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It’s Official: Jay Penske Finally Fires Nikki Finke, But Is She Free to Go Solo in January?

It's Official: Jay Penske Finally Fires Nikki Finke, But Is She Free to Go Solo in January?

There was no containing Nikki Finke. The Deadline founder finally got her way. Following her last destructive media salvo–memorably describing her four years under the thumb of media mogul Jay Penske as “slavery”–her boss fired her. She’s free. 

Deadline’s Film and TV reporters Mike Fleming and Nellie Andreeva, respectively, finally announced the news Tuesday night:

Despite attempts by all to have it go otherwise, Nikki Finke will no longer be leading Deadline Hollywood, and she will not be writing weekend box office or filing stories going forward. This is an emotional and painful parting of the ways for us. When we joined Deadline four years ago from The Hollywood Reporter and Variety (respectively), we felt that we were doing something disruptive and game-changing. That spirit is what brought us together and will keep us together, and the current team will remain on that path. Businesses evolve and change, and we’ve learned that no one is indispensable. We will be adding a few significant hires to our staff imminently and, though we will never completely replace Nikki’s unique voice, we will continue ahead, charging hard, breaking every story possible. On behalf of everyone at PMC and Deadline Hollywood, we wish her well and appreciate the opportunity to have worked alongside her.

Finke gave her response after an attempt at mediation with Penske yielded no results–and no return phone call, tweeting: “Jay Penske has just told me I am free to leave. He tried to buy my silence. No sale.” Continuing to assault Penske via Defamer writer Beejoli Shah, she says that during their protracted legal battle, “there was a point I even volunteered to leave online journalism together just to get free, and this way, this is the best of all outcomes.” 

Apparently, Finke believes that she is contractually free to launch her own site NikkiFinke.com in January, and is weighing offers. (Finke denies that she is under a non-compete clause.) On her way out the door she blasted Penske on Defamer:

“Last week the site was hurting [so badly], there were two people running it and that was it. It was awful. […] That’s what I’ve always been complaining about. You can’t work people like that. They’re doing a redesign of the site, and I’ve never even seen it. How do you do a redesign without me?…

He fired people without telling me, and he thinks he’s just in complete and utter charge. He’s in charge of Movieline and he ran it into the ground. Movieline is a bust, and no one ran it but him. He didn’t bring in a Bonnie Fuller [of HollywoodLife], he didn’t bring in a Michael Ausiello [of TVLine, formerly of TV Guide], he didn’t bring in a Nikki Finke. It was just Penske and it went down the drain.”

We can argue that The Wrap editrix Sharon Waxman, Finke’s former friend and current rival, understood that she had to leave, even if Waxman jumped the gun last June. (She actually drove Finke back into Penske’s arms for a time just to prove her wrong.) Hell, I knew from the moment that Finke boasted about the millions she was making from the sale of Deadline to Penske (unlikely to total $14 million–that was an estimate of what she might make over the term of the contract if all the traffic and ad markers were met) that they were doomed to come to a bad end. 

Why? Well, it’s easy to look back. What Finke should have done was to raise investment money the way Waxman did so that she would still be in charge of her website, calling the shots. (Waxman still has to answer to her investors, but at least she has no boss.) Andrew Sullivan and Nate Silver are two other online star-journalist models, along with All Things Digital, which is parting ways with parent Wall Street Journal. (See the NYT and USA Today media columnist Michael Wolff’s assessment here.) Finke gave away her rights by selling Deadline outright to Penske in 2009. Using Finke’s considerable industry clout and profile, Penske built his own media empire. 

Problem is, Finke measured her worth in dollars instead of growing her own company. “Some people might not have wanted to leave the kind of money I’m leaving on the table,” she told Defamer, “but I got a lot of money and all the sale money..so this is just a relief.”

Deadline was doomed when Penske bought Variety last year, and Finke knew it. She was deluded if she thought she could run such an established brand using her scorched-earth tactics. Penske did well hiring Claudia Eller as film editor. She’s a well-respected tough take-no-prisoners veteran trade and LA Times reporter/editor who can work the system as a fair-minded journalist who not only knows how to yell but also to negotiate and to give and take. Finke has no clue how to do anything but charm and bully her way to wielding power through sheer force of personality. She’s not an employee who works well with others. 

Finke changed the media landscape as a powerful force that dragged the other trades kicking and screaming into the digital future. But they took what she taught them and ran with the ball. Deadline does have to evolve, now, as the online daily scoop arm of what will now be its real parent–Variety. That’s inevitable. For them to compete on the breaking news front makes no sense. Fleming and Andreeva are already well-known to Eller and TV editor Cynthia Littleton.

Finke reminds me of the voracious Harvey Weinstein. As long as he’s in charge (with his brother Bob) of his own company, and stays focused on what he does best inside the movie realm, no one can beat him. But when Miramax was acquired by Disney and had to function inside a corporation, Weinstein was always agitating against the bosses who had the power to curtail his resources, say yes or no, keep him to the terms of his budget and contract. Finally, the Weinsteins had to get out, leaving their hard-won company name behind. They then sought to prove their ability to run multiple businesses and build their own corporate empire–disastrously. Eventually their investors forced them back into pursuing their true calling: making, acquiring and releasing movies–especially those geared toward awards season.

Likewise while Finke sees herself as a high-minded journalist and enjoyed managing a burgeoning website, she found her calling as an independent maverick with her own inimitable voice. A blogger. There is no shame in it. I cannot wait to see her go back to what she does best, writing when she feels like it, on her own terms. The industry can use a fearless reporter unafraid to call the powers to account. Let her at it. 

I hope Penske does not try to shut her up. It would cost him a lot of energy and money. On her own it’s unlikely that she’ll be able to command the ad sales as Deadline, which added other voices and profitable but soft awards content in order to buffer her toxicity. She won’t be a Variety/Deadline competitor in that sense. She should do whatever she wants. She has fuck-you money. But when she makes her deal, both sides should be aware of what they’re dealing with. Finke is best off entirely on her own, the way she was at LA Weekly, owning her site and calling her own shots. Anything else will lead to tears before bedtime. 

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