The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Nikki Finke: Has the tough talking cop who policed Hollywood gone soft?

May 13, 2011 |  4:39 pm

Burt_lancaster Hollywood's queen of mean, Nikki Finke, doesn't mince words -- just ask Howard Gantman, corporate communications chief for the Motion Picture Assn. of America. He recently tried to voice, perfectly civilly, some complaints about a piece that Finke’s showbiz news website, Deadline, had published on an MPAA event.

“First, you do NOT talk to one of my reporters, let alone my Executive Editor like this,” Finke blasted back. “Especially when considering you work for one of the least effective and most mendacious lobbying organizations connected to Hollywood, with a multitude of flacks who don't do their job including yourself.”

Finke, whose sharp tongue has made her perhaps the industry's best known and definitely most feared writer, went on to demand an apology. In case he didn’t know whom he was dealing with, she added: “Why is this the first time you have even contacted Deadline or me (even though I am frequently described as allegedly the most powerful journalist in Hollywood)?”

The most intriguing thing about Finke’s diatribe, though, was that it never appeared on her site; it surfaced on the Gawker gossip site, leaked by one of the many showbiz chieftains Finke had cc'd on the email. In fact, recently, Finke has unleashed surprisingly few bolts of rancorous thunder on Deadline, raising for many in Hollywood an intriguing question: Has Nikki gone soft?

A few years ago, Finke tirades on Deadline were routine. A virtual one-woman operation, the site showcased her ability to score scoops and scorch showbiz bigwigs she deemed guilty of incompetence or bad behavior.

In 2007, Finke demolished Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov in a piece headined “Warner's Robinov Bitchslaps Film Women,” claiming that he had decreed that his studio would no longer make movies with women in lead roles, adding with classic Finkian sarcasm: “Oh yeah, the fact that so many Warner Bros. movies have been sucking at the box office for the last two years is all the fault of females.”

In 2009, when Marc Shmuger was axed as chairman of Universal Pictures after a run of bad movies, Finke penned a vitriolic postmortem, saying: “But, if others were writing speculation about turmoil at the top of Universal, why didn't I? Because, readers, I hate Shmuger, really detest the putz, and I didn't want it to look like I was doing him harm because of a personal vendetta...I believe in killing the king, not just wounding him.”

But the site, which Finke sold to media magnate Jay Penske nearly two years ago, has undergone a dramatic change. Finke has been joined by a group of talented reporters from old-line trade publications like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, including Mike Fleming and Nellie Andreeva, and Deadline has morphed into the industry's must-read digital bulletin board.

Instead erupting like Mt. Vesuvius, raining hot lava down on some hapless Hollywood exec who'd made a flop or passed on a hot script, Finke has largely become -- gasp -- a serious reporter, penning sober, often upbeat assessments (“The Rock is one hot rock right now”) of industry boldface names.

Studios have sought to smooth relations with Finke -- Warners hired a top showbiz publicist, Kelly Bush, specifically for that purpose, so much so that Bush earned a nickname, “the Nikki Whisperer.” Many studio execs –- who insisted on anonymity because they still fear Finke -- tell me that they’ve given scoops to her stable of reporters in hopes of curbing the personal attacks. In Hollywood, people survive by keeping their friends close but their enemies closer.

Finke insists she hasn't lost her edge. “One minute I read how I'm bullying everyone and the next minute you claim I'm going soft,” she told me Wednesday. “I'll never make you people happy. I'm still me. I haven't changed at all. Everyone knows I'm an equal opportunity [offender.]”

“If I'm going easy on anyone I'm not conscious of it,” she added. “There are some people I like and some people I don't. Hollywood is a very complex business, so my reactions are just as complex. But if you make movies that make money or TV that gets great ratings, you're going to stay out of the crosshairs.”

However, Finke did say that she has access to far more top execs than ever before, which could affect her slant. “As long as I have a dialogue with somebody, at least I'm getting their POV, so maybe what I'm writing is a little more nuanced. But I'm still calling it as I see it.”

So who has the upper hand in this apparent détente? Has Hollywood co-opted its resident bully, or has Finke successfully manipulated Hollywood by holding her tongue? It's an age-old question, since you could have asked the same thing about Walter Winchell or his fictional doppleganger, the venomous columnist J.J. Hunsecker in “Sweet Smell of Success.”

“This is about what happens when the renegade outsider becomes an institution,” said one high-level executive. “The original appeal of Deadline was that it was the place to go to see what everyone in Hollywood loves -- someone taking down their competitors. But now it's just a ticker-tape for showbiz news. People used to read it with a mixture of incredulousness and fear. Now people just read it.”

As a test, I looked through Deadline’s posts from Finke from April 9 through May 9, 84 in all. It was an impressive cache of reporting, even if some items were simply two-sentence casting announcements or press releases, posted under her byline. But few had Finke's trademark vitriol about Hollywood's elite.

While Finke did write that Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes had appeared erratic in recent public statements, she was much tougher on his PR lieutenant, whom she said “should get fired.” When she had a casting scoop about a new Brendan Fraser project, she mentioned his flops but praised him for taking roles “as eclectic as anyone’s in Hollywood.”

Some criticism surfaced in a story about a new 20th Century Fox emerging writers program. After praising the program, Finke bashed a new Fox executive, Nicky Weinstock, saying “he's the kind of Hollywood annoyance who constantly is looking for the bigger and better so he can keep clawing his way up the Hollywood ladder.” But it was hard to tell whether Finke had trashed a small fry like Weinstock because she viewed him as a credit hog or because she blamed him for giving the writers program scoop to a rival publication.

More tellingly, when Universal dumped its head of production, there was no bare-knuckled Shmuger-style attack on the departed executive, simply straight-ahead reportage of the firing.

The line between pragmatism and enabling is hard to draw in this town. In showbiz, success is so tenuous that most top executives rarely show courage. They cater to people to protect their top-dog status. For decades, Variety ruled the showbiz roost, using its own form of leverage to score scoops until Finke came along to upset the apple cart. She out-traded the trades and turned a tenuous operation into a serious business.

Of course, now that she’s become the ultimate insider, it may only be a matter of time until a raffish new outsider turns up, eager to wreak havoc all over again.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Burt Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in the 1957 film "Sweet Smell of Success." Credit: United Artists