It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Nikki Finke, the veteran reporter and Hollywood blogger who changed the face of entertainment trade journalism, possibly getting exiled from her own mini-empire? It’s the kind of nasty, executive-suite power-gaming that she’d have delighted in scooping — if it weren’t about herself.
Instead, the supposed scoop came from rival Sharon Waxman’s entertainment trade news site, The Wrap, late Sunday night. Waxman’s story suggested that Finke had become a victim of her own success, both in making her Deadline Hollywood the go-to site for breaking trade news — and in making enemies of virtually everyone in the industry. Finke had founded the site in 2006; within three years, it was big enough that Penske Media Corp. (PMC) had purchased it. But according to Waxman, Penske CEO Jay Penske had grown tired of fighting with the combative Finke and was firing her, perhaps as soon as the end of this week.
Penske and Finke fired back at Waxman with e-blasts of their own. Penske called Waxman’s story “completely erroneous,” while an official statement from PMC read, “Nikki Finke has a multi-year contract with the Company, and it is the Company’s absolute intention to continue its obligations under the agreement.” Finke herself wrote, “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.”
These are the kinds of carefully worded phrases that Finke herself would probably call out as “non-denial denials” had they been issued by someone else. As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, Finke’s “multi-year contract” ends next year, and while PMC could still choose not to renew it, there’s also a window in it that would allow for Finke’s exit as early as this week.
Finke’s departure from Deadline, whenever it happens, marks the end of an era. When she founded the site, she dragged show-business journalism kicking and screaming into the new millennium. She was already a 20-year veteran of the field, with a formidable Rolodex of sources, and soon she was routinely scooping trade-paper dinosaurs Variety and The Hollywood Reporter on the deal-making stories that were their bread and butter. But she wrote like a gossip blogger, with her scoops full of opinion, including praise for those who gave her access. And venom for those who tried to deflect her by spinning or stonewalling. Soon, everyone important in Hollywood was reading Deadline — hoping not to be mentioned. She wielded a measurable degree of influence: off her words, projects might move forward or stall; executives might be hired or fired. And then, Finke would cover that news too, often capped with her self-congratulatory kicker, “TOLDJA!!”
If Nikki Finke were not a real person — and in a town built on overexposure, one might argue that the reclusive, seldom-photographed 59-year-old is not — Hollywood would have to invent her. Indeed, the town tried, via Tilda, an HBO pilot for a series that would have starred Diane Keaton as a pajama-clad, Finke-like journalist, terrorizing Tinseltown tycoons from the privacy of her home office. The series never made it to the air, but Finke earned a consulting fee, and HBO earned Finke’s good will. Director Kevin Smith, who has tangled with Finke in print, this week called her “the most dangerous cat lady on the planet,” a backhanded compliment that encapsulates Hollywood’s love/hate relationship with its top chronicler.
Finke’s success not only led to the PMC purchase (which gave her a staff of actual reporters) but also forced the other trade outlets to re-examine their digital strategies. In 2009, Waxman, a longtime foe since the days when she and Finke were both strictly print journalists, launched The Wrap, a Web-only trade organ. Century-old rivals Variety and The Hollywood Reporter finally stopped dithering over the digital future and focused their attention on the Web and its immediacy. Last winter, however, PMC bought Variety, too. But the underdog did not get to rule the kingdom she’d conquered. PMC didn’t let Finke have anything to do with Variety, and she continued to attack the outlet in her posts as if it weren’t a sister company. If Penske wants to protect his new acquisition from his old one, ousting Finke may be the only way.
If Finke really is leaving, she won’t be silent for long. She may have the right to take the Deadline brand with her. Or she may just re-invent herself — and trade reporting — yet again. Either way, the smart money won’t count her out. Or cross her.