Nikki Finke — who may or may not have been fired from her own site, Deadline, by its owner, Jay Penske — has changed entertainment journalism. She made it more news-oriented, faster, more personally revealing, and meaner. She’s scared executives into kowtowing to her with her threats that they would get the “Marc Shmuger treatment” (the former Universal co-chairman whose tenure she takes credit, perhaps rightfully, for ending) or the “Ben Silverman treatment” (the wild ex-NBC executive whom she relentlessly went after until he, too, eventually left the network — for lots of reasons). The flipside of her vengeance is favoritism to her sources, ignoring their foibles and missteps (except when she is mad at them).
Finke has broken many huge stories over the years. If none comes immediately to mind, that’s probably because news is fleeting and because her persona has so completely overshadowed her journalism. According to lore, she’s a recluse cat lady who is either on her deathbed or at a former HBO executive’s home in Hawaii. There are few confirmed pictures of her in existence (one is above). She sues people all the time. At her Deadline height, her antics seemed interesting enough to inspire an HBO pilot, Tilda, for which she received a fee. Tilda didn’t become a series, but since HBO paid her, she couldn’t attack it anymore.
And that counts as a huge win in the entertainment business, in which extremely powerful executives will do anything to prevent someone from writing something mean about them. Which is pathetic! Like, it’s a good thing they don’t have to deal with internet commenters for even a day. But Nikki — as we all call her, even though none of us have met her —understands her prey, and knows that threats work. Her Deadline, with excellent and sane reporters such as Nellie Andreeva and Mike Fleming providing its spine for the past few years, has supplanted the trades and has become huge. It’s an inside baseball empire. But an empire nonetheless.
It’s unclear what is actually happening between Finke and Penske. Finke’s former friend and current enemy Sharon Waxman reported at 6:45 p.m. Pacific Sunday that Penske had fired Finke; Penske has denied it, and Finke hasn’t said anything, and didn’t respond to my email inquiry [see update below]. According to the Los Angeles Times, “While she was filing her box-office report for this weekend she told some people that it would be her last such piece for Deadline.”
That sounds definitive. But as one person put it to me Sunday night, they “could kiss and make up by morning.”
Let’s assume, though, that it’s the beginning of the end for Nikki’s Deadline. Penske isn’t going to stop owning Variety — reportedly the most recent cause of their friction, since he’s shut her out of having anything to do with it — and I’ve heard from multiple people that her contract is up soon. (Waxman reported that it expires next year.) Penske knew he bought crazy, but he may just be sick of it at this point. For her part, the L.A. Times story says she wants to “go back into business for herself.”
Once I was driving, and my cellphone rang. It was a private number, but I picked it up anyway. It was Nikki, asking me why I was leaving the L.A. Times to go to The Daily Beast (she hates the L.A. Times), and what were Tina Brown’s plans anyway? (She probably hates Tina, too.) I was shocked. How did she get my number? I stammered some very boring things, and soon was able to extract myself from the call. It was at that moment that I truly did understand the fear of the Hollywood executive: I hadn’t yet started my new job, and I didn’t want to screw anything up. I’d like to think that I could handle it better if I had been at all prepared for her call. And I’ve also seen since that if you outcrazy her, she does wilt.
But I haven’t answered a private number since, and that was in 2009. See? She changes the way people act! If it’s not at Deadline, it will be somewhere else soon enough.
Update at 9:26 am PDT, 6/3/2013:: Finke has posted an update excoriating Waxman and The Wrap, but for the details, not the big picture news. Her post is full of Nikki-isms, such as “And it’s yet one more reason I call her website The Crap.” It’s hard to know — still — what is happening. But reading between the lines, and purely guessing, it seems like she and Penske are working on a separation. I’m not sure what else this lede could mean: “Right now I am not going to discuss my Deadline Hollywood contract or my relationship with my boss Jay Penske. Why? Because I don’t have to.” Unless it’s bluster for her contractual demands. Fascinating! To a very small number of people. Oh, and she responded to my email, thanking me for my “nice piece.”