Right now, there’s a good chance a Hollywood executive is leaning into a colleague’s office and quietly asking, “Did you see what Nikki just wrote?”
That would be Nikki Finke, a well-traveled newspaper reporter who has found her moment as a digital-age Walter Winchell.
In the three years since she started Deadline Hollywood Daily, a daily blog about the entertainment business, her combination of old-school skills — she is a relentless reporter — and new-media immediacy has made her a must-click look into the ragingly insecure id of Hollywood.
Among movie executives, the stories of Ms. Finke’s aggressiveness are legion, but they remain mostly unspoken because people fear being the target of one of her withering takedowns.
“I’d prefer not to ever deal with her,” said a senior communications executive at a studio who declined to be identified. Many others declined comment saying, variously, “she gave me a nervous breakdown,” “she terrifies me,” and “there’s no percentage in me saying anything to you about Nikki no matter what it is.”
But they all read her. In a town where people often secretly hope for the worst, Ms. Finke delivers wish fulfillment. During the recent merger of the William Morris and Endeavor agencies, she ridiculed William Morris executives to the point of distraction. She has published network schedules before many people at the network knew what was on them.
During the recent parting of the ways between Paramount Film Group and John Lesher, the former president, she ran a picture of Mr. Lesher with a big red X over his face and a series of breathless news breaks until he was out, finishing him off by quoting him (accurately) saying, “Nikki Finke knew about it before I did.”
In a telephone interview, Ms. Finke said the stories about her thuggish ways were just that. “I don’t bully and terrify people,” she said, cheerfully adding, “I’m not mean, I just write mean.”
She writes mean about business: celebrities don’t interest her. She isn’t always right and, as her critics have pointed out, she’s not above using the new-media prerogative of going into her archives and changing the bad call to a good one. But Ms. Finke’s relatively small audience includes most everyone who matters in Hollywood.
“I’d like to think that people read me because they find out things that are true and that they didn’t know,” she said. “If I was just some kind of car wreck who got all sorts of things wrong, I don’t think they’d be reading.”
Last month, it was announced (on Deadline Hollywood Daily, of course) that Mail.com Media, an Internet company controlled by Jay Penske, son of Roger Penske, the American automotive magnate, was buying her site. The site had been hosted by LA Weekly, but owned by Ms. Finke.
“She has one of the quickest minds I have ever seen and is one of the funniest people I have ever met,” Mr. Penske said.
Most people in Hollywood are not able to meet Ms. Finke, 55. Like another influential blogger, Matt Drudge, she is private to the point of hermitic, spending most of her time in front of a computer at her home in Westwood. Her site has gone dark several times when she has worked herself to exhaustion.
In a place built on appearances, she is never seen at the right premiere, the right lunch spot, the right address. Her presence in Hollywood is spectral — she has a single photo taken in 2006 that runs everywhere.
“I just don’t go out to industry events, in part because it puts my sources in an awkward situation,” she said, adding that “the other thing about going out with these people is that when it comes time to cover something involving them, they say, ‘But, Nikki, we’re friends.’ I don’t want those kind of friends.”
A onetime debutante — an experience she wrote about for The New York Times in 2005 — Ms. Finke had a long career in journalism, including serving as a correspondent in Moscow for The Associated Press and covering Washington for Newsweek.
“I really don’t see covering Hollywood as all that different from covering the Kremlin or the federal government,” she said. “I’m always fascinated by closed societies that don’t want prying eyes.”
Lawsuits and archive corrections
As a traditional print reporter, she had a problem with deadlines, trying the patience of many editors. She began her blog in March 2006 partly of necessity: she had run low on money and options. A never-published book on talent agencies gave her sources, and LA Weekly gave her blog a home.
Her liabilities in the world of print — a penchant for innuendo and unnamed sources — became assets online. To admirers and detractors, she is the perfect expression of the Web’s original premise, which suggested that a lone obsessive could own the conversation, which she punctuates with the phrase TOLDJA in capital letters. “It is not a great mystery how all of this happened,” said Joe Donnelly, who edited her column at LA Weekly. “It happened because Nikki willed it to happen through a lot of hard work. She is not afraid of new technology and new ideas. She saw this coming.”
Her big close-up arrived during the writers’ strike in 2007 and 2008 when she provided up-to-the-minute, highly partisan coverage — in favor of the writers. Bill Condon, the director of “Dreamgirls,” said, “Yes, she was a partisan, but she is one of the few people to stand up for the writers, to stand up against powerful interests in a town that is full of them.”
She does have her favorites, however. Sony Pictures almost always seems to get a pass, Ron Meyer at Universal is frequently portrayed in heroic terms, and Brad Grey at Paramount manages to remain curiously above the fray. On the other side of the ledger, she has shown a serial contempt for NBC’s chief, Jeff Zucker, and has treated Ben Silverman, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment, like a piñata. (“He’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Ms. Finke says of Mr. Silverman.)
“She,” said Patrick Goldstein, a longtime entertainment reporter at The Los Angeles Times, “has attacked me in a very personal way, but I give her total props because she has shown what works on the Web.”
He hastens to add that Ms. Finke has gone into her own archive to correct errors. Bill Wyman, who blogs at Hitsville.com, documented an instance in which she altered a previous post about a director getting a job, then took credit for a scoop when it turned out to be somebody else.
Ms. Finke said both men were wrong on the specifics and each had a personal vendetta against her, a frequent theme whenever criticism of her work came up. She does say that she considers Web articles to be living things, reflecting “the latest information I have received.”
Her aggression is not limited to journalism. Ms. Finke is a frequent and enthusiastic litigant. She sued The New York Post, the News Corporation and the Walt Disney Company for wrongful dismissal after she wrote an unflattering article about Disney. According to numerous media accounts, she received a settlement. Ms. Finke would say only, “The matter was resolved.”
In 2006, she filed a suit against E*Trade accusing it of recording her phone calls while she was a client there and a class action was certified, resulting in a proposed $7.5 million settlement that will get a final hearing this fall. (Ms. Finke would receive $40,000 as the class representative under the terms of the settlement. She refused to comment on the publicly filed case, saying it was private.) She has sued and settled with a company that worked on her house, saying it had caused her to injure her foot and sued a car dealer saying it had failed to live up to the terms of an extended warranty.
She acknowledges having had financial struggles, but those seem firmly in the past. With the sale to Mail.com, Ms. Finke stands to make more than $5 million in the next eight years, and her deal could go as high as $10 million, according to one of the people involved in the deal who declined to be quoted citing the private nature of the negotiations.
If the deal works out, Ms. Finke’s probing phone calls will continue to panic the suits in Hollywood for some time to come. Without saying who it was, she gave a recent example of someone who ended up as a pelt on her wall.
“I implored him to talk to me, and he did a little, but not enough,” she explained. “He should have protected himself.”
Rebecca Cathcart contributed reporting from Los Angeles.