Nikki Finke was terrifying.
When the late Hollywood journalist called — the phone was her weapon of choice — the most powerful players in Hollywood shivered. That’s because she could write anything, and there was nobody to call if you didn’t like what she wrote. I learned this the hard way, even though we were friendly over the years: We had lunch at Hugo’s, shared a storage unit, and spent hours together in her West Hollywood apartment as I tried in vain to get her to press “send” on her brilliant CAA chapter for Premiere Magazine, which was scheduled in two subsequent issues but never ran.
Nor did her much-touted book ever get published, as publishers hired co-writers in vain; over the years, Finke’s cogent agency reporting eventually wound up on Deadline. And Finke participated (by phone) in a 2005 meeting with David Poland, Jeffrey Wells, and me about possibly launching a website. Each of us saw the future of Hollywood coverage online — we knew print was going the way of the dinosaur — but we never could have worked together. Each of us did forge a path online: Poland launched MovieCityNews, Wells started Hollywood Elsewhere, Finke created the online Deadline Hollywood column at LA Weekly, and I launched the first blog at the Hollywood Reporter, Risky Biz, inspired by my old LA Weekly column Risky Business. (When I left THR for Variety, they wouldn’t let me take it with me; thus, Thompson on Hollywood was born.)
All this history was irrelevant when Finke called me. I was in my car on the freeway and answered the phone, foolishly, as she yelled in my ear, flustering me. She screamed, “Did you run a quote without Ron Meyer’s permission?”
Finke’s modus operandi at Deadline — first at LA Weekly, and then at the Deadline Hollywood Daily blog acquired in 2009 by Jay Penske (whose PMC owns IndieWire) — was carrying water for the Hollywood power players. They deployed her to hammer at their competition, feeding her nasty tidbits in the hope that if they gave her enough red meat she would never turn on them.
In this case, I angered the Universal studio chief in my weekly Hollywood Reporter column about the 2006 defection of his trusted lieutenant Stacey Snider to join Steven Spielberg. Meyer was pissed off about his quote because he thought we had a strong relationship (we did) and I made him look weak. So he told Finke he was banning me from the Universal studio: no screenings, parties, or meetings. If I was found at the studio, I would be escorted off the lot. No studio head, Finke breathlessly reported, had ever done this to a journalist before. She posted this at the top of her online Weekly column and promptly went on vacation for several weeks. So it stayed there at the top of her feed, with no new stories to replace it, until she returned. There was no one to call.
Everyone in Hollywood got the Finke treatment. She was a gifted journalist who easily impressed magazine and newspaper editors with her insider knowledge — she cultivated power players and visibly inflated when they returned her calls and took her seriously — but suffered from a mighty case of writer’s block. When I worked at Entertainment Weekly, staffers took bets on how long she’d last there. (Her brief tenure is not listed on her Wikipedia page.) When I wrote a Hollywood column for New York magazine, the stories about editors trying to pry copy out of her hands were legendary. Word was, they had to copy the story down on deadline as she read it over the phone.
But being in control of her own content at Deadline removed all her fears of exposure. Finke reveled in posting scoops and changed the way Hollywood does business, forever. The Hollywood trades were at a disadvantage: Variety and The Hollywood Reporter were still trapped in the vise of selling lucrative print ads. They had not figured out the speed of online news reporting. In the old competitive push for celebrity casting and new project scoops, Deadline left THR and Variety in the dust.
Finke often broke news herself, especially during the 2008 Writers Guild strike that made her a must-read every day, but Deadline jumped ahead in the scoop department in 2010 when Finke stole Variety’s top breaking news reporter, Mike Fleming. He now runs the site with ex-THR TV editor Nellie Andreeva. (Ironically, Variety editor Peter Bart, who saw red every day during Finke’s reign of terror, now writes a Deadline column.)
Finke had a fearsome set of tools. Unlike the trades, which were still in the business of rewriting the press releases that studios and producers saw fit to print, no one told Finke what to write. There was no boss to threaten, no higher authority or boy’s club member to appeal to. All the studios, agencies, guilds, and producers had to negotiate with Finke, who threatened and bullied as effectively as any Hollywood mogul to get what she wanted. At the height of her powers, she was as powerful as any media-monger since Walter Winchell (the model for Burt Lancaster’s gossip columnist in “Sweet Smell of Success”).
Snark was another asset. While we now accept today’s post-Gawker opinion-mongering social media landscape, when Finke threw snark, attitude, and opinion into her columns, it was new. Readers scarfed up Finke’s urgent “BREAKING NEWS!!!” drama and no-holds-barred Anne Coulter-style nastiness. She lectured the Academy on its “Oscars Crisis” as she live-snarked the Oscar show. During the 2008 Harvey Weinstein vs. Scott Rudin fracas over “The Reader,” Finke posted reams of insider emails leaked to her by interested parties. (Finke herself was thin-skinned and protected herself from any misrepresentation by firing off a threatening email to the boss of any perceived offender.)
Speed was of the essence. Deadline writers quickly posted any news as fast as they could — in a raw, unedited state that the other trades, with their layers of copy editors and print deadlines, would never accept — and then tweaked the story afterward. And Finke loved to proclaim her scoops: “TOLDJA!!”
But just as important as speed was volume. “I check Nikki five times a day!” a publicist once told me. That’s because Finke was tireless, obsessively posting 24/7– until she inevitably collapsed from exhaustion. She was always challenging her health and was not in good shape when she left PMC in 2013. First, she tried launching her own blog again in 2014, but PMC persuaded her not to compete with Deadline, and in 2015 she established fiction website Hollywood Dementia.
While Deadline was more exciting to read with Finke than without her, it was also a happier place to work, and no one in Hollywood missed her calls. But Finke had hammered her rules into her staff, who carry on her legacy. Anthony d’Alessandro, for example, went from Variety researcher to box office analyst at Thompson on Hollywood to Deadline; he readily admits that Finke turned him into the reporting ace he is today. But her legacy is felt across the entertainment journalism ecosystem, which was forced kicking and screaming into the fast online future, from the trades to established news outlets like The Los Angeles Times.
With Nikki’s passing, it’s a good time to remember that she – alone – destroyed the traditional trades. I was there when they mocked her, daily, until their ad model collapsed. I was there when the fogeys wouldn’t change. They fucked up. Still reverberating today. You can see it.
— M Speier (@mspeier1) October 9, 2022
The myth of the recluse surrounding Finke was also fascinating to watch. She went out with her friends all the time, she told me. But she kept control of her photos. (Gawker once offered $1,000 for a photo of her.) When some folks tried to get hold of the rest of the photo shoot that yielded the one official Finke portrait, I was told, Finke bought out the rest of the session.
I will always regret that HBO opted in 2011 to pass on Bill Condon and Cynthia Mort’s excellent pilot for “Tilda,” a series based on Finke to star Diane Keaton. Of course, I represent a tiny target demo: It was easy to identify with a blogger heroine. Finke had nothing to do with its development. Was HBO skipping out on legal trouble on the horizon?
Finally, Finke burned out. She could have kept writing a column for Deadline after she left, but wasn’t interested. Control was the key to Finke’s power. Without it, she’d be just another writer blocked on deadline.