The last time the writers rooms of Hollywood went dark, some 15 years ago, it was the heyday of Nikki Finke. Following her roughly two decades on the entertainment beat, her incomparable coverage of the showdown between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and the Writers Guild of America made her a household name. Maybe that was the first you’d heard of Deadline, Finke’s breakout industry blog. (Back then, its full name was Deadline Hollywood Daily.) Tapping away at a computer inside her LA town house, Finke tore through the story like a wrecking ball in the fall of 2007 and winter of 2008, cranking out scoop after scoop, as if she’d planted a wiretap at the negotiating table. With her acid-tongued insights and signature “TOLDJAs,” she made Deadline a one-woman clearinghouse for strike coverage. The site earned favor among the writers, while the ailing trades of the day plodded along with stories seen as favorable to the studio bosses. As one chant from the picket lines went: “Variety and The Reporter stink. We get our news from Nikki Finke!”
“It has been the screenwriters strike that may have finally solidified her position as a Hollywood power broker,” wrote a young New York Times reporter named Brian Stelter. A Bloomberg headline declared, “‘Toldja’: Nikki Finke Has the Scoop on Hollywood Writers Strike.” And the New York Observer, where I’d just begun working, named Finke its “Media Mensch of the Year.” In the words of my then colleague Doree Shafrir, “She’s broken the news of almost all of the significant strike developments since the beginning and has offered insight into the inner workings of the negotiations that the more slow-footed publications…simply can’t match. In hundreds of posts and thousands of contributors’ comments, she’s turned her site into not only a must-read, but a kind of online kaffeeklatsch for information and discussion about the strike.”
How times have changed. With Finke gone and another writers strike upon us, today’s Hollywood journalism landscape looks about as different from 2007’s as does the overall Hollywood landscape, where agita over DVD residuals and compensation for “new media” (how quaint!) has given way to jitters about streaming compensation and chatbots taking screenwriters’ jobs.
Finke died nearly seven months ago at the age of 68, and Deadline—which Finke sold to the company now known as Penske Media Corporation in 2009 and then stepped away from in late 2013—has evolved into the type of conventional trade publication its founder aimed to supplant. Not only is Deadline no longer the anti-Variety or anti–Hollywood Reporter—it’s now a sister title to those publications, which have been transformed from moribund, jargon-filled industry sheets into reading material that a more general audience can appreciate. Ownership of the three has been consolidated under Jay Penske (though I’m told competition between them is robust enough that reporters don’t answer their cell phones in PMC’s common areas). Penske, in turn, finds himself fending off competition from two modern-day disruptors: The Ankler, home to influential Hollywood scribe Richard Rushfield, and Puck, where mega-sourced Matthew Belloni’s biweekly newsletter is the latest must-read on the scene.
Yes, lots of changes all around. But the contrast between then and now is perhaps most palpable at Deadline. “The big difference,” said New York–based veteran screenwriter Warren Leight, whom I got ahold of between pickets, “is that back then, it was all about Nikki.”
Leight pointed me to a story published shortly before the strike went into effect in the early hours of Tuesday, May 2. The AMPTP gave Deadline a statement indicating that the “primary sticking points” were “mandatory staffing” and “duration of employment.” Nothing wrong with that—it was breaking news, after all, Leight acknowledged. But in reality, he said, the two factions were much farther apart on an array of issues than the AMPTP’s statement suggested. To get their side out, WGA leadership didn’t go to Deadline (or one of its rivals, for that matter), but instead emailed members a spreadsheet listing all of the union’s proposals and how the studios had responded to each one. (The AMPTP returned fired with a point-by-point response days later.) Writers then screenshotted parts of the spreadsheet and tweeted images of the document far and wide. Leight’s tweet, for one, got more than a thousand retweets and more than 500,000 views.
This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.
“In 2007, someone would have given it to Nikki. You would have had to go to Deadline,” he said. Now, according to Leight, news about the strike is “diffuse. There’s no one site we’re all checking constantly to see what’s going on.” Also: “We thought of Nikki Finke as an advocate at that time. I don’t think there’s a news site now that’s taking those guys on in that way. She was really calling people out on bullshit, and clearly that’s a tough position for the trades to take right now.” (Finke, God rest her soul, has a complicated legacy that also includes toxic behavior and dodgy journalistic practices; Rushfield offered a more cynical take on her 2007 crusade: “She used the strike to position herself as the writers’ champion, but it was a good act and it made things interesting.” By the way, she also wrote for Vanity Fair in the early ’90s.)