For Nikki Finke, fiction was always the enemy. “As a journalist, that was the worst thing you could say about something,” she says. “That’s fiction.”
In the years she spent covering the entertainment industry for the L.A. Times, L.A. Weekly, and her own Deadline website, Finke became famous — and famously feared — for telling the unvarnished (and highly entertaining) truth about everyone in Hollywood, even her own business partner, Jay Penske. “I am a very old-school journalist,” she says throatily over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “I believe you make the comfortable uncomfortable, and that’s the whole point of doing it. A friend of mine who is in the business always used to say, Why do you always act surprised when people hate you for something you have written? And I said, But it’s the truth! My feeling was always the truth trumps everything. You know, the point is to try and get at that. As uncomfortable and difficult as it is.”
One thing the truth doesn’t trump: non-compete clauses.
Last year, a legal battle with Penske over Deadline resulted in Finke walking away with a reported multi-million-dollar settlement and a sworn promise not to report about the industry for anyone else. For a while, it seemed Penske had done something people in the industry had been trying to do for years: Put Finke out of commission. Under their agreement, Finke couldn’t even go online and expound about the Sony hack — the kind of cataclysmic event that would have had the old Finke, who goes on reporting benders the way studio executives used to go on coke binges, sleepless for days.
Finke clears her throat. (“In 2010, I completely had an operation to remove a parathyroid and they paralyzed one of my vocal cords. I couldn’t talk, I would croak. Of course all the agents would go, ‘That’s so sexy.’”) “The hack presented Hollywood the way it really is,” she says. “It demonstrated what Hollywood insiders have always known.” (She’s being careful, but you can hear it in her voice: TOLDJA!)
Of course, it would be folly to think Finke could be kept down for long. After a year spent recovering from the “brutal, brutal” blogging lifestyle (“22 hours a day, seven days a week, no vacations, nothing”), Finke was ready to roar like the MGM lion. She had been working on a book, “A huge nonfiction book about Hollywood, over 1,000 pages,” that was lingering with a publisher, but she wasn’t sure, in this new chapter of her life, that she wanted to publish it. “I think this book will hurt a lot of people and I just don’t know if I want that kind of karma in my life anymore,” she says.
Still, she has 270,000 Twitter followers and her own show-business tendencies. “I have to be able to give them something,” she said to herself. “And I realized while I couldn’t do Hollywood journalism, I could do Hollywood fiction.” But could Finke write fiction? She’d always liked reading fiction, but she’d never attempted it herself. She decided to try: “I was amazed to discover that I had this aptitude.”
Twelve short stories and many long nights later, Finke is launching a site, HollywoodDementia.com, to showcase short fiction — written both by herself and others — about Hollywood, an industry she has a “love-hate” relationship with. “It has its own rules and regulations, it’s own dialogue, its own language,” she says. The site’s name comes from a syndrome she has witnessed in the business wherein people instantly forget things that happen to them. “People here are not introspective, they rewrite history constantly,” she says. “People who make it in Hollywood — some of them, I don’t know if they could make it in other places. Some of them have abysmal personalities, and some of them are hurt little children lashing out, and some of them are really sympathetic characters and damaged, and there are other people who take damaged people and get creativity out of them …”
And she may just be one of them. At Deadline, Finke honed her skills as an editor. “That was hard for me,” she says. “Because everybody had different points of view and different thoughts. But I got used to it.” Now, she claims to have more than 50 stories lined up: “From screenwriters, executives, agents, managers, location scouts, actors, actresses …” In Hollywood, narratives by and about such people are often dismissed as “too inside-baseball,” Finke points out. “Because most of the time, the powers that be don’t want someone’s lens focused on themselves.”
But there are plenty of stories from behind the camera to tell, of this she is certain. Finke also sees the site as a form of “giving back” to the screenwriters who helped Deadline make its name during the writer’s strike in 2007–2008. “There are so many talented writers here,” she says. “The writers have never realized their enormous power in Hollywood and that’s because Hollywood makes sure that they don’t. They keep them fearful. Afraid that they aren’t going to get a job, that their career will be over, that they have nothing more to contribute. I want to give them a place where they can be creative, where nobody’s going to sit on them, where nobody is going to give them imbecilic notes, and they can say what they want and do what they want and be bold. Where they aren’t fearful about turning their attention on the people who employ them.”
Right now, there are nine stories up, from contributors like former Letterman head writer Bill Scheft; screenwriter Peter Lefcourt; Antonia Bogdanovich, the daughter of director Peter Bogdanovich; and one from Finke herself. The plan is to publish once a day, or once every other day, and charge $3 a hit, with 60 cents of each dollar going to the writers. “I don’t know if anybody’s gonna pay,” says Finke. If not, she’ll sustain it. “I am making a financial commitment, and I can afford to keep this going for an endless amount of time,” she says. “There are so many stories. I used to say that you could never make this stuff up. It turns out — ” she laughs her throaty laugh — “you can.”
But is Finke’s story, “Dying on a Bed of Nails,” about a sexist Hollywood management company, really fiction? Or is it a 5,000-word blind item? The brutal truth, according to Finke: “All of fiction is derived from truth. All art is derived from life. And I think the biggest compliment people will be able pay me is that sounds like it happened. What better praise is there?”