making the sausage

Apocalypse Nikki: Polone Challenges the Power of the Vengeful Finke

Starting about six years ago, I, like most people I know who work in the entertainment business, checked Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood Daily first, before perusing the other trade websites for news on the industry. I preferred Nikki’s site, not because of the in-depth reporting: There is very little of that, as most posts are not much more than headlines and the bare facts. Rather, I was drawn to it because I found a perverse charm in her caustic and surprisingly direct commentaries about whatever topic seemed to agitate her — and there are many things that seem to agitate her. The few times Nikki turned her venom spew in my direction, calling me an “attention hog” and my opinions “crackpot,” I was honored that I was worthy of her interest and took it in good fun. When she would call or e-mail me for information on a story, I would give it to her, if I could, and I enjoyed the intense conversation with her on whatever topic she was investigating. I respected her passion for what she does and the fact that she would call or e-mail on weekends or late at night in pursuit of a scoop. I also respected that she started a business out of nothing and made it successful. 

After selling Deadline to Penske Media in 2009, Nikki hired several reputable journalists, like Variety’s Mike Fleming and The Hollywood Reporter’s Nellie Andreeva, and began to compete directly with the other trade news organizations as far as breadth of coverage, though Deadline seldom evidences similar depth. This transformation from a one-woman blog to a full trade publication has given Nikki more clout and established her as the most influential deliverer of news and opinions about the entertainment industry. Studio executives, creative types, and producers now scurry to get her the first info on their developing projects; numerous times I have heard these Hollywood players saying, “Can you get Nikki to run this?” or “How should we spin this with Nikki?” or “We better give this to Nikki first or she’ll kill us.” Studio heads really care what she says about them and, I’ve heard, even made having a good relationship with Nikki the sine qua non of getting hired to a studio’s publicity department.

This perception of her power appears to me to have emboldened her to step up her attacks on those who either compete with her or dare to favor one of her competitors. In a recent article, she referred to Daily Variety as getting “more tarnished and less respected.” In another tirade, she said that The Hollywood Reporter (which she’s been battling for a while now) is losing money and is “no longer trusted by the Hollywood community,” because they are “spinning bullshit as news.” A prominent journalist told me of an incident where Nikki, angered by an imagined transgression, called her at 5 a.m. and screamed at her. I spoke to a well-known studio head who told me that, after Nikki felt undermined by her, Finke called the studio head’s house at 9 p.m. and yelled at her, calling her a “cunt” and threatening to write negative stories about her. I have also heard of a situation where another trade paper got some exclusive promotional materials from a studio on an upcoming film and Nikki called that studio and told them that, because they didn’t favor her with this exclusive, she was going to “shit all over” the movie in question. 

And then there is the situation that arose after author Bret Easton Ellis tweeted that he and Finke live in the same building in West Hollywood (though he did not say which building). This enraged the notoriously reclusive Nikki and she allegedly called partners at ICM, the agency that represents Ellis, and threatened to sue the agency and him and to write nasty things about both of them on her website, presumably to punish him for his affront to her privacy. This story was confirmed to me by a source who would know the particulars, and reconfirmed to me by Ellis (with whom I am acquainted). This and the other aggressive actions I’ve heard Nikki has taken are believable to me because of an e-mail I received from her last October after Vulture’s Joe Adalian ran a story on a Zombieland pilot that I was developing at Fox, which I verified when he called me. The e-mail read, “so you’re reporting now? Really pathetic.” I guess she figured that since I was now writing this column for Vulture, I had offered them this truly insignificant story and denied Deadline first dibs on releasing the news to the public; honestly, I would have affirmed the story to whomever called me from whatever organization, and I’m surprised that anyone cared about the pilot in the first place. But Nikki is so easily offended when anyone but her team gets a story that she overreacts with a personal attack. Her behavior reminds me of the scene in Apocalypse Now when Captain Willard is receiving his orders from his superiors and they describe Colonel Kurtz by saying “his ideas, methods, have become unsound.”

Part of the reason that Nikki has continued to act in such an uncivil and threatening manner is that her conduct is reinforced by those in Hollywood who, terrified, choose a path of appeasement rather than confront or ignore her. In 2009, she wrote probably the ugliest and most vindictive business article I’ve ever read, when former Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger was fired. In this article, she said such things as, “I hate Shmuger, really detest the putz,” and “Shmuger’s biggest problem was that he thinks he plays well with others when, in fact, he treats people badly and is blind to the fact they hate his guts.” (Ignore the irony.) And how did Shmuger react to this insult-laden screed? In May 2011, he gave the exclusive press release on the formation of his new company to Deadline Hollywood. 

The most fascinating element of the Nikki story is that people in this industry fear her and invest power in her. She has no real power: She can’t fire anyone at the studios, and she can’t influence the audience of films or TV. She isn’t a reviewer and most people in the country don’t even know who the hell she is. Deadline doesn’t have a monopoly on entertainment business news, and it isn’t even the most widely read: According to comScore, Deadline’s June audience of 1,376,000 unique visitors topped The Wrap’s 879,000 and Variety’s 354,000, but The Hollywood Reporter had 4,969,000. (Note: Measurement services like comScore typically report stats that are around 35–40 percent of internal numbers, but the proportional differences between these sites would likely be around the same. And, according to comScore, Vulture’s June audience was 1,092,000.) And when Deadline scoops the other trade news sites on a story, they aggregate it within five minutes, anyway. If she has some reason to think that her threats should be taken seriously, I can’t see it … but since so many people in my industry act like they have a reason to cower from this woman, it makes me wonder if I could be wrong.

So, I think we should run an experiment and see if Nikki Finke does have any power. The first step in this test is my making the following public statement: I think Nikki Finke’s manner of writing nasty personal attacks, threatening people, and exhibiting general incivility is unacceptable, and I am asking those who read this to “unfavorite” Deadline from their browser, read it less often, and stop tipping her and her reporters when they have a story until such time as she has modified her behavior and begun to adhere to a more professional practice of journalism; she could start by apologizing for attacking Bret Ellis and anyone else at ICM for the recent scrap. Step two is to wait and see if she can rain down fire and brimstone on me for my insolence. To make it easier on her, I will let her know that I have high hopes for several of my development projects, specifically at Comedy Central, ABC Family, HBO, and TV Land, and a movie at DreamWorks that seems to be making progress to production. Have at them, Nikki! And don’t forget to call Adam Moss at New York Magazine and try to get me booted from Vulture. Maybe the canary in the coal mine will be whether or not Studio System News (formerly Hollywood Wiretap) — a fine site that aggregates entertainment-industry stories and routinely runs my Vulture pieces and many things from Deadline — declines to link to this one?

Should I see any indication of my career going south that looks to be due to Ms. Finke’s vengeful sway on the powers that be, I will admit it in my column. Unless she gets me kicked off of Vulture, in which case I will post it on my Twitter page. Except, of course, if she is able to cut me off from Twitter, as well.

Apocalypse Nikki: Polone Challenges Finke