The Tortured Life of Nikki Finke: Best Friend, Worst Enemy – and Made for the Internet

I once watched her cry bitter tears to a source on the phone, hang up and burst out with cackling laughter: “I’m so terrible!”

nikki finke
Nikki Finke

Sharon Waxman

Sharon Waxman On the Business of Entertainment

The founder and editor of TheWrap’s take on life on the left coast, high culture, low culture and the business of entertainment and media. Waxman writes frequently on the inside doings of Hollywood, and is is also the author of two books, Rebels on the Back Lot and Loot

The life of Nikki Finke could be a novel, or a movie. In fact, it very nearly became a series on HBO until too much of actual Nikki intervened and the network pulled the plug.

That was Nikki all the way. Always striving for relevance, always pushing, begging, manipulating and if she didn’t get her way – threatening to go nuclear. I once watched her cry bitter tears to a source on the phone, hang up and burst out with cackling laughter: “I’m so terrible!”

It was a helluva way to do journalism.

For many years, Nikki and I were the closest of friends. We would talk several times a day. She introduced me to the ins and outs of Hollywood when I was a novice here in the late 1990s, and helped nudge my candidacy to become an L.A. correspondent for The New York Times, which I became in 2004.

But, as these things go, the worm turned and Nikki became a powerful enemy, dead set on my demise and more important, the demise of TheWrap after its launch in 2009. If that’s hard to understand, here’s the background. By the early 2000s, Nikki found herself shut out of the prestigious outlets like Vanity Fair and the L.A. Times where she once wrote. Editors found her difficult to manage and she had made enemies of Michael Ovitz, Michael Eisner and many others in the industry who went over her head to push back on her aggressive coverage.

She was instead writing for the New York Post, which she sued after it caved to pressure on a Disney scoop in 2002 and fired her (The Post settled the lawsuit) — and then for L.A. Weekly, where her Deadline column was well read but hardly paid the bills.

So Nikki had an enormous chip on her shoulder that drove her infamous mean streak. She was angry at how her life was turning out. She was exhausted from battling diabetes. Angry that she no longer had the alluring looks of her youth while battling serious weight problems. Her life revolved around her and her cat and her computer, which she wielded with a vengeance.  

And she believed she should have been working at the top of her field, given her talent.

And then the internet happened. Nikki was made for the Internet. It was as if she spent the first 20 years of her career fighting the constraints of traditional newsrooms, ignorant editors, unmovable print deadlines (frequently missed) and tips wasted on Page Six.

Finally she could write at her own pace, be her own boss and set her own agenda. Deadline Hollywood was born. The constraints that might have softened her tone, acted as a check on immediately writing up the last source she talked to, were also gone.

She wrote whatever she wanted, and if it wasn’t always exactly accurate, it was always colorful, juicy and very well-informed. Every mogul and agency head – especially Ari Emanuel – had her on speed dial, and didn’t dare ignore her phone call. In the schadenfreude world of Hollywood, Nikki was a must-read. And she felt every inch of that power.

Her power plays and personal agenda drove scorched-earth campaigns against (who knows why?) NBC’s Ben Silverman, Bravo’s Lauren Zalaznick, Universal’s Marc Shmuger, William Morris’ Jim Wiatt, Fox’s and AMPAS’ Tom Sherak and many others.

Here’s an example of her hilariously mean writing about Silverman:

“I was fast asleep when the announcement that Ben Silverman, the gift that kept on giving to me for all his NBCU screw-ups, was finally letting boss Jeff Zucker off the hook for a hiring decision that will go down in the annals of television entertainment as one of the worst. Sure, my phone started ringing at 6:08 AM PT. But I blissfully ignored it because I wanted my full 8 hours,” she wrote, adding a typical toldja-so flourish in the late-July item: “But here’s the thing: I knew back on June 24th that Ben was engaged in a desperate search for another job or financial backing to leave NBC so he could make it look like he’d jumped before he was pushed.”

Nikki Finke The Ben Silverman Experiment

No one did mean like Nikki Finke.

At the same time, she threw herself into Deadline with a devotion that was obsessional. During the Hollywood writer’s strike of 2007, she wrote constantly and relentlessly, with no pretense of being even-handed. She took the writers’ side, and they loved her for it.

When I would question her one-sidedness, she would laugh.

Around 2007 while on book leave, I decided to leave the Times and start TheWrap. Newspapers were laying off people in droves. Bloggers like Nikki were running rings around traditional newsrooms. I was looking to champion professional journalism in the age of the internet. Move faster, publish in real time, but insist on down-the-middle reporting. Nikki’s style could never be my own, nor did I intend it to be.

It didn’t matter. Nikki took my plan as a betrayal of our friendship and made me her sworn enemy for the first five years of TheWrap. We never spoke civilly again.

What did ensue was harsh. She threatened those who collaborated with me – when Silverman and Zalaznick both appeared a decade ago at TheWrap’s business conference, TheGrill, they commiserated that they knew Nikki would retaliate. (She did.) Another studio chief who was a top speaker early on gave her $50,000 in advertising as, essentially, hush money. She’d call my newsroom staff and tell them what a terrible person I was. And she’d spread the rumor that TheWrap was about to fold, repeatedly.

We survived all that.

I knew that Nikki had a lot of hurt in her life. She was raised rich and privileged in New York City and was smart as a whip. Her father rejected her when she declared her intention to become a journalist. In his world, girls didn’t have careers. She was cut off financially. She remained defiant. But for many years, money was scarce. When I invited her to lunch she would order dinner and take it with her.

Power was her drug. But after a half-dozen years, the weight of her abusive tactics finally came crashing down on her. A final straw came when she threatened UTA executives after TheWrap broke a story she believed was hers. As fate would have it, I broke the story about the fallout from that flare-up, in June 2013:

“Jay Penske, the CEO of Penske Media, which bought Deadline in 2009, told several top Hollywood executives last week that he was firing Finke, complaining she had crossed the line one too many times in sending poison-pen emails berating sources over scoops she lost to competitors.

“She’s been sending emails saying, ‘I’m going to f— you,’ and Jay says he’s had it,” said one top executive.”

Nikki responded that it wasn’t true, and that she was leaving on a long-planned vacation.

But she never returned to the site she founded.

Nearly a decade later, she leaves a legacy that is – thankfully – unmatched. HBO might want to take another look.

You are reading a WrapPRO exclusive article that has been made available (for free) today.  If you would like to have access to all of our member-only stories and virtual events, please CLICK HERE to receive 7 free days of WrapPRO –> The Essential Source for Entertainment Insiders.