Little about Robert Dowling’s early resume screamed Hollywood Power Broker.
The New York native had worked as a trade publications editor and editor for American Druggist, High-Tech Marketing, Menswear and Sports Marketing News. He had also developed a knack for revitalizing the underachievers, which was the very definition of The Hollywood Reporter in 1988. Far behind the entertainment industry’s business news leader Daily Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, founded in 1930 , was losing about $1 million a year. when Dowling was offered the position of president.
“He didn’t know anything about the industry or anyone. But he jumped at the chance – he’s always been a big fan of entertainment,” his son Michael Dowling told The Times. “Working in publishing in New York at this time, he saw the entertainment industry evolve into more of a business.”
Dowling died Friday at his Santa Monica home after a short battle with cancer, his son said.
The respected former publisher was 83 years old.
After Dowling moved his family to Los Angeles from Westport, Connecticut for work in September 1988, he immersed himself in his new role with a listening tour and caught up quickly. He ran The Hollywood Reporter for nearly two decades, including 14 years as publisher and editor, helping to make the five-day-a-week trade paper a profitable and formidable competitor to Variety and other publications that cover the entertainment.
He energized the newspaper with special editions and events, such as the annual Women in Entertainment breakfast, the Key Art Awards program (now known as the Clio Awards), a Next Generation initiative and by launching THR East, a PDF edition for East Coast readers. . One of Dowling’s proudest accomplishments was forging an online presence with the launch of THR.com in 1995 – a few years before Variety made the digital leap.
The website remains a must read in the industry.
Dowling’s tenure lasted through a time when reader interest in entertainment news was growing, while studio publicists increasingly tried to control news and publicity about their stars, movies, and top executives.
Dowling was sensitive to their concerns. He once killed a proposed story about “The 100 Worst Movies of All Time,” a move some former employees say was prompted by complaints from studios, which provided ad revenue. Dowling acknowledged in an interview with The Times that he killed the story, but said it was for philosophical reasons, not economics.
In 2001, three prominent journalists resigned after Dowling stripped a reporter of an investigative story about the newspaper’s party columnist, who allegedly accepted favors from movie studios.
Dowling felt the issue was “best handled by human resources,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The Times reported in 2001 that THR finally ran a short story, citing a Screen Actors Guild investigation into the columnist’s ethics. The Hollywood Reporter also noted instances in which Dowling stood by his reporters despite pressure from agencies and studios to kill certain stories.
“He once told me that news in the entertainment industry, in any industry, is the priority of gaming,” said Michael Dowling. “He came to the conclusion that what would attract readers, attract staff and attract advertisers would be respect. So everything he did was to build respect for the newspaper.
Following a change in ownership that brought a new corporate culture, Dowling left after THR was acquired by Dutch media giant VNU, which at the time owned Nielsen Media Research and Billboard magazine. UNV wanted its US-based leaders based in New York, but Dowling acknowledged that would not work.
Dowling told The Times in 2005 that leaving was bittersweet.
“I didn’t hear a standing ovation for me on the way out,” he said. “But I think they are disappointed.”
His successor lasted less than a year in the work.
Born on Long Island, New York on September 16, 1939, his early years were tumultuous.
Dowling’s mother abandoned him at birth and he spent his early years in a series of foster homes before being adopted. He would later say that the experience helped him develop an ability to instinctively recognize motivations and assess situations.
“That feeling of abandonment really pushed him,” his son said. “He told me that when he goes to these foster homes, he has to quickly understand the environment around him. He never wanted to do anything that would upset the balance, or draw too much attention to himself, [out of concern] it could be dropped again.
In 1965, Dowling met the love of his life, Juanita Rich, and they married. Together they raised three sons.
Beyond her family, Dowling enjoyed covering the entertainment industry.
“He was moved by the music and he cared about the whole production of a film – not just the stars or the talent above the line,” said Michael Dowling. “He loved craftsmanship, he loved the arts. He so appreciated the skills and talents that people brought to their work.
Dowling is survived by his wife of 56 years, Juanita, their children and spouses: Rob (Diane) Dowling, Michael (Gia) Dowling and Matthew (Anna) Dowling; his seven grandchildren, PJ, Larissa, Lena, Devan, Ella, Miles and Radley; and her dog, KC