“America’s most exciting industry [was] being covered in the least interesting way by the world’s worst media,” says Janice Min, editorial director of THR, which, like rival Variety, became a glossy magazine.
Then, as now, she also prevailed through fear and intimidation. Until Finke’s rise, exclusives usually went to the reporter with the best relationships or the outlet with the most readers. “But after Nikki and Deadline arrived, it all went upside down,” says John Horn, an entertainment reporter (and former close colleague of mine) at the Los Angeles Times. “Deadline didn’t get scoops because it had the best reporters or the biggest audience but because of Nikki’s tactics. She got scoops because she was the person that people were the most afraid of.”
I’ve seen evidence of Finke’s threatening maneuvers firsthand, when—more than once—executives handed me their iPhones at lunch and let me read her e-mails, which were often punctuated with profane language. When I confront her about this, she doesn’t deny it. But she insists that other journalists behave the same way.
“There isn’t anyone in town who doesn’t do it,” she says, referring to her brass knuckles style of reporting. “I’m just the one who everyone loves to point to.” Actually she’s wrong. Finke’s rivals may be pushy and obnoxious, industry folks agree, but they don’t typically resort to demanding what they want—or else (which for an uncooperative source generally means payback in the form of negative pieces). So why does Finke use threats? “Eighty-five percent of the time it’s on behalf of my staff—I’m being an asshole so that my staff doesn’t have to be,” she says. “Ten percent of the time Deadline has been disrespected in some fashion, and I just want equal treatment.”
What about the remaining 5 percent?
Finke laughs when I ask. “It’s me being an asshole. Maybe my sugars were bad from my diabetes. Maybe I had a bad day. I’m not perfect. A lot of times I’ll call and apologize afterwards.”
It’s clear that Penske has been caught in the crossfire between the two entities he owns: Variety and Deadline. He’s also failed to make a credible case for why he’s operating two competing Web sites, both aimed at the same audience. Finke began crying foul after Penske announced that she wouldn’t be running Variety’s editorial operations; she exacted revenge by gleefully mocking the magazine at every opportunity. In April she accused Variety—whose print circulation was 42,000 in September 2012, the time of its last audit—of soliciting “creepy obit ads” after Roger Ebert’s death.
Finke wasn’t the only one lobbing grenades. After Runner Runner—a thriller starring Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake—bombed at the box office in October, Variety’s just-hired New York film editor, Ramin Setoodeh, wrote an opinion piece headlined “Why Justin Timberlake Should Stop Acting.” In it Setoodeh claimed that the singer-dancer-showman “will never be a movie star” and advised studios to “please stop sending him scripts.” (The piece was, to my mind, inane. If every actor who made a lousy movie was drummed out of the business, where would that leave Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, and Russell Crowe, let alone Channing Tatum?) But it was custom made to generate Web traffic, its provocative headline chosen to be search-engine friendly.
Fleming was outraged. “The last time I read something troubling and reactionary like this, it was when some genius wrote on Newsweek.com that gay actors like Sean Hayes should not even try to play straight characters because they just can’t pull it off,” he wrote on Deadline a few minutes after Setoodeh posted. “That seemed hurtful and kind of homophobic. Then it hit me. Same genius wrote both articles.”
When I ask Fleming why he took a whack at a writer from a sister publication, he says, “I hate stupid, self-important coverage. There was no malice intended. I just looked at it and thought it was really dumb.” Variety’s management wasn’t amused by Fleming’s scolding. As Eller told me, “To say I didn’t like it would be an understatement.”
But comparatively speaking, Setoodeh got off easy. After The Wrap’s Sneider posted an “exclusive” recently about the talent agency CAA promoting several low-level agents, Fleming filed his take on the story, dismissing Sneider as “an attention-starved douche.” Fleming justifies the snarky aside, telling me Sneider had badmouthed Finke on Twitter (something Sneider has done so often, he says, laughing, “that I can’t remember what I did that time”). “I’m very protective of Nikki,” Fleming told me in early October. “To see him disparage her really annoyed me. He hasn’t accomplished enough yet to criticize someone like Nikki.”
But by late October Fleming himself was fed up with Finke. After she went on her anti-Penske Twitter tirade, he took her to task on the site she’d founded. Finke, he said, had “turned an internal matter, her dissatisfaction, into a public spectacle.” Aligning himself with Penske, Fleming said the site was “on course” to exceed $10 million in ad revenues this year (as compared, he said, with $100,000 the year he came aboard). The message was clear: With or without Finke, Deadline would survive.
This feature appears in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine on newsstands now