I didn’t know Robert J. Dowling, but I always knew of him, as he was a titan of the industry — at least my chosen profession. Despite my long career in trade journalism, I can’t say I ever had the pleasure of working for the man, yet even as a cub reporter, I knew he was a man of integrity. A man to be respected. Indeed, by all accounts, the former longtime publisher and editor-in-chief of The Hollywood Reporter was a class act whose death was mourned by many across Hollywood when THR delivered the unfortunate news of his passing at his home in Santa Monica on Friday, Dec. 30 following a short battle with cancer. He was 83.
Dowling is especially notable to Below the Line readers as he was instrumental in shining a light on the crafts during his tenure at THR, long before BTL itself existed. We’d like to think that we’ve taken that ball and run with it over the past 20 years at a time when celebrity coverage has become as dominant as ever thanks to the internet’s 24/7 news cycle.
Dowling actually foresaw that digital trend, as he launched THR‘s award-winning website a full three years before rival print publication Variety launched its own website. In that sense, he was a journalism visionary, and he succeeded not in the old Hollywood tradition of yelling and screaming his way to the top, but by maintaining class and professionalism throughout his reign.
“When I first launched Below the Line 23 years ago now, Bob invited me to lunch… and encouraged me to take full advantage of the space The Hollywood Reporter and its longstanding rival Variety had left open to shine as bright a light on the ‘forgotten folks that actually made films,’ said Below the Line publisher Patrick Graham. “We would continue to have lunch together every couple of months for years until he left THR. His encouraging words and warnings, advice, and specific understanding of the industry have proven invaluable to Below the Line ever since. His mark on the industry won’t be soon forgotten. I’ll miss him.”
After THR founder William R. Wilkerson‘s widow, Tichi Wilkerson, sold the publication to BPI Communications for $26.7 million, Dowling joined the trade as its president in September 1988, spearheading huge growth under his leadership, which included an emphasis on events such as THR‘s annual Women in Entertainment breakfast. A thoughtful columnist in his own right, Dowling also launched THR‘s Next Gen/35-Under-35 franchise as well as a production database, a daily Oscar Screening Guide, and the THR ESQ blog for entertainment attorneys, and he also dared to make international news a priority, thereby growing the readership overseas. Dowling was also particularly proud of THR‘s sensitive, quick-thinking reaction to 9/11, which resulted in a sobering 16-page edition that was published without ads.
When Dowling stepped down from THR in December 2005 to launch his own consulting firm, the Bob Dowling Group, his successor, Tony Uphoff, lasted less than a year in the job, and just a few years later in October 2010, THR, which was the first trade to publish daily, transitioned to a glossy weekly.
“Bob Dowling was an innovator and student of Hollywood. And a true visionary,” said Lynne Segall, the longtime THR sales maven who currently works as Chief Revenue Officer for TheWrap. “He came to Hollywood as an outsider. He became a student of the business pretty quickly. He went on a listening tour. His mission was to meet with every studio head, network executive, agent, and manager to understand what they liked about the Reporter, what needed to be fixed — no holds barred — and to learn about the business.”
“Over 17 years, his accomplishments are many… but what he was most proud of was getting respect from the industry for the Hollywood Reporter‘s editorial coverage of the business,” added Segall. “My team and I were fortunate to have been mentored and [to have] worked with such an experienced publisher who really changed the competitive landscape of the trades. And personally, he made me a better executive.”
Born Robert Joseph Dowling on Sept. 16, 1939, on Long Island, he was given up by his birth mother and bounced around a series of foster homes until he was finally adopted at the age of 3. He grew up a fine student and, brimming with both curiosity and potential, attended Villanova University before becoming the editor and publisher of several different niche publications, learning both the publishing and journalism business along the way.
Eventually, Dowling and his family made their way from Westport, Connecticut to Los Angeles, where he served as president of THR, and later as its publisher and editor-in-chief, taking more than 300 visits with industry power players in his first year on the job. A longtime member of the Bel Air Country Club, Dowling’s long tenure was so colorful and fascinating that it provided him with enough material for a memoir, My Life… and Then Some, which was published in 2019.
Dowling is survived by his wife of 56 years, Juanita; sons Michael (and his wife, Gia), Matthew (Anna), and Rob (Diane); grandchildren PJ, Larissa, Lena, Devan, Ella, Miles, and Radley; and his dog, K.C. Memorial arrangements are pending.
“He was a man of uncommon moral character and integrity, a creative thinker, and a powerful leader who possessed an unparalleled skill to reduce the complicated to the simple. He found a goldmine of logic in analogies, metaphors, and theories — what [we] came to call “Bobisms” — and would share them easily and often without provocation,” his family said in a joint statement sent to THR.
“In my entire 40-plus-year career, I never worked with such a wonderful, professional, talented, and dedicated [group of] people,” Dowling wrote on a Facebook page for THR alumni in August 2020. “I felt we were a family and the paper was our child, and it was our responsibility to protect it, to respect it, and make it thrive. As a family, we were unbeatable. I will forever keep all my friends from The Reporter in my heart.”
Those seem like the perfect parting words to remember him by.