I could only laugh when in late October Mark Harris, the prolific film writer, tweeted a reference to an HBO pilot that didn’t get picked up a couple of years back: Tilda, starring Diane Keaton as a shrill showbiz blogger modeled on Finke. “Moment of silence,” Harris wrote, “for how much fun season 3 would’ve been.”
In early November, after a tumultuous day of mediation in which Finke and Penske—who, according to Finke, have never met face to face—sat in separate rooms and communicated via intermediaries, Penske released her from her contract. “Jay Penske has just told me I am free to leave,” Finke tweeted. “He tried to buy my silence. No sale.”
In the face of this invective, Penske—the 34-year-old son of billionaire automotive and racing magnate Roger Penske—stayed quiet (as he did with me; among the players in this internecine saga, he alone refused to grant an on-the-record interview). He had learned what many in Hollywood already knew: In life, as in print, Finke displays a brazen willingness to eviscerate anyone, friend or foe. To her, ex-NBC-Universal chief Jeff Zucker was a “kick-ass incompetent,” while Viacom’s Sumner Redstone was a “crazy old coot.”
Finke relishes opportunities to bludgeon those who abuse their power (or simply get on her nerves). She is indeed a brawler, and that makes her a perfect fit for the Web, where tumult and controversy play better than sober analysis. But she’s also something most journalists aren’t: adept at business.
Finke discovered early on that the Web was especially hospitable to entrepreneurship. In 1998, when she found herself between jobs, she kept herself “afloat financially,” she says, by selling discontinued Cartier pens and wallets on eBay. The key, she found, was the way she positioned her product. “It’s how I learned to market myself online,” she tells me. “I had to teach myself how to write computer code and post photos, but when I started selling those suckers, it was the most fun ever. Soon I was awash in cash, even though at that time nobody wanted the kind of truthful reporting that I did. Back then you needed someone to hire you to be able to write. But this taught me that if I relied on myself, I’d be OK.”
She couldn’t have launched her site at a better time. In 2006, Variety was still presided over by Peter Bart, a New York Times reporter turned studio exec turned editor who treated the trade paper as his personal fiefdom. He regularly watered down hard-hitting pieces about his pals. Once, when Paramount (the studio he’d previously helped run) complained about a Variety critic who’d panned a number of its films, Bart simply assigned Paramount films to someone else. Later a profile of Bart in this magazine revealed that as editor-in-chief, he’d shopped a script to the studios Variety covered—a clear conflict of interest. He was suspended, but not for long. THR hadn’t fared much better in the ethics department. In 2001, when David Robb, the paper’s labor expert, wrote a tough piece about THR’s own gossip columnist lobbying for screen credits to qualify for health and pension benefits from the Screen Actors Guild, the publisher had it killed—prompting Robb and the magazine’s two top editors to resign in protest.
Into the void stepped Finke, who was fiendishly eager to upend the cozy relationship between Hollywood machers and the compliant writers who covered them. To the extent the Web’s impact on journalism exemplifies a disruptive technology, Finke was that disruption in human form. Having bounced into and out of countless jobs in traditional media, she didn’t hesitate to bet on herself online. She turned her print-only column at the L.A. Weekly into a digital phenomenon a year before the convulsive writers’ strike roiled Hollywood. That’s when Finke saw her daily page views triple from 350,000 to nearly 1 million. Readers flocked to her, largely because she made industry reporting seem like a WWE death match.
At Deadline, particularly in the early years, Finke filed stories at all hours. Her work ethic helped build her brand, but what cemented her success is her cunning grasp of showbiz psychology. Hollywood is filled with people who, whatever their accomplishments, are so desperately insecure that they root for their enemies to fail—and their friends to fail, too.
This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now