(CN) - When Variety magazine fired two of its top critics this month in favor of cheaper freelancers, Hollywood-watchers began to question the century-old trade magazine's continuing relevance. The very next day, a movie producer sued Variety for fraud, claiming it had agreed to take $400,000 to promote the movie "Iron Cross" as "a possible Oscar contender," then savaged the film in a review.
Calibra Pictures claims in its lawsuit that it paid $400,000 for an "exclusive promotion partnership" that Variety undermined by the hostile review.
Variety responded by seeming to downplay its own relevance, calling the review "only one person's opinion" and allegedly telling Calibra that "no one takes these reviews seriously."
The review, written in December by Robert Koehler, panned the movie and predicted it would "quickly close" after a one-week run, according to Calibra's complaint.
The crux of Calibra's claim is that that Variety's advertising and editorial departments both promised it positive publicity, according to Gary Bostwick, a Los Angeles attorney with experience in defamation litigation.
Calibra said both departments of the magazine claimed the promotion agreement would help secure distribution for "Iron Cross" and said the independent movie "had a chance at one or more Academy Awards."
"As these representations were made by defendants' both editorial and advertising departments, it was inconceivable that defendants would turn on plaintiff and publish a review that negated defendants own representations," according to the complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court.
"I certainly understand why the plaintiff feels wronged," said Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Larry Zerner. "A little film like that, spending so much money on a single source of advertising ... but whether it rises to a legal wrong, that's going to be an uphill battle."
Zerner said the dispute seemed to fall in ethical, rather than legal territory.
"It's almost more of a question of, 'Do they have an ethical obligation to give back the money when they published?', rather than a question of law," Zerner said.
Bostwick added, "You can't tell from the lawsuit who's right and who's wrong."
He characterized the Superior Court complaint as Calibra saying, "If you knew you were going to write something negative, you shouldn't have taken all this money."
Bostwick added that selling a good review is unethical, and even illegal in some cases.
"I don't think Variety is likely to have gotten into a situation where a review was bought," Bostwick said. "You can imagine them saying, 'Listen, we'd never do that. In some cases, that might break the law.'"
Neil Stiles, president of Variety, said in an email that the magazine "den[ies] absolutely all of the allegations" in Calibra's lawsuit.
Calibra's attorney, Timothy McGonigle, did not respond to calls for comment.
"Iron Cross," written and directed by Joshua Newton, stars the late Roy Scheider, in his last performance, as a Holocaust survivor who returns to Germany and discovers that the Nazi who killed his family during World War II is living in his estranged son's apartment.
On March 8, Variety fired Todd McCarthy, its top film critic of 31 years, along with David Rooney, the magazine's main theater critic, and six other staff members.
Stiles told The New York Times that "economic reality" forced the magazine to forego staff reviews in favor of a review section written entirely by freelancers.
The move enraged critics, including Roger Ebert, who said on his blog that Variety's downsizing "symbolizes the abandonment of a mission."
McCarthy "stood for Variety," Ebert said, and was the magazine's "ambassador" at film festivals.
"If Variety no longer requires its chief film critic, it no longer requires me as a reader," Ebert wrote.Follow @@karinapdx
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