MCN Blogs
David Poland

By David Poland

State of the Trades: Episode 2


It’s been 8 whole months since I felt compelled to do a State of the Trades piece.

I wrote then, “So is think the ball is very much in Jay Penske’s court. What will he do now that he has paid for control of the Hollywood trade business? How will he handle his unruly daughter? How much of this is ego and how much is business? Will he overplay his hand and cause the advertisers that are so critical to these business’ futures to retreat?”

And the truth is… nothing much had actually changed.

Yes, I know that Nikki is the headline story and that is all people want to talk about. And one of my questions has been answered… Penske got sick of his unruly daughter. But that was no great surprise, was it?

Penske still has control of the trade business. He is simplifying or dumbing down Variety, depending on your perspective. He still has the reporters who actually did and does what Nikki wanted credit for doing… having his finger on the pulse and reporting it straight. This was never true of Nikki, in my opinion… at least not in the 15 years or so I have “known” her. She has forever been blinded by her emotional limitations, a great hunter who loses track of her prey as she gets distracted by each glimpse of herself in any reflective surface. Her crusades for truth have always been heavily been influenced by a glorified sense of personal vendetta… her own of those of her “friends.” And more recently, she has come under the sway of a parade of Nikki Whisperers, who have used her as the ultimate press tool… someone who seems absolutely unbendable to the public, but is as malleable as pretzel dough before cooking for those who feed her massive/massively fragile ego.

We have seen Nikki Finke’s schtick before. It was called Ain’t It Cool News. When that site launched all those years ago, it was truly a disruptor. It never really offered a true insider’s perspective in those days… but its ability to access all the insider’s toys to then be analyzed by fans with an outsider’s movie-loving perspective, was powerful and unexpected. Hollywood didn’t see the internet coming. But as time passed, Team AICN, probably without ever thinking it in so many words, but undeniably, was sucked into the system. It remained, for quite a while, the seemingly pure, movie-loving outlet (however flawed) that was out to set the record straight. But being invited into the inside was better than trying to smash the windows from outside. And so, the leadership went inside and got comfy.

Of course, AICN still pushed back sometimes. And at the heart, it is still all about movie love. The site effectively serves a niche. Relationships are strong. Geeks still identify with it, even if they are attacking the site at times. But it is, mostly, toothless.

Nikki Finke is similarly toothless after trading in her real, usually misguided, personal outrage for the pleasure of being told that she mattered. And the disconnect from truth is even worse than the New York Times or Los Angeles Times or even the trades, getting in so close with the objects of its reportage that it can tell you what they ate for dinner last night from the smell of their skin. Because the others are not so strident in the pretense of objective distance. Nikki Finke proclaims on her new websi… uh, URL, that she wants to tell the truth about Hollywood. But sadly for her, she has no idea what the truth is anymore. It is such a melange of her ego and her handlers and her rage and her desire to keep the image that the media created for her (just the good stuff, thanks), she clearly has no idea who she is and what she is meant to be doing.

Nikki Finke is now a certain kind of has-been. She never even got to be Hedda Hopper (who named names) or Louella Parsons (who lived 20 years after she the lost relevance that was created by her own billionaire). When Finke sold out to Penske, she was already about as high on the hill as she would ever get. Most of the attention she’s gotten since has been for hiring people who do the work that fills the Deadline blog or for how much she was paid by her billionaire in an era of media constriction. It’s been more than 5 years since the WGA strike and almost 5 years since Ben Silverman left NBC. Has she been associated with any landmark event since then? She’s become a bagman for the boys downtown.

So what, you may wonder, is the difference between Nikki and her former employee, Michael Fleming. Well… what Fleming does is pure, old school trade reporting. It is different than reporting on wars or politics. I have long expressed a certain contempt for what the trades do versus what I see as capital-J Journalism. But I also acknowledge that it is a lot of work and a very valuable skill set… not just for Mike, but for all trade reporters, even those who work for editors who are absolute fools. Mike was, for film, the top dog in this arena a decade ago, five years ago, and really, today.

There are people who question the way in which Fleming conducts his work. But for me, it’s a hard-work gig, including the work of getting as many people to get you the information FIRST! as possible. Will the threats that became a trademark of so many interactions between Nikki and sources be a Fleming tactic? I don’t see it ever being close to the same degree, as Fleming wasn’t that way before Finke. Will he make the case for publishing with him/Deadline first, ahead of others? Yes. Will he threaten to destroy people and leak truly sensitive information with little actual news value? Don’t see that happening.

But the New Deadline has an old problem, which we saw with the efforts to replace Siskel & Ebert. The magic is gone. In the case of Nikki, it was a black and often false magic. But she was the stir that stirred the drink. And Deadline, which has become more mainstream trade and less a must read over a couple of years already, is now looking to be a pure trade. All The News That’s Fit To Publish to An Audience of About 60,000 people, max.

And for Nikki, there is no way to recapture the thrill of the first time she wrote that some top executive was an asshole. She is the Sarah Palin of entertainment journalism. She will have a constituency of people who LOVE her and believe everything she types is truthful and edgy and important. But for people who think, the gag has played out. The more Nikki tries to regain relevance, the more pathetic she will seem. No doubt, she will get some exclusives. She will make some executive testicles shrink when they read that she called them a “doody head” or some such infantile name, as any criticism can crush the fragile ego of the most successful undeserving. But will the post-WGA mentions of Deadline Hollywood and/or Nikki Finke on network shows continue? No. The best she can really hope to do is to get a big number—inflated by Sharon Waxman—for her memoirs as The Queen of Hollywood before getting sued for the advance money when she can’t finish it for a decade or so.

And just wait for the fun when a flailing causes Nikki to turn on her latest set of backers… surely some multimillionaire, a step below her once delightful billionaire.

So if Nikki is a blip occasionally screeching for attention and Deadline is a little bland, in terms of The Conversation, what happens to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter?

Again… I don’t think that much has changed. Really, Finke has given Penske a little more room to work, really.

Last March I wrote, “Truly, there seems little that THR can actually do in response to Penske’s two outlets. THR is not in the same game. And if it focuses on countering Variety and Deadline, they will self-screw.”

I still think that’s true. All The Hollywood Reporter can do is to try to maximize what they do… which is less and less about being a trade and more and more about being a glossy with a heavy Hollywood focus.

The real question is Variety and Deadline… and there really is only one answer to the question. And in spite of strong suggestions by those surviving Deadline, the answer is mathematical above all else. Can Deadline and Variety generate as much profit individually as a Mike & Nellie muscled up Variety alone can? Moreover, can moving Mike & Nellie over to Variety actually allow Variety to eliminate some more staff or not need to hire more staff?

The other piece of math is Penske’s percentage of Variety revenues. In other words, is 100% of Deadline able to produce significantly more revenue for him than, what?, 255 of Variety?

And when I write “significantly,” what I mean is, how much pleasure would it give Jay Penske to shutter the Deadline brand altogether… like a monster movie where evil is finally buried, seemingly unable to escape. (The monster often escapes… but only for more money… and that doesn’t seem a likely scenario here.)

With Nikki out of the Deadline/Variety picture, the quality of journalism, however still trade-y, can only improve. Finke’s constant push to lower the standards of fact finding in favor of expediency and Toldjas, empowered by the idea that she was the brightest star so she had to be followed, is over. If Mike Fleming is the new north star, we will all be seeing a step back to some of the classic traditions. The next step will be to be to get both trades writing more stories with actual information and not just regurgitations as link bait. When they start actually spiking stories that don’t real add to the conversation, things will truly be looking up.

In 2013/14, there really is no need for even two trades, much less three or four or five. Most of the content, however hard fought for, is info that someone wants out. If you don’t want me to call it all “press release journalism,” I will restrain myself out of respect. But we’re not uncovering the Pentagon Papers here, kids. (And for the record, the media outlets just edited and printed them after Dan Ellsberg decided to disseminate them.)

Best case scenario, “news” in entertainment news is redefined again, more carefully this time… one trade of record or two.

It’s a lot like the moment after Dorothy melted The Wicked Witch. Which way would the Flying Monkeys go? In my experience, Flying Monkeys are people too.

And so it goes…

Be Sociable, Share!

6 Responses to “State of the Trades: Episode 2”

  1. Joe Leydon says:

    “It’s been 8 whole months since I felt compelled to do a State of the Trades piece.”

    But our luck couldn’t hold out indefinitely…

  2. film fanatic says:

    The biggest problem with Variety 2.0 is the horrible redesign of the website. The attempt was presumably to make it more “graphic” and iPad friendly, but they’re using a really problematic WordPress template and it has become virtually unnavigable.

    As for Ms. Valdemort, my guess, based on all the links she’s been giving them, that her “billionaire suitor” is probably going to be some sort of less sexy merger with Baseline’s Studio System News. Woe unto them….

  3. Sam says:

    Solid analysis. I was expecting an update soon, but what you delivered was more comprehensive than I anticipated.

  4. Fitzerald says:

    Well written, David. Which reminds me that the main issue with Nikki, aside from the crazy, is that she’s an absolutely horrible writer. The sentence to sentence whiplash as she contradicts herself… truly schizophrenic. She can’t develop the most basic argument. A movie is a flop a surprise success a disappointment right on target in a single paragraph. I also marveled at the exhaustive copy and pasted breakdowns of marketing campaigns obviously writen by the marketers themselves, full of details about ad buys that no human being could possibly be interested in.

  5. joshreader says:

    “Mike and Nellie.” Isn’t that a show on CBS starring Melissa McCarthy? (I kid, I kid.) Seriously, though, Nikki repeatedly trashing new Deadline editor Anita Busch on Twitter shows what a class act she (Nikki) is.

  6. Ryan says:

    I have no idea what Jay Penske is like and take no sides because I don’t really care, but if I was him, I would spend a ton of money and lock her up in a legal battle for years just out of spite. She has it coming from the way she badmouths everyone in the world who doesn’t placate her ego.

The Hot Blog

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon