Deadline Turns 10 And Celebrates Disruptors: Nikki Finke Looks Back

Nikki Finke Deadline Hollywood
Illustration By Bram Vanhaeren

Deadline marks its 10th anniversary as a digital news breaking enterprise with a throwback initiative: our first ever print magazine at the Cannes Film Festival. Given the formative years of this publication, it seemed a natural to celebrate the idea of disruption. From evolving distribution platforms to the growing importance of China, the film business is changing rapidly. In times like these, the world belongs to those who see past the anxiety and chaos of change, and instead see an opportunity to change the game. Our collection of disruptors includes the likes of Peter Jackson (on his career and the potential of Screening Room), Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Amazon’s Roy Price, director and slate co-financier Brett Ratner, directors Ang Lee, Jodie Foster, Nicolas Winding Refn and Jeff Nichols; Wild Bunch co-founder Vincent Maraval, Canal Plus chairman Vincent Bollore, Bright screenwriter Max Landis, and Mario Kassar, the Carolco Pictures co-founder who was one of the most memorable disruptors Cannes has ever seen. First up, though, is Deadline founder Nikki Finke, taking a look back at how she started this publication. — Mike Fleming      

I never write about myself. But this marks the 1oth anniversary of my founding Deadline Hollywood, so I’ve been asked to craft a remembrance despite the fact I rarely look back. Here goes:

When I started Deadline Hollywood Daily, as it was called way back in 2006, I needed a quicker way to report breaking entertainment news than my weekly newspaper column. So I bought the URL for 14 bucks and change. I didn’t set out to be a disruptor. Or an internet journalist who created something out of nothing that put the Hollywood trades back on their heels, and today, under Penske Media ownership, is a website worth $100+ million. Or a woman with brass balls, fuck-you attitude and ruthless hustle, who told hard truths about the moguls and who accurately reported scoops first.

Yes, I did recognize that showbiz coverage could change, because the digital platform leveled a playing field that had previously belonged to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Back then, the trades were slow to embrace the idea that trees no longer had to die for a media outlet to be influential. “The trades were polite and objective, but you realized it was far more interesting to tell stories through your own perspective,” Mike Fleming reminds me. “I always used to tell people you were like a duck that walked around on land and then somebody knocked you into the water and suddenly it was like, damn, look at how that duck swims!”

I’ll never forget the weekend of DHD’s birth. I received the website template on a Friday, figured out how to post text and photos that Saturday, and live-blogged the 78th Academy Awards that Sunday. To my great surprise, The Drudge Report posted a link to my Oscar snarking. Deadline Hollywood Daily was off and running.

Over the first few months, I had to come up with a format to break news, analysis and commentary in real time. I was truly making it up as I went along. I followed my early AP training, devised a chronological linear format and instituted bold UPDATE, EXCLUSIVE, BULLETIN, WRITETHRU signage—as well as the adored/abhorred TOLDJA. In that early period, eager for Hollywood to notice DHD, I felt the need to blow its horn because of my own insecurity.

I also had to figure out how to deal with Hollywood’s rumors du jour, since where there’s smoke, there’s fire in this town. I wrote up one rumor and then vowed never to do it again. I also decided that transparency was the best policy for press releases. If I only had a single source for news, I said so. For content, I kept DHD laser-focused. When Michael Jackson died, I decided not to cover it. I made it clear that readers should go elsewhere for celebrity nonsense, because mine was a business blog. I thought of suing for defamation the next media outlet that claimed I was a gossip columnist.

I was fortunate that DHD grew organically and, as its sole owner, I never felt pressured to turn a profit. In fact, for the first year, I received no extra payment to work on my website. One day, MediaBistro offered to host DHD and pay me a salary. Only then did LA Weekly finally ante up. I also never asked for traffic stats, nor posted clickbait. My attitude was: if I build it my way, they will come. My philosophy was to give readers the behind-the-scenes biz intel they wanted and needed. Not long after, DHD became one of the top blogs in the USA. Soon Hollywood was sounding the alarm bells.

I realized this the day that a major studio’s corporate flack called to invite me to a dinner party she was hosting. I told her I was flattered. She then said, “Don’t be. It’s to discuss how to deal with you.” I begged off. I heard later she invited many of her colleagues to bitch and moan about me and my methods. For decades, the studios had successfully manipulated reporters to hold stories, or to toe the line or believe official denials. I made it my mission to throw all those anachronisms out the window. She organized a follow-up dinner, only this time its purpose was to try and shut me down.

Needless to say, I became hated very quickly. Oh, moguls, executives and agents loved it when I was eviscerating their competition; they just didn’t like it when I wrote the truth about them. But they grudgingly accepted that I was an equal opportunity basher: everyone got their turn. So there was fairness in that.

I never set out to be mean. It just flowed through my typing fingers, to my laptop keyboard, to the website. I’d get enraged witnessing the powerful manhandle the powerless, which had been a running theme in my long journalism career as an international and national correspondent. So I had no interest in becoming an extension of the Hollywood publicity machine. Trust me, I never set out for DHD or me to be as controversial as we became. Instead, I was following the advice of my mentor, the legendary editor Peter Kaplan, who told me repeatedly: 1. You’re best when angry; 2. Write what you really know; and 3. Tell the truth about Hollywood.

For DHD and me, the 2007-2008 Writers’ Strike was a huge turning point. The days leading up to the walkout were chaotic, but I was the sole journalist covering it in real time. DHD had a much-watched countdown clock.

I quickly realized that the trades and newspapers were reporting the moguls’ lies as truths. My own coverage told a different story. Hundreds of WGA and other guild members became my regular sources from the picket lines. My involvement reached critical mass when a striker was photographed in a T-shirt that read, “Free Nikki Finke.” Indeed, I felt like a hostage, holed up in my one-bedroom apartment afraid of missing a key phone call or important email. I was working 22/7 and my cat started to lose his fur from the stress we were both under. To my dismay, the New York Observer anointed me Media Mensch Of The Year, “for reminding us that all good journalism comes, first and foremost, from obsession. The biggest entertainment story of the year also turned into the biggest story of Ms. Finke’s career. She’s demonstrated that one determined reporter—with none of the support or backing of a media outfit, but also none of the entangling alliances—can, in fact, beat the big guys at their own game.”

I had been pressured to start a comments section for DHD, but resisted because I’d have to personally monitor each opinion and I already was running on fumes. Still, I caved because Hollywood didn’t have one place they could go during the strike to opine with the assurance of anonymity. The unsanitized comments quickly became must-reading and stayed that way throughout my tenure.

I never named DHD ‘The Finke Report’ because I wanted the emphasis off me and onto Hollywood. What other journalists wrote about me in The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times and Variety was mostly wrong. I was never a recluse, for instance; I just worked all the time. And a lot of bloggers were starting to abuse women who dared express strong opinions on the web. As Salon’s Joan Walsh posted in 2007, “It’s been hard to ignore that the criticisms of women writers are much more brutal and vicious than those about men—sometimes nakedly sexist, sometimes less obviously so; sometimes sexually and/or personally degrading.” I tried to man up.

DHD’s tipline became invaluable and I checked out every kernel of info. About 75% were true. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I didn’t want to ruin people’s careers. Often I’d be placed in the very uncomfortable position of having to break the bad news to executives first that they were losing their jobs. Or I’d give a drug, alcohol or sex addict time to turn their careers around. But I also couldn’t wait for creative incompetents and nasty pricks—as I’d describe them—to let the door hit them on the way out.

Accusations of bullying were made against me. Most of the time I wasn’t getting enough sleep, or my insulin-dependent diabetes wasn’t in control, or I was defending myself or my staff. The advice I’d give about how best to deal with me was: don’t lie. Yet Hollywood denizens couldn’t help themselves because their lips were moving. About 10% of the time, I acted like an asshole. Inevitably I would apologize, saying I wasn’t going to change without $20,000 worth of therapy. But what I really needed was a vacation.

Starting in 2008, prospective buyers began to circle my website. I knew I had something special when Variety’s parent company paid me mid-six figures just for the right of first refusal. Over 18 months, I had 25 interested parties. I wasn’t looking for an investor or an owner, but a partner who intensely understood the Internet and could provide me with expanded resources. My business agent narrowed the field to two prospects; Haim Saban and Jay Penske. I went to visit Saban at his Malibu beach house for a drink, and to my great surprise and delight we got along very well. But Penske was relentless, phoning me at all hours of the day and night to talk up “what we could do together” and “the opportunity ahead for Deadline Hollywood”. It was not an easy negotiation. “I can’t sell. I don’t want a boss,” I told Penske one night. “I promise to be your worst employee.” But I chose Jay because he knew everything about the internet and would work tirelessly with me.

Penske Media (PMC) acquired DHD in June 2009 and we were shocked by all the media coverage. My quotable quotes included becoming a “corporate cougar” to my decades-younger CEO/boss, and receiving “the equivalent of the GNP of a third world country”. Then we made Page One of The New York Times. “I’ve just been told we’re going to be on the front page,” I told Jay. “You mean the front page of the Business Section,” he responded. “No,” I insisted, “the front page of the newspaper.” We both were gob-smacked.

Jay and I then began to build the Deadline team from scratch, digital brick by digital brick. To hire a film journalist, we interviewed more than two dozen top prospects until I realized exactly whom I needed. I phoned Mike Fleming on a Friday and gave him my spiel: “You’re not being paid enough… You can write about anything you want… Variety is going down for the count…” We’d known each other for eons so he was very polite but also very firm when he said, “No.” His wife turned that “no” into a “maybe” by Monday. After a meeting and a very long dinner with Jay, Mike coming aboard DHD was the ultimate game-changer. Same with Nellie Andreeva. When I first emailed her, she thought it was a prank. Since we didn’t know each other, she insisted on meeting face to face. I went to the wrong restaurant and was 45 minutes late to our breakfast.

My most reluctant hire was Pete Hammond. He’d been trying for years to get a blog at the LA Times and had accomplished it. We went around and around: his main concern was that I’d turn him into a mini-me. I promised to let him be him as long as he let me be me. And I never broke that pledge, which he told the Publicists’ Guild when he won their award in 2013 working for Deadline. Other underutilized talents hired as key staffers included David Lieberman, Patrick Hipes, Nancy Tartaglione, Dominic Patten, Denise Petski and Erik Pedersen. To the present day, Deadline’s initial staff almost entirely remains. Soon we had more readers than Variety and THR combined. And it’s also with great pride that my idea for a “Contenders” event, offered free at awards time to the studios and distributors, grew thanks to Madelyn Hammond and Stacey Farish into what are now two huge annual presentations, one for Oscars and one for Emmys.

I always wanted a wall between editorial and advertising, and Penske Media deeply supported this separation. I specifically instructed the sales team not to tell me who was advertising. But studios still tried to use their buys as leverage with me. No way, no how. Indeed, the wall was so high that I didn’t know a major mogul had banned his company from advertising on Deadline for two years because I was writing that he was a moron.

I worked eight straight years with just one week of actual time off. In addition to running the site, editing it, planning for it, and breaking stories on it, I also wrote box office from Friday morning through Sunday midday, with myriad updates. One day Deadline posted, “Yes, it’s true: Nikki Finke has been in the hospital since Monday. She hopes to get out by Friday (even if she has to rip off the IV). But that won’t interfere with her holiday box office since 15 movies are opening!” The goal was to do it differently: in those days, every new release was a “boffo hit” per the trades. I sought to inject more truth into the process. My coverage caused instant dismay and voluminous debate. As Fast Company noted, high-level Disney execs huddled around their computers for the opening of Pirates Of The Caribbean 4. “The big question on their minds was this: what was Nikki Finke going to say on Deadline Hollywood? The most influential—and, to studio executives, terrifying—entertainment reporter in town, Finke would set the tone with the initial report on her website.” Jeez, I thought at the time, you execs need to get a life.

I won’t talk about my leaving Deadline except to say this: nothing ever stays the same, and sometimes shit just happens. Besides, that Funny Or Die video about the two of us covered it. Most importantly, all is forgiven. Since I left journalism in August 2014, my name doesn’t even merit an assistant’s gasp anymore. I love working now with fiction writers for my showbiz short story website

To this day, I have never regretted partnering with Penske and selling DHD, but I’m also proud of never selling out. I no longer have a cat, but I do have almost every entertainment journalism award. I respect Penske for building Deadline into a fundamental part of his digital media empire. And it gives me great pleasure to see that, while Deadline is very different from what I created, it’s thriving as an integral part of the entertainment establishment. The bigger question is: can it withstand my re-entry?

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