Nikki Finke's Lesson on Technological Disruption - As the Hollywood Trades Show Us, It Doesn't Always Last

Hollywood Reporter Awards show
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The death of Hollywood industry blogger Nikki Finke over the weekend initiated a flurry of written remembrances from my former colleagues at the showbiz trades Monday. 

In his own column, my revered Next TV colleague, David Bloom wrote that "one upside" of Finke's reign was "that it forced the overly insular and sleepy trade publications that dominated Hollywood coverage for decades to get better and smarter, covering not just box office returns and spoon-fed casting announcement, but also digging more into Hollywood’s business personalities and decision-makers."

I worked with David at one of those pubs, Variety, nearly two decades ago. He's usually right about most things. But on this one, I'm not so sure he's entirely correct. And I actually think there's a lesson here for currently disrupted industries like the video business -- bastions that often seem so irrevocably roiled at the time,  but which eventually revert back to their original forms. 

The TV industry does seem to be permanently moving from linear broadcast and cable distribution to IP transmission, in the same way the trades moved largely from print to digital. 

But the power structures that govern these businesses might just revert to very familiar form, the familiar executives meandering back to similar roles. In other words, we might very well soon end up with bundles of FASTs and SVOD services that look conspicuously like pay TV, but with better search and discovery. The companies that manage it all might shift around, but many of the executive decsion-makers might be the same. 

Such is the case with the Hollywood trades, now a decade removed from Finke's powerfully disruptive influence. 

Outside of a few strange late-night emails over a decade ago, in which she (falsely) accused me of cribbing from her in my coverage of movie box-office, and a couple of really, er, cringy (as the kids might say) phone calls during which she felt me out about working for her, I never had any direct contact with Finke (aka "Nikki" to virtually everyone else writing about her today, seemingly whether they actually knew her or not). 

Suffice it to say, however, that my third-party connections to Nikki Finke run deep, and she had a profoundly disruptive impact on my career and life. All of us who worked in the entertainment trades probably feel like that.

This isn't so much a remembrance of Finke as it as recollection of the time when she seemed to tear down the business we worked in overnight ... and how it grew back a little different -- certainly, it's more a lot more internet savvy. But in a broader sense, it's very much the same as it was when I left it a decade ago. 

I first felt the business end of FInke's influence on my last full day as a Variety reporter, on April 13, 2009. At a quickly assembled all-hands-on-deck meeting at our Mid-Wilshire offices, our interim editor-in-chief informed us that Variety's bloodless European owner, which was trying to offload the publication as fast as possible, had also put in an unsuccessful bid to buy Finke's pirate ship, the red-hot blog Deadline Hollywood, which was convincing highly engaged, and suddenly iPhone-equipped showbiz denizens in droves that they no longer needed an expensive Variety print subscription. 

Oh, the interim editor also let us all know that, "Of course, there are going to be a lot more layoffs. Don't be dumb." 

I was gone the next day. And I felt ... dumb. 

It wasn't an exit I took all that well. I had spent most of my five-year tenure at Variety listening to top-level managers suggest we hand off internet-related publishing tasks to the "web monkeys," a group of younger staff members quarantined to the outer rim of the newsroom. 

Now "new media" was important to them?

I felt betrayed by the business acumen of this regime, whose byzantine journalistic practices -- low-lighted by excessive coziness with the "power players" we were supposed to report on -- had already been exposed by an at-the-time widely read early-aughts Los Angeles Magazine article.  

Given a generous 20-week severance and a suggestion that I come back some day when the winds of the Great Recession weren't blowing so damned cold, a walked away mad nonetheless, taking a contract gig at another startup showbiz blog, fully intent on reinventing myself as a kind of nimble, Finke-like flamethrower, hellbent on disrupting the business from which I trained ... and exacting a little vengeance in the process.  

When I'd drop my younger son off at the nearby Westside Jewish Community Center for kindergarten every day, I'd point to the Variety sign on the high-rise the pub used to occupy on Wilshire Blvd. -- "Daddy's gonna take that sign down today," I'd tell my bewildered kid. 

It didn't happen.

The "pirate ship" I'd boarded sprung a few morale leaks, the erratic captain too eager to fire off her musket at the slightest provocation. 

And rather than succumbing to us, the trades only grew more powerful.

The young scion of an automotive dealership empire -- flush with cash rumored to have unseemly sourcing -- swooped in to buy Deadline from Finke... then Variety ... and later The Hollywood Reporter and numerous other entertainment-focused publications. 

These days, the trades keenly grasp the internet -- and the impact of technology on the business they cover. And just like the old days, they get the news first, and small fish like us fall into line. 

It does feel like Groundhog Day, the Monopoly Version. 

I went to a NATPE event several weeks ago, during which several keynotes and panel presentations were moderated by high-level Variety editors, the same folks I worked closely with 15 years ago. 

Their titles were a little higher up on the masthead in some cases, their faces a little older, their knowledge and sourcing still impeccable.

But as they conducted their morning sessions, and I struggled to keep my footing and not tumble into REM sleep, I couldn't help but feel their familiar chumminess with the "industrites" they were interviewing -- the same kind of "we're all in the same sandbox" mentality that was so prevalent in the showbiz trades all those years ago pre-Deadline, when the place was editorially run by a former top-level studio executive.  

Wasn't that "fanboy" mentality ravaged out of the business by Finke's petulant reign? It was for a time. I'm not sure now. 

These next-generation trades have regularly positioned themselves as truth-telling vanguards of the #MeToo movement, but I'm not even sure that vestige of "edginess" is even authentic. 

"How Does Mel Gibson Still Have a Career," Variety asked in 2020, documenting the actor's well-documented anti-Semitic and misogynistic history -- a reminder of past misdeeds that didn't seem triggered by anything specifically "new" he said or did at the time. 

It seemed to be the approach of a publication that sees itself as a kind of ombudsman. 

On Monday, the same author checked in on disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's latest criminal trial

It was, of course, Weinstein's exposure as a longtime predator and bully that famously started the movement five years ago. And it was my former boss at Variety, the former studio operative, who was famously accused of protecting Weinstein's backside for decades. 

In any event, that former studio executive still writes regular columns for one of the automotive scion's trades. A lithographic image of this nonagenarian's face even appears on the digital masthead. 

I can't help but think that if Finke were alive today, she'd notice that most of the same top-level Variety editors from the Weinstein era have been kept around and placed on the shelves somewhere -- a paradigm that seems in direct conflict with the moral high ground the pub is seeking to stake.

But despite her death after a long illness, largely in seclusion, at the relatively young age of 68, Finke's disruptive influence hasn't been felt for some time. 

And the journalistic segment she so famously roiled seems to be once again playing quite nicely in the same sandbox with its constituents. 

Everything new is old again. 

 

Daniel Frankel is the managing editor of Next TV, an internet publishing vertical focused on the business of video streaming. A Los Angeles-based writer and editor who has covered the media and technology industries for more than two decades, Daniel has worked on staff for publications including E! Online, Electronic Media, Mediaweek, Variety, paidContent and GigaOm. You can start living a healthier life with greater wealth and prosperity by following Daniel on Twitter today!