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Will Variety ink Nikki Finke?

Variety has a new owner, and all over Hollywood, trembling lips are asking the same question.

October 14, 2012|By Stephen Randall
(Los Angeles Times )

A great fear has been unleashed in Hollywood. No, not dwindling audiences or the epidemic of sequel-itis that threatens to incapacitate the movie industry. Those are mere worries. What Hollywood fears is that Nikki Finke, considered by most of the industry to be the single toughest journalist in the history of the known world, might soon have some sort of editorial control of Daily Variety, the most venerable trade publication in Hollywood.

Of course, Nikki has been making show business insiders uncomfortable since she launched her blog, now known as Deadline.com, in 2006. Her blog was both informative and vitriolic, which confused her target readers. They wanted Nikki to be nice. They were used to niceness. Thanks to the sorry state of recent Hollywood journalism, niceness was all they knew.

Back then, your run-of-the-mill studio exec could start his day in one of two ways. He could read Daily Variety and then, having digested the important news inside, read the Hollywood Reporter, which had the same news. Or he could read the Reporter first and then read Variety. In order to keep confusion to a minimum, Variety used green ink for its logo and the Reporter used red.

The trades provided something besides helpful color-coding. They offered friendship. They offered columnists like Army Archerd and George Christy, neither of whom ever met a star or executive they didn't like. Life was good.

And then along came the Internet, and with the Internet came some journalistic rebels: Nikki, TMZ, Perez Hilton and Thewrap.com's Sharon Waxman. They had a weapon that many had never seen before: meanness.

This week things got worse. Jay Penske, who bought Deadline.com and built an online empire around it, has purchased Variety. Will Nikki be in charge? Will her take-no-prisoners sensibility overwhelm the genteel trade? Penske has said he won't install Nikki at the helm, but hands in Hollywood are nevertheless wringing. And that tells us more about people who do the reading than it does about those who do the writing.

Gavin Polone, a respected manager and producer, was like many others so unnerved by Nikki's meanness that he once wrote a column for New York Magazine's Vulture website urging all of Hollywood to "unfavorite" her in their browsers to teach her a valuable lesson. Her crime? Among other things, she called a fired Universal Studio executive a "putz."

Name-calling? Unfavorite-ing? Yes, this is what the war between Hollywood and journalism has come to: Each side is stoning the other side with cotton balls.

It's important to remember that the battles weren't always fought with cotton balls. In his heyday, famed columnist Walter Winchell reached 70 million people a day. And he could and would destroy you. Lucille Ball almost saw her career ended when he linked her to the Communist Party. (Winchell biographer Neal Gabler recalls that Ball's then-husband, Desi Arnaz, tried to defend her. "The only thing red about Lucy is her hair, and even that's fake.")

Joyce Haber, whose column this paper featured in the '70s, once wrote a thinly veiled blind item based on information provided by the FBI that accused Jean Seberg, then a young star married to writer Romain Gary, of being pregnant with a child that was fathered by a member of the Black Panthers. Seberg was so disturbed by the false item that she went into labor early; the baby died two days later. After that she attempted to kill herself every year on her baby's birthday. She succeeded when her child would have turned 9 years old.

Compared to those dark and irresponsible days of yellow journalism, Nikki is nothing more than a cranky Nate 'n Al's waitress who gets exasperated when you ask for a substitution. And I say this having been, like many, on the receiving end of a Nikki tirade. Nikki is very loud when she's not happy. But so far, Nikki has never ruined a career or destroyed a marriage. In fact, she has become increasingly, well, nice.

She's not alone. Perez Hilton, who famously outed Lance Bass, ran sex tapes and Photoshopped cocaine around the noses of celebrities, had a mid-career epiphany: While it's fun to attack, it's even more fun to be friends with the stars — to attend their parties, appear on their TV shows and get lots of swag. His column was once Winchellesque. It's now like an update in your college alumni magazine.

TMZ started as a blog that featured paparazzi stalking C-list celebrities. Today, it's more famous as a TV show. Now C-list celebrities stalk TMZ's cameras in the hopes of a few precious seconds of exposure. The biggest stars on any given day on TMZ are Harvey (the evil genius in charge), Charles (his faithful sidekick), Max (a Jeff Spicoli clone) and Dax (a Ryan Seacrest wannabe). The topic is only tangentially gossip. The show's real appeal is comedy — the clever banter among the staff and the good-natured ribbing they give Harvey, who is short enough to stand on a box. Right there, you have comedic gold.

And yet when people in Hollywood discuss Sharon, Perez, Harvey — or the possibility that Nikki might have clout at Variety — they cower under their desks in unfounded fear. It's not because these journalistic outlaws come from the Wild West of the Internet and make their own rules. Those days are gone. It's because executives in Hollywood are in a shrinking business. They want to be important, but they increasingly aren't. Important people have powerful enemies, and Hollywood has two dying trades and a handful of bloggers.

If no one is really going to step up and be Walter Winchell or Joyce Haber, the entertainment industry will do what it does best: pretend. It will pretend that the online press is powerful and that a dose of harmless snark is lethal. Because if a big-time journalist calls you a putz, you must be pretty damn important. If a mere blogger calls you a putz, well, maybe you are one.

Stephen Randall is the deputy editor of Playboy.

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