune but came back in early 2000. He left again last September. He’s the writer Ratny then made fun of for gaining 50 pounds and falling asleep all the time. He was hurt and angry–she knew he had a condition–but such was the magazine’s allure that he and Ratny made up and he went back to work for her in November. “We always described Screen as the Hotel California,” he says. “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
Two weeks ago, Kozlowski and Ratny parted company for the third time. “She laid off one of the last two salespeople,” he recalls. “I went to her around lunchtime and said, ‘I’m kind of curious. Do I have a job on Monday?’ She said, ‘No, you should plan on being home for a while.'”
What Kozlowski thought Ratny was telling him was that she didn’t know if Screen would be in business on Monday. He says, “My assumption was that maybe the magazine will sell, maybe things will work out, and in the interim I should cool my heels and wait.”
Possibly he heard her wrong. Ratny won’t talk about Kozlowski on the record, but her office manager will. Shirley Kelly says Ratny was trying to tell Kozlowski that he was fired. “Even with her generosity, if they’re not producing you can’t keep paying them,” she says. “Our financials don’t allow that.”
Possibly though, Kozlowski didn’t hear Ratny wrong. “What would the logic be that I wasn’t wanted around there any longer?” he wonders. “I was the last writer left.” Burek adds, “For all intents and purposes Screen is history. They have no writers.” But Ratny says she has since signed a dozen freelancers.
At any rate, Kozlowski hasn’t cooled his heels. He’s thrown in with Michael Lundbom, a veteran of the Cahners Publishing trade magazines who’d talked to Ratny a couple of times about buying Screen without ever closing a deal. “I heard several years ago she was thinking of selling,” Lundbom says. “We couldn’t come to terms, but she offered me the job of vice president for marketing and product development. I had some ideas for ancillary profit centers. One I pulled off–a special-events wall calendar. After her elevator fall I was contacted that she was willing to sell again. I came back, started the relationship up again, and did the calendar a second year.” But Ratny never named a price he was willing to pay.
Lundbom not only believes that Screen tapped a significant market niche; he thinks he can expand it. So Lundbom, who’s on the masthead of the latest issue of Screen as “special projects manager,” has decided to start a magazine of his own. It’s tentatively titled “Chicago Imagining & Sound,” and he hopes to launch it in June. Kozlowski will be one of his writers.
Lundbom didn’t mention any of this to Ratny. What if she finds out? “I think she’d be surprised,” he says. And angry? “I hope not. This didn’t really kick into gear until we felt in our heart that Screen was going to cease publication, or we’d have tried it years ago. I don’t think this market can support two publications serving the same niche.”
So I wind up telling Ratny about Lundbom’s plans. “Oh that’s wonderful, that’s interesting,” she says. “Well, I wish him luck.”
The premise Lundbom and his sales manager, Cliff Johnson, are operating on, I tell her, is that you’re going under.
“Well, they’re not me, are they?” she says. “I have an issue coming out today and another April 9 that’s 48 pages and loaded with advertising. The last time I looked I’m still in business.”
She’s under no illusions about the business she’s in. “I run a small trade publication for a shrinking industry in a city that ranks maybe fourth or fifth in the U.S., and we’ve been struggling to keep this industry alive for years,” she says. “Would I sell the magazine if I had an offer? Yes. Has the industry changed? Yes.”
One former Screen feature Lundbom hopes to resurrect in his new magazine is a column on the Internet and media called “Jane.com.” Jane Burek wrote it until she quit last December.
She thought Screen was a hoot. She remembers, “During the height of her financial troubles last spring–it was on deadline–she would storm into the editing room and say, ‘If we don’t publish this fucking magazine on time I’m going to blow up the building.’ What makes it funny is that no one even looked up from their editing.”
“I say this every week,” says Ratny. “That’s my mantra.”
Burek goes on, “It wasn’t uncommon for us to have an editors’ meeting on Monday and for her to say, ‘OK, the next issue is about filming in California.’ We’d go make phone calls to California. And by lunch she’d say, ‘By the way, we changed it. We’re now doing animation.’ And the next day she’d say, ‘We couldn’t get any animation advertisers so we’re going to do equipment and sound.’ I had so many stories stockpiled that whatever her whim was I could usually pull up a feature, but that’s how you had to work.”
“Our sections are based on the advertising we get,” says Ratny. “If all the advertising is animation there’s no point in writing about filming in California. You can’t run a magazine for 22 years on a whim.”
Burek says, “A lot of people would come and get a test run, and they’d leave for lunch and never come back. I thought it was a fun place to work, but you could tell when people came from a legitimate company. If they had too much structure and hierarchy in their old job, they weren’t going to work out.”
Says Ratny, “I’ve had people who worked here for years. My expectations are, you come in on time and don’t screw around, and you’re not on the telephone, and you don’t promote your comedic gigs.”
Ratny concluded that with Kozlowski and Burek as my primary sources, I was unlikely to write a column that would do her a lick of good. So she gave me the names of people in the business who would set me straight, people like Ron Ver Kuilen and Shirley Kelly. Then she called all of them and told them to call me. Which they did. “Any kind of negative thing about Screen is going to hurt all of the film community in Chicago,” one friend admonished. Another introduced himself and said, “I hear you’re going to smear her.”
Barbara Roche, a former casting director, said she’d love to see her friend sell Screen and walk away from it. But though “half a dozen people in the last two months have approached her,” she thinks there’s no one “with a true offer on the table.” Roche was sure of one thing. “Screen is not going to close. If she has to run that paper by herself, she will run it by herself. I know her.”
The universal reaction to the redesigned Tribune is that it looks like what you’d expect to come across in Peoria or Terre Haute or Kirksville, not a world-class city. “Lacks gravitas”–that’s me talking. “Looks geeky”–that’s my daughter. That said, form, function, and familiarity take time to unbraid. There has never been a redesign that I liked to begin with. By the end of last week I was beginning to wonder why I’d been so horrified.
But that said, I’ll note that the Tribune doesn’t sport the only new face-lift in town. After the Tribune dropped its final-markets edition, the Sun-Times redesigned its own, and right out of the box it looked terrific. By the way, if the Tribune, whose new design was driven by the decision to cut newsprint costs by narrowing the page width an inch, were to narrow itself another inch, the Tribune would be no wider than the Sun-Times.
Sad to say, the final-markets edition isn’t the only makeover the Sun-Times recently unveiled. Digital Chicago, which it discontinued last December as a separate magazine for the city’s new-media industry, reemerged this month as a cheesy-looking supplement produced by Niche Publications, a subsidiary of the Sun-Times’s advertising department. I asked some advertisers to comment.
“I didn’t even read the articles, it was so tastelessly put together.” “Half the ads are illegible because they didn’t prepare their digital files correctly. Productionwise it’s a very amateurish job, and contentwise there’s just not much to recommend it.” “From meaty, hearty material it’s now spoon-fed mass-consumers’ garbage.”
One advertiser pointed out that the masthead doesn’t even list the position of editor.
The old Digital Chicago maintained a controlled circulation of about 30,000. All advertisers received free subscriptions. When the Sun-Times absorbed the magazine, it should have sent out letters inviting those readers to convert to the Sun-Times. In a blunder of serious proportions, what many got instead was an invoice billing them for Sun-Times subscriptions they didn’t have.
Reality is an art, not a science.
Three March 21 headlines:
New York Times: “Bush and Sharon Find Much in Common.”
Washington Post: “Bush Assures Sharon on U.S. Role in Talks.”
Chicago Tribune: “Bush Tells Sharon: Ease Clampdown.”
Three March 27 headlines:
New York Times: “Palestinians Kill Baby Girl in West Bank.”
Washington Post: “Killing of Israeli Baby Sets Off New Violence.”
Chicago Tribune: “U.S. Endorses Efforts to Ease Arab Suffering.”
Then there was this:
Sun-Times, March 23: “The world’s No. 1 aircraft manufacturer said it’s considering Chicago with Denver and Dallas. But don’t believe it. This campaign for an estimated 500 jobs and their attached bragging rights is strictly Chicago vs. Dallas, one-on-one, two bare-knuckled competitors with global aspirations who know how to cut a deal….Denver falls short in all respects.”
Tribune, March 23: “Denver may hold an edge over Chicago and Dallas in the appeal of its ruggedly beautiful setting.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.