Writing about Nikki Finke’s passing may be the hardest thing I have to do this year.
She was smart, incredibly hard working, and relentless.
She had no ethics, no perspective, and only a passing interest in the truth.
Most of what you know about Nikki (almost all of you, at least) is mythology.
The thing that brought her to prominence, taking the side of the writers in the WGA strike of 2007, also caused multiple rebukes by the WGA leadership, as she printed what the writers fed her… and then printed what the AMPTP fed her while still appearing to be “pro-writer.”
Nikki worked for a lot of major outlets… and lost her job at every single one of them because of her own failings, ultimately including the one that made her wealthy and famous.
My first contact with Nikki was in 2002, when she sued Fox and Disney, claiming they were colluding against her when she was fired for misreporting the facts around Disney’s ongoing negotiations with the family of the creator of Winnie The Pooh. She somehow found me at my sister’s home in Chicago, where I was for Thanksgiving weekend. Her first words to me were, “Are you trying to kill me?!?!”
Her error on the Disney story was pretty basic. She conflated projected gross sales of Pooh merchandise with revenues reported by Disney and she exaggerated the significance of the issue based on some language in a rah-rah speech by Michael Eisner that touted the value of Pooh without any specific numbers. It was easily corrected, but Nikki would never admit she had it wrong. (I wish I could link the original story for you, but I can’t find it on the web.)
Nikki and I talked about it - she screamed, I laughed - a lot. Occasionally, she would let me talk long enough to explain why her math and angle were wrong. I was clearly an idiot. She invited me to her court dates to somehow prove that she was right and when I went downtown and found the courtroom one day on her specific instructions, it turned out not to be in session. Thanks, Nikki.
At one point, there was discussion of a site with myself, Anne Thompson, Jeffrey Wells, and Nikki. And of course, Nikki being Nikki, she couldn’t show up for the meeting. She called in. And before the day was over, we all knew this would never happen because each of us worked by a different set of rules and needs. But it was, for an instant, a funny idea.
I always have believed that as journalists covering this industry, our freedom to shred any exec, any piece of work, any talent required that we be willing to express judgement of fellow journalists. This is not a popular position. And Nikki, who loved to dish it out, had as thin a skin as any journalist I ever knew… and we have very, very thin skins.
So we spent years, before and after the Penske buyout and expansion, in e-mail exchanges in which she threatened me. She was going to destroy me! But her policy was never to write about me in any way in public. Clever.
Nikki invited me to lunch one day to “Bury the hatchet.” We both did the joke about what part of me she wanted to bury it in. But we met, we ate, and it was perfectly pleasant. She picked up the tab and I told her the next time would be on me. But there never was a next time. However, there were dozens of serious-toned claims that I “owed her,” to which I responded every time with a willingness for her to pick a restaurant of her choices at any time she liked and she should bring a bag to take home a second lobster. Never happened.
This did not keep Nikki from attacking me privately. I have kept this story quiet for many years because it would have potentially triggered an attack by Nikki on a friend, who she attacked publicly anyway because of our friendship. But Nikki told this senior studio executive at a major that I was threatening her sexually and that she feared that I would find her and rape her. Let that linger for a moment. She opened her mouth and made up a story that led to the idea that I was going to find her and rape her. Can you imagine a worse accusation or a more loathsome lie?
Ironically, I was the one outlet on the beat that wasn’t obsessed with getting a picture of Nikki to publish. I had no interest in finding her. I didn’t care what she looked like. And Nikki & I never exchanged a single word of a sexual nature of any kind. But she was angry at my willingness to call her out and wanted to control my relationship with that studio and surely every studio and was willing to suggest that I might become a rapist so that she could try to block my relationships.
And the thing with Nikki was, because she was saying this privately, I had no way - I still have no way - of knowing who else she was saying this to and whether they knew me well enough to dismiss it instantly as absurd, as the exec in question does.
Well over a decade later, I still have no idea what people in town were told and might believe that I had some sexual anything with Nikki. This was not the old bald faced lie Nikki told about me… but it was the most horrifying. And it still pops into my head every few months… “Could someone actually have believed this?”
Then there was the “anonymous e-mail” tracked back to Roger Friedman, claiming that I was fired from Entertainment Weekly for office bathroom masturbation, that I invited Owen Gliberman to join me… that I had AIDS… that I was secretly black and passing… and that EW found black child porn on my office computer. Every claim easily and obviously disproved… but again, you never know what people decide to believe. This is why I hate personal gossip.
In discussing Nikki over the years with industry friends, almost always the conversation was about how fun she was when she was shredding others - no need for corroboration - and how terrible it was when they were being shredded with lies. Somehow, very smart people didn’t take the leap that if she was lying about their situation, she was probbaly lying about others. Nikki was very good at getting details from private studio events that she dropped in to pieces where there were damaging lies or conjecture. People are funny, eh?
I can be very hurtful to people in assessing their journalistic work. It’s not intentional, but it is inevitable. It’s never personal to me… except in these few cases, where I am assauted by gossip in a very personal way. Nikki and Roger are the 2 who have really crossed that line in my history. (Wells and a few others are different things.)
But I digress…
I spent over an hour on the phone with the late, great David Carr when he wrote the first New York Times piece on Nikki trying to explain her to him… but he got sucked into her self-promotional claims and I believe, into the complexity of a moment when media seemed down for the count and Nikki just got paid millions by some billionaire’s kid.
I was around for the W piece by Jacob Bernstein, which drove Nikki to harass the editor for 3 straight days before he removed the entire piece from the website because it just wasn’t worth it.
I was around for the Tad Friend profile in The New Yorker, which led to Nikki harassing David Remnick to the point where he relented on some things and she then publicly called him her “bitch” for giving in to her demands.
Nikki had a variety of access points to her “inside” information. But executives figured this out pretty quickly and learned to pay her off with attention and the claim of respect, the commodity she most valued. She attacked top executives until they started playing ball with her, often through a powerful publicist. One day, they were a misogynist or a fool or a borderline criminal… and then, POOF!, they never did anything wrong ever again.
Nikki would call anyone who was not a top boss names… often filthy, normally-HR-investigated kind of names. “Stupid Cunt” was a favorite. All hours. All weekend. If she was getting her info feed from someone other than The Boss, it was slash and burn.
But the funny thing is, Nikki Finke, for all her rage and “inside info” never got anyone fired. She never got anyone hired. She didn’t help anyone. She just slung bile that caused the thin-skinned Hollywood bosses to seek to control her. And they did. And this was what she really wanted.
Nikki did get WB to do a more expensive release of The Women via Picturehouse by calling Jeff Robinov a sexist pig… $10m opening… in 4th place. She then stopped attacking Jeff Robinov after Warners hired a Nikki Keeper to handle her.
Nikki also started the ridiculous practice of “reporting” box office on Friday and all through the weekend. Literally no one ran box office stories before Saturday morning before this… and not everyone did that. Nikki hated box office. She often mocked me privately for having an interest in it. But she got Friday matinee numbers for The Da Vinci Code and wrote about them, it got picked up by Drudge and suddenly she was a box office expert, writing on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Such was the power of Drudge to deliver clicks. She never thought or cared about box office. She wrote what she was fed… which more often than not was her modus operendi. And she took the hits.
In fact, she became so sold out by 2013, just 3 years into the Penske-backed build-out of Deadline, that she became a sideshow… a curiosity with a legend around her… but she no longer wielded power - aside from the power of fear that Hollywood held onto like PTSD - as she seemed to in 2009 and 2010.
To her credit - kinda - she didn’t want to have Deadline become a revenue-driven whore house. She desperately wanted people to believe she was a real journalist. So she fought some of the changes towards making more money. She wanted to have a serious church/state relationship.
But she also took the big check(s) from Jay.
She also drove people hired by Penske to hit the gas on revenues, regardless of the journalistic issues, to distraction. She couldn’t kill Penske’s financial desires and the projects that emerged as a result… but she made them much, much harder to accomplish, sometimes increasing the cost of a launch of a new product by as much as the original budget.
Just 4 years after she and Penske launched Deadline, with the key additions of Mike Fleming and Nellie Andreeva, she was done with Deadline and Deadline with her. She was right about some things, wrong about others. But she was not The Money anymore. She had built the business enough to make herself, now mostly a puppet, obsolete.
Trying to work around a no-compete clause, Finke started a site to run insider semi-fiction about the industry. In the early days, I spoke to an Emmy-winning writer who submitted a piece… which Nikki decided to edit… since she was apparently a comedy writer of some renown in her head. Some older writers were actually excited about the prospects of a platform for their work and to even make a few bucks. But it was never to really fly. Nikki was too Nikki. She couldn’t help herself.
And now, she is dead.
The thing about Nikki is… she is a super-sad story.
Nikki had skills. Nikki had drive. Nikki worked hard. Being a dog with a bone is a really great thing… if you deliver the work.
But Nikki was clearly a depressive. Not sure is she was a manic-depressive, as she was surely manic at times. That are those who claim she was not afraid to leave her home… but I seem to recall being told that over the entire course of her relationship with Jay Penske, they met 3 or 4 times. Almost no one at Deadline ever saw her face. She ordered in years before it was normal to order in. She had assistants who did her shopping, etc.
Over the last decade, many people have been suggested as “The Next Nikki,” but there is unlikely to be another Nikki anytime soon, as there is no one with the absolute single-mindedness and lack of self-awareness to “be” Nikki. Someone would have to be a singularly focused on being shown respect by the elite of Hollywood above all else - above being liked, above money, above the work of being a journalist - as Nikki was. That’s not easy. Not even for the people some see as creepy in this business.
We live in a current wave of a few writers who lick the plates of the powerful and want to explain how they know things, more than just what they have heard. Nikki would have eaten them alive and shat them out whole just to do it again. They will make a living, but they will never really matter. Court jesters.
Being a prick for sport isn’t any better, really. Nikki was so much more than that. She understood power so well… for everyone but herself. When she read about Icarus, she just said, “Pussy!” and looked for a better story.
I don’t think Nikki liked hurting people. She liked being able to hurt people because she liked the respect that being able to hurt people brought her.
Obviously, Nikki had abuse in her past. Obviously she was trying to fill giant gaping emotional holes that I am sure she never filled.
She was no Trump. I do think he lives in a bubble, but I also have to believe that he knows that much of his behavior is performative, a strategy to reach his ends. As much as Nikki could explain her manipulations, I don’t think it was all strategy. I think the strategy was, ultimately, who she was.
Looking through some old e-mails, I found one Nikki forwarded to me about a journalist friend who had just died of cancer at 49, leaving a pre-teen daughter behind. Nikki got this note from this woman’s sister and forwarded it to me.
Hi, Nikki: I just wanted to say (now that she's dead) that I always thought my sister's continual potshots at you were mean-spirited, bullying and unfair. She was obviously jealous of you, felt competitive with you, and coveted something you had. In a weird way, I think she was (unconsciously) really transferring her life-long sibling rivalry with me onto you. It's a shame, really. Best,
Even in light of this young woman’s death, Nikki was shoveling out “evidence” that Nikki had somehow been done wrong. She had a partner in this, who likely didn’t expect Nikki to be sending the e-mail around to other friends of the dead woman. Maybe the sister was okay with it. Enablers, I guess. This is one element of what is so sick about gossip.
It is also what Nikki and the clearly-uninterested-in-journalism Penske have left behind. We no longer have the undeniable, irreplaceable madness of Nikki. We have the revenue platform that was never what was important to her.
What we have is an entire generation of show business writers - with exceptions - who think that what she did is journalism and don’t really understand that it was 25% journalism, 25% the most filthy, nasty, manipulative gossip, and 50% publicity arm for the industry, monetized by a non-journalist to maximize revenues. This is a shame and a loss for everyone, whether they understand it or not. It makes for a “loudest voice wins” scenario… anyone ever win one of those?
In the end, I am sad for Nikki. I was sad for her - sometimes even when enraged - while she was alive. She was a desperate character. And I’m sure the last 5 years were no easier than any of the others. Just more quiet.
She had so much going for her… but if she was ever happy, it was not evident for more than a couple minutes at a time. And one thing about her… she always made sure she had plenty of company in her misery.
May her soul be at peace, finally.
As someone who received Nikki's graciousness I find this piece vile
Do you think Friedman learned his dirty tricks from Finke? Or was he just "following orders" from Finke to character assassinate you on her behalf? (I'm definitely late to the game on this, forgive me. Crazy what he accused you of back then.)