A pall that is hard to shake

by Frank Segers

The death of Roger Watkins has hit harder than I could have imagined.

After all, I was never particularly close to him.

I never shared a basement with him in Chappaqua presumptiously discussing which Variety staffers post-Cahners would be organised out of existence.

I never visited in the UK with Roger and Pat – his rock strong wife who kept Roger’s feet at least brushing the ground.

I never had the privilege of meeting his two boys, Andrew and Ian. I never once glimpsed the legendary London office that Roger so animated.

Yet the news of his demise has left a pall that is hard to shake.

Let’s stipulate upfront that Roger was genuine charmer: funny, smart, a remarkably pungent writer (although I suspect he went to his grave doubting his skills in this area), a superb, intelligent ad salesman.

It’s not an overstatement to say that Roger was the most influential single individual of my generation at Variety.

For it was Roger who connected the international dots in ways that his distinguished predecessor, Harold Myers, had not – or, at least, not fully.

Roger figured out the myriad strategic connections between international and domestic, and how they could be reshaped to build something new. He did more than anyone to affect a far closer operational interplay between 46th Street and the freewheeling foreign bureaux, which, until then, had been on a casual get-along basis at best.

In the 70’s, when I first met Roger on one of his occasional NYC visits, he was to me this pleasant interloper in the 46th St. office, entertaining the Gotham edit troops by doing hilarious renditions of various English accents and musing about the preposterousness of British royalty. He was, I thought, a real bloke, a classy guy with a touch of the plucky cockney.

That was pretty much it.

Our professional association didn’t start until the early 80’s when I fielded a phone call from Syd Silverman one afternoon inquiring if I could arrange to be in Munich on Monday.

I was sitting in Chicago at the time (I had moved from New York to the Windy City by 1980), and the notion of an assignment in Germany was as remote to me then as covering a press conference on Pluto.

Syd quietly explained that Roger needed editorial help in compiling a special covering German films-television-home video, and felt a US staffer would come in handy.

The idea, as Roger later made clear, was that he felt too many foreign market specials written and compiled by locals lacked the freshness and clarity that an American audience demanded. And, he emphasized, Variety was an American publication. So why not import Yank edit staff to work with European sales teams?

Syd Silverman had the foresight to approve Roger’s concept, and a key new operation was born.

Special sections on foreign markets long predated him, of course, but it was Roger who perfected the form, linking it to a sound editorial base designed to educate a domestic U.S.-centric trade audience.

Roger had long admired the authoritative special reports compiled by “The Economist”, and to some extent patterned the US-foreign edit collaborations on those published in the British newsweekly.

(Imagine his satisfaction when, in the late 80’s, the reverse took place. A staffer from “The Economist” moved into the London office for a week or so, researching and consulting a Variety special section covering Japan’s Shochiku Co.)

These 46th St.-London editorial coproductions involved a number of US-based staffers, and invariably resulted in profitable specials that were informative and as no-nonsensically hardnosed as was domestic coverage at the time.

For those who worked with Roger on these sections, certain traits stood out: his indomitable optimism, his energy (as Morton Bryer’s excellent recollection underscores), his attention to detail and getting things right, and his infectious passion for the specials he worked on.

There is little point dwelling on Roger’s tenure of a year or so as Variety editor. The timing was atrocious. He took the job just as the paper was being torn apart by bitter internecine strife engendered by the 1988 sale to Cahners. Roger had a terrible time during this period both personally and professionally.

Roger had what I believe to be an unduly high regard for the quality of American corporate management.

He also thought – prematurely as it turned out – that the digital “revolution” was akin to the second coming. I vividly recall Roger enthusiastically describing the Time Warner-AOL merger as the portal to a new era in show business. (He was, of course, by no means alone in this view at the time.) Although the merger was perhaps the most disastrous in American corporate history, Roger proved to be right in some of his larger points.

My fondest personal recollections came later, after we both left Variety. Roger asked me to join him in an ad sales campaign on behalf of the European Film Academy, which sponsors the annual European Film Awards. Our activities on behalf of the EFA were far less important than the glimpse I received for the first time into Roger’s personal life.

I certainly knew of Roger’s most charming wife, Pat, but virtually zilch about his two sons and six grandchildren. For the first time, Roger talked in personal terms to me, making clear how much he reveled in the joyous pandemonium involved in an expanding family. I recall these conversations with relish – and gratitude.

I could not agree more with Larry Michie’s notion that Roger was indeed Best in Show. I salute hime professionally, and will always treasure his memory. I respectfully join the hordes of muggs who feel the same. May he rest in peace.