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Setting the Record Straight on Nikki Finke, Peter Bart and Mike Fleming

News
by Anne Thompson
June 23, 2014 1:13 PM
16 Comments
  • |
Art courtesy Defamer

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? 

16 Comments

  • Robin | June 25, 2014 6:37 PMReply

    I'm sorry, Anne. This is more a bitch column about what Variety did wrong and your issues with them than it has anything to do with Nikki Finke.

    Sure, she started breaking news online. But that is more a result of the times than anything else. If she hadn't done it, someone else would have. She was merely the first.

    Nikki Finke is, unfortunately, completely juvenile, obnoxious, unprofessional and ridiculous. That's what she's known for now. And for that, she has no one to blame but herself.

  • Diana O. | June 25, 2014 2:12 AMReply

    Straightforward and informative, Anne. And explaining what it means to be a journalist in Hollywood.

  • Kristin | June 24, 2014 7:56 PMReply

    I agree that Nikki was absolutely smart to start a site on her own, but then she sold it to a huge media company. Can't have the money and the freedom… that would be too good to be true. Good point about developing trust with sources vs. bullying. Her reputation is hard to ignore … and maybe her style is no longer relevant?

  • Craig Tischman | June 24, 2014 6:25 PMReply

    This reads more of a "look at me" screed than what the headline implies. Your blog was frankly never very interesting, too much of your arrogance and not enough meat. You also are neither fish nor fowl because you also call yourself a critic, so you never really get news that one would think someone who has been in this industry as long as you have would. You also do not cultivate sources as well as even Nikki Finke did, you're too short-sighted. And I remember back in the day how you used to use young trade reporters for information when you were at whatever magazine but never repay the kindness, which created a bunch of ill will. Write the news don't be it.

  • Kanimal | June 24, 2014 11:42 AMReply

    Why does Nikki Finke get a pass for her horrible writing? Her flow is more comparable to that of a fifth grader than a professional journalist.

    Why does she get credit for being some "insider" when she does not break any meaningful news? Sure, she reports on some executive shakeups, but the masses (and make no mistake - they're the target) are more interested in casting news, TV pickup decisions, on-set drama, etc. They care about creative. I don't see her ever scratching the surface of that.

    She takes so much pride in reporting "box office," but all the trades are doing that now. And it's official data anyway - you don't need to be an insider to get it.

    Why does she get a pass for her awful taste in content? Read her "snark" reports during award shows - she gravitates towards the schlockiest movies and TV shows imaginable.

    Why does she get pass for random, nonsensical rants? (See the Matthew Weiner post)

  • Jose Arribas | June 24, 2014 10:36 AMReply

    Nikki Finke is like having a pet scorpion. No matter how much you love it, you just always have to be wary of it. She's one of a kind and I'll follow her wherever she goes. I'm sure there are two sides of what happened at Deadline and Penske but Nikki was never going to be a corporate person regardless of the money. She's utter self-destructive and a bully but she's very very good at what she does. The world always needs another maverick so thank god for the Nikke Finkes of the world.

  • mattheww | June 24, 2014 2:51 AMReply

    There's are a few refrains you hear over and over again: Finke is too lazy and undisciplined, competition is greater now, people won't put up with her b.s. anymore... It's the same thing people say about certain movie stars, who remain stars, because they're stars. People will wait for Nikki Finke. For three days, for three years, through all kinds of bad behavior and despite the horde of hungrier and maybe even better writers. A star is a star. It can drive you crazy if you let it, so don't

  • Richard Horgan | June 24, 2014 10:35 AM

    That's a really good analogy for Finke. And why HBO, for TILDA, should have ideally cast Sharon Stone rather than Diane Keaton.

  • Randy | June 23, 2014 10:10 PMReply

    Anne, good for you for cutting through the noise and saying things for what they are. You have no bone to pick here, it seems, and its interesting to see your perspective on all of this.

  • Ryan | June 23, 2014 8:08 PMReply

    Fascinating article. What's worse than the legal battle that forced her off the site last week, is her current vacation until Wednesday, which apparently was unavoidable. If you're trying to have a successful one-woman site, the absolute last thing you can do is go on vacation less than two weeks after launch and have the site go basically dark for five days.

  • Nikki Finke | June 23, 2014 7:25 PMReply

    Thank you, Anne.

  • ScaredyCat | June 23, 2014 7:15 PMReply

    The elephant in the room is Jay Penske, a trust fund billionaire brat who has been arrested for assaulting and urinating on a woman. SERIOUSLY, GOOGLE IT. This is the man who runs the 2 major Hollywood trades.

  • OkGO | June 23, 2014 6:41 PMReply

    Nobody gets paid millions to be an actual journalist, Anne. Businesses loathe journalism.

    Finke had a job to do: PR and damage control.

    She was either too isolated to know her place or got complacent.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 23, 2014 5:56 PMReply

    Anne,
    As usual, all laid out in elegant detail, crisply told.

  • Cotty Chubb | June 23, 2014 5:34 PMReply

    +1

  • Veronica Dreyer | June 23, 2014 5:25 PMReply

    Excellent piece.

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