Get one thing straight. Peter Bart and Mike Fleming wouldn’t have jobs right now if it weren’t for Nikki Finke. Their recent back-and-forth on why Finke is no longer working at Deadline sticks in my craw. As you know, I disapprove of many of Finke’s working methods, mostly her bullying, litigious, self-aggrandizing behavior. She not only made life miserable for anyone who dealt with her in Hollywood, but especially her co-workers, who refused to let her come back, even when Fleming argued for her return. That may be because he recognizes that he owes her a great deal. Basically Deadline and Variety owner Jay Penske wanted to give her Peter Bart’s current role at Variety–columnist with no portfolio. She wanted more.
Let’s give Finke her due.
Nikki Finke reinvented the Hollywood trades.
I joined The Hollywood Reporter in 2005, where I felt compelled to launch their first blog, Risky Biz, in cahoots with the online editor and on my own time, against the editors’ wishes. Finke launched Deadline at the LA Weekly, where she wrote a column similar to my old Risky Business column, on Oscar night 2006. She was a smarter businesswoman than I was: she owned her blog.
When editor-in-chief Peter Bart lured me to go to Variety, I had to leave RiskyBiz behind. (This time I put my name on my blog.) I thought I was going to the more profitable Tiffany top-dog trade. On my first day in the newsroom I had my blink moment. Variety was complacent, bloated, spending a fortune on separate editorial staffs for the LA and NY dailies as well as Weekly Variety. They sent massive numbers of people to Cannes, many of whom contributed nothing. They had no idea what to do with Thompson on Hollywood, and wouldn’t help me to fight THR to get back the Risky Business name I was identified with for years. They didn’t recognize that Oscar advertisers wanted to buy online ads against my column and blog–it was pennies to them, they were raking in millions on print ads– in effect paying for my annual salary. In their first round of many layoffs starting in February 2009, they let me go with 30 others including Ben Fritz, now at the Wall Street Journal, saying that I was too expensive.
Variety dismissed Nikki Finke as a mere blogger, and no journalist. They didn’t get it.
After Finke overhauled the trade model, the trades were forced to play catch-up.
Obviously, it was possible to break news without waiting politely for stories to be handed to you as an exclusive in a press release. Finke aggressively called and cajoled and bullied and insisted on getting the news first and broke it online. She had no print edition to wait for. It took the two lead trades a long time to catch on to the idea that they could break news online. And to give up their daily print editions in favor of one print weekly.
Variety undervalued Mike Fleming.
Because Fleming was a fast-breaking news reporter working from his home basement on Long Island (which made the transition to blogging much easier), Bart did not treat Fleming like a star, partly because he tended not to write long pieces for Weekly Variety. That was what Bart prized. He didn’t consider Fleming to be a real “writer.” (Fleming did just fine freelancing for Premiere and Playboy.)
It was Finke’s brilliant move–after she was bought out by Penske and had more resources– to poach Fleming. And Finke taught him how to be an online breaking news reporter. He took to it like a duck to water. The difference between them? Fleming over time developed enough trust with his myriad sources that they wanted to give him stories and felt safe that he would take care of them. Finke instilled fear and bullied people into giving her stories first.
Peter Bart is a Luddite.
I have great respect for Bart, who gets this industry like no one else, writes gorgeous astute columns, and lured me to Variety. He brought high journalistic standards to the paper and understood the power of high quality international reviews. But missing the internet revolution set Variety back for years–they are still recovering from Bart’s blind spot. When I was at Variety, Bart typed his copy on a typewriter, and his assistant printed out his emails for him.
Nikki Finke is a transitional figure who is no longer in her prime.
In the end of course, while Finke moved the needle and paved the way for the current new model trades including Variety, THR and The Wrap– online trade and film community Indiewire, my host site, was founded 18 years ago–she was her own worst enemy. I kept expecting her to blow up or burn out and eventually she did. Can she build it all back up again at NikkiFinke.com? Not if she takes 36 hours off to deal with legal problems. Her 228,000 Twitter followers are a start. But she’s now functioning in a much more competitive environment, as the trades have overtaken Deadline. She needs support staff and resources and advertising–Oscar ads came to Deadline with Pete Hammond–and a lot of energy to make it this time. And good will from the community. Is it there?