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Four Years a Slave: Nikki Finke Tweets Her Departure from Deadline. “We Want the Old Nikki Back,” Fleming Responds (UPDATE)

Four Years a Slave: Nikki Finke Tweets Her Departure from Deadline. "We Want the Old Nikki Back," Fleming Responds (UPDATE)

UPDATE: Clearly, Nikki Finke’s own perspective on the ongoing drama at Deadline is skewed by her emotional investment in the site she founded –which changed the rules of the trade game in Hollywood. After a series of interviews and tweets about confusing changes in her Twitter feed and ability to post on Deadline, Mike Fleming lays out the Penske side of the situation, suggesting that the entire Deadline team want Nikki to write her own stuff and leave the rest of them alone, basically. “We want the old Nikki Finke back,” he writes. “If she returns—she is under contract until 2016—we will welcome her with open arms. If she doesn’t, we will survive, knowing in our hearts that she is miscast as the victim in this drama.”

EARLIER: I have always preferred Jaime Hernandez’s New Yorker illustration of Nikki Finke, which offers a kinder gentler portrait of the real woman herself, to her airbrushed approved photo. Yes, I know Finke well: I have visited her old West Hollywood apartment, lunched with her at Hugo’s, attended a party she co-hosted at Bar Marmont and once shared a storage locker. This was some years back, in the 90s, when she still suffered from writers’ block and tortured her editors by not handing in copy on time. (This is a habit with which I am also familiar.)

Of course Finke found her way and then some by becoming her own boss on the internet, blogging what and when she felt like it, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She has had a remarkable eight-year run so far and by her own account at @nikkifinke, she will be leaving Deadline (as we have all been expecting) to build her own blog, NikkiFinke.com, starting in January, as she waits for “the lawyers to disentangle me from Penske.” 

She is conducting her exit negotiations in the media, via Ben Fritz at the WSJ and then last week Defamer, where she accused Penske of harrassment and said he “owns me like I’m his slave.”

Here’s her statement to Defamer:

I have no plans to take any staff with me at this point. I do have an offer that is a $5.5 million offer for nikkifinke.com, and I have several other offers as well. I haven’t negotiated any yet, as I’ve been waiting until things are finished [with PMC]. They all came in unsolicited and would like me to start after the new year. I’m excited for and entitled to my vacation through the first week of January. I’ve been forced to work seven days a week with no vacation and I’m excited to be own boss again.

I think Deadline is very bland and boring, and doesn’t tell the truth about Hollywood anymore. I’ve been inundated with administrative duties, and for the past two years I’ve been begging for more staff, more resources, help for myself in running the site, and he hasn’t done it. And in the meantime he’s bought a competitor and lavished resources on them.

You reach a point where you just have to say to yourself, “I made a good deal when I sold Deadline,” and he is entitled to run it any way he wants, but there’s a point where I don’t have to participate, and it’s time for him to let go. I’ve been begging and he won’t budge—which shows Sharon [Waxman, of TheWrap.com] is so wrong [in her report this summer that Finke was fired by Penske], and I wish him well, I just can’t participate anymore or work for him anymore. I need to do my own thing.

[I] reached that point where he’s been harassing me, and doesn’t want me to take a vacation, and is forcing me to work 7 days a week. I’m sorry but nobody can do that. I’ve made sure everyone at Deadline can take a vacation and never have to think about Deadline while on vacation, or work more than 5 days a week. Everyone gets that benefit except for me.

Not only had he fired two people but he’s going to fire a third, he told me, so we are smaller than we ever have been and were going into awards season. It’s ridiculous and I don’t want do do this anymore, and luckily I’m rich enough that I don’t have to.

I don’t have to work again and when I do, I want to do it for myself, and he [Penske] somehow thinks he owns me like I’m his slave. He’s breaking federal law and state law.

People think I’m litigious, but I didn’t start anything legal against him. He’s harassed me with letters, phone calls, e-mail. I haven’t started anything against him, let the record show. I thought we were mature adults who could end this amicably.

Jay Penske acquired Finke’s Deadline in 2009, and swiftly added serious reporters who buffered Finke’s own toxicity enough to make the site friendlier to ad sales. Ex-Variety scoop bloodhound Mike Fleming, who is based in New York, recently announced that he will be spending more time in Los Angeles as he helps to grow Deadline. Clearly, when Finke goes, he will be the new man in charge.

Finke has been wrestling with Penske for control of Variety, which she had hoped she would run and he refused to let her do, and Deadline. Now it looks like she’ll be raising funds for NikkiFinke.com. And she’ll be a lot happier being her own boss again. She gave up her freedom when she sold to Penske. And her fate was written when Penske in turn bought Variety for $25 million a year ago. 

And so Finke launched a barrage of Tweets Thursday night. Here are the tweets in order:

“Penske makes it official: With no advance warning, he pulled the Deadline news feed from my Twitter account. I have “too many followers”.

“I am building out http://NikkiFinke.com  and will unveil it right after the new year. Can’t wait to report the real truth about Hollywood.”

“All that’s left is for the lawyers to disentangle me from Penske. I have no idea why he has fought so hard to keep me. I’ll be free soon.”

“Penske has given the Deadline redesign to the same guy that redesigned Variety’s unreadable website. I’ve still had zero input.”

“Penske keeps sending me legal letters since I began giving interviews. Latest one this am demands I remove and retract my tweets.”

“Earth To Penske: Hollywood tried and failed to intimidate me. Big Media tried and failed to intimidate me. I like to brawl, remember?”

And on Friday morning she reported on Deadline that she couldn’t post live, although the story she refers to did post to Deadline, right below this one:

I have been locked out of the Deadline Hollywood site after founding it 7 1/2 years ago. So don’t expect any more box office. I also just tried to post an exclusive involving Jeff Robinov and Sony Pictures and GK Films’ Graham King and Dune Capital Management Steve Mnuchin but only the alert went through. What an extremely sad day.

Realizing that she’s not shut out, she tweets again, although she seems to be feeling a tad paranoid:

“I’m going to try to resume my box office story. But there’s all sorts of alerts showing that Tech staff are inside my story. Hmm.”

 “I actually had to go to the Deadline website home page and see if I was still listed as Editor in Chief and Founder.”

Meanwhile Variety, with its paywall removed and a more aggressive internet presence under Penske, is making inroads in catching up with Deadline, which took off like a rocket while Variety was complacently focused on a print daily and weekly that required considerable overhead, in the belief that the ads would still come. Instead, they dwindled. And while Penske has revitalized Variety as a leaner Tiffany brand that can be trusted both as a print Weekly and online, Variety still has a lot of catching up to do in the trade races. Perception is lagging behind reality. 

Finke should be given due credit for being a transitional figure in the insular trade world, for changing the paradigm and showing the established print trades, bloated and spoiled by decades of lucrative awards advertising, how to adapt to a new internet model. 

Yes, she was fast, loose and out of control–a headline I once used on Toh! that she immediately called me to change. Finke, who is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to any criticism or reporting on her, sees herself as a paragon of journalistic virtue, a Joan of Arc fighting the good fight against the powers that be. In fact, she played a tough inside Hollywood game much the way legendary ex-CAA chief Mike Ovitz and his soldiers on Wilshire Boulevard would play it. She bullied, harangued, cajoled, threatened, yelled, wrote letters to people’s bosses to get them in trouble, and made herself into a mighty force. Inevitably, scoops went to her. 

Truth is, people in Hollywood used her as a weapon to attack other people. Journalistic balance was not Finke’s code. She figured out the truth of the internet. Opinions, snark, and attitude win the day. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. And if you’re caught with an error, fix it. Turn a box office report on a film opening around by 360 degrees if you get new information. The new story is the best story.

What Finke doesn’t seem to recognize is why she couldn’t run Variety. And why Penske would be willing to let her go. She’s a toxic drain on his energy, that’s why. She’s not reasonable. She doesn’t negotiate. She’s that kid in the playpen who doesn’t play well with others. She is far better off on her own doing her own thing than she is running and managing a larger organization. She was made for blogging. That’s what she should do. My question is how much stamina, fortitude and stomach she has for going back to writing full time, which takes a lot of physical and mental energy. I well understand her reasons for stepping back from the fray. Does she really want to jump back in? We shall see. (I emailed Finke but did not hear back.)

Meanwhile Finke has been hiding out “on vacation” writing the weekly box office column of late, although she did return to chastise a rival trade  (“Why the Hollywood Reporter Traffics in Crap”) for such traffic-chasing stories as “Be Miley Cyrus for Halloween: Get the Foam Finger on Amazon,” which was designed to embarrass editor in chief Janice Min, ex-editor of Us Weekly, who does not like her top-ranked successful trade weekly and online daily to be described as celeb-driven. THR’s counterattack is here.

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