Update, Aug. 28: Nikki Finke quietly stopped updating nikkifinke.com on Aug. 11. It looks like she will bow to her PMC contract — described below — and shut down the site. Which would also mean (probably) writing for PMC-owned outlets again, which include Variety and Deadline.
Update, June 16 at 10 a.m.: On Friday, Nikki Finke wrote a post that Jay Penske was taking legal action against her. Finke claimed not to be worried about the legal letter she received: She had “dutifully sat out months because of the non-compete,” she wrote, and Penske “never went to arbitration on anything he was supposed to.” She concluded: “Doesn’t work that way in America!”
But Sunday night, she posted this:
PMC’s spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment.
Update, June 12 at 10:05 am: Nikki Finke’s website went live today, as she had said it would after the first delay. In her first post, she laid out the site’s ethos: “I’m all about this town’s gritty reality exposed through the harsh glare of my reporting.” In the post, Finke mentions that the site has not been funded. She may need more server space — there seems to be a high incidence of page-not-found errors on this first effort.
She also took shots at her competitors, “Deadlame and Valiety and The Hollywood Unreported and TheCrap.” Finke, of course, founded Deadline, and its parent company, Penske Media Corp. now owns Variety. Her harshest criticisms were leveled not at Hollywood executives, but at Deadline, writing, “I barely recognize DH these days. Some of those bylines I never hired and wouldn’t. (Anita Busch or Peter Bart? She’s batshit crazy and he’s an unethical fart.)”
PMC’s spokeswoman wrote back: “After weeks and weeks of Nikki Finke trying to return to work for Deadline, the entire Deadline team made the decision that it was best to continue forward without Nikki Finke. Furthermore, the company will continue to adhere to the terms of Finke’s contract that extend far beyond June.”
Meaning, PMC considers Finke to be in violation of her contract, which runs until 2016. On the question of whether they will try to shut her down, the PMC spokeswoman said the statement was their only comment.
Update, June 2 at 7:19 a.m. Nikki Finke’s new website, nikkifinke.com, did not go live on Monday morning as Finke had promised on the site itself and in multiple tweets. Finke’s message to readers blames the delay on “late-breaking developments,” and now says that the site will begin on June 12. The article below delves into Finke’s absence for the past seven months — multiple sources have said Finke is under contract with Penske Media Corp. until 2016. An email to a PMC representative was not immediately returned.
After being in purgatory for seven months since a hideous public split from Deadline, the site she founded, and its parent company, Penske Media Corp., in early November, Nikki Finke is ready to come back. Or so she says, anyway: Last week, her dormant, self-named website was tweaked for the first time in months, with a Finke-like threat: “Hollywood: Your time is running out. NikkiFinke.com goes live 6/2/2014.” There is also a sign-up box for email alerts.
If the site does go live on Monday, a number of Nikki-watchers will be surprised. Common wisdom is that Finke remains under contract until 2016, and that Jay Penske, her former boss and the founder/CEO of PMC, plans to hold her to that agreement. Repeated calls and emails to PMC’s representative did not yield fruitful results. But if it turns out that Finke is indeed still bound by her contract and can’t launch after all, it wouldn’t be the first time she has been thwarted: In October, Finke acknowledged the 2016 contract date during a telephone interview, but felt that because Penske had, according to her, violated the contract in unspecified ways, she should be let out of it. That did not happen then, and may not happen now.
The mysterious Finke has been traveling out of the country and, on top of that, had a bad cold when we spoke on the phone Tuesday. “I’m not saying anything to anybody until June 2,” she said when asked about her new site, offering no specifics about what it will be. If Finke was implying that she legally can’t say anything until June 2, she wouldn’t elaborate, other than to say, “It’s been a very difficult six months.”
Maybe for Finke it’s been difficult — but it’s been a joyful time for the publicists and executives who used to deal with her constantly.
“It’s a hundred times better in every way, shape, or form,” said one of the dozen people I spoke to for this story, all of whom insisted on anonymity because Finke is scary. “Everyone was trying to copy or trail her, so now everyone doesn’t feel like they have to be so ridiculous. I mean, the New York Times was chasing her. Things are almost normal.”
Though there are things people in the entertainment business do miss about Finke — her ability to uncover stories the industry doesn’t want broken; her in-depth box office analysis; her unique, roaring writer’s voice; and the fact that her mere existence kept her competitors on their toes — the list of what they don’t miss is longer. Like, her axe grinding, for instance, as well as her favoritism, and the fact that her approach to corrections is erasure. Also not missed is the strange aura she cast over the rest of entertainment media that somehow causes everyone — publicists, agents, executives, reporters, and editors — to act like worse human beings. Finke spurs craven executives to cave to her, and it makes people crazy. Ron Meyer, the vice chairman of NBC Universal, who is thought to be one of Finke’s closest sources, once told BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith that she is “a terrorist.”
To that point, what people miss least is Finke’s screaming. One publicist interviewed for this story imitated a shrieking Finkian bellow: “You didn’t give me this story so I’m going to ruin you!”
Her absence has been pretty terrific for her competitors too. I spoke with several of them — yes, anonymously — and they profess not to be nervous about her possible return.
“She’s powerless at this point. She doesn’t have the work ethic or clout to be able to do what she did years earlier,” one said. Another echoed that sentiment: “There is an ecosystem in this world that she disrupts and tries to disrupt. In her heyday, she was able to move the news cycle. Toward the end, she was lazy and only doing box office — she was gone before she was gone.”
It’s that ecosystem that has changed in Finke’s absence. “We can play together in some way,” a film publicist told me of the post-Nikki world.
The traffic statistics of Deadline, Variety, and The Wrap bear out that play. According to comScore, they’re nearly even: In April, The Wrap had 4.8 million unique users, Deadline brought in 4.4 million, and Variety was read by 4.3 million. Year over year, those numbers represent an increase for Deadline (3.1 million in April 2013), but huge surges for The Wrap (1.1 million then) and for Variety (which used to be behind a paywall and had 1.3 million uniques). As for The Hollywood Reporter, its 9.7 million uniques this April reflect that site’s broader appeal beyond trade news, and general dominance.
A publicist who misses Finke more than others is curious to see what happens. “Not having to have her scream at you and not having your bureaucratic, scared bosses worried about what she might be writing is great,” this person said. “But I think she would get some scoops right out of the gate — there are still people who would give her stuff.”
And yet, even this fan came back to thinking that the 60-year-old Finke, whose health is never great, faces a difficult task, especially given her track record: “She can’t sustain herself. She always implodes.”
One of the competitors sounded quite sure we won’t be seeing her on Monday, anyway — that PMC will block her from launching. “From everything I understand, there is no inclination to let her out of the contract,” this person said.
Huh. Then why make this public announcement of the start date?
“I don’t think she can stand that no one cares about her.”