From her perch as editor in chief of the popular website Deadline Hollywood, Nikki Finke lives to drop bombs on the entertainment industry's movers and shakers.
Loved by some, loathed by many and feared by all, Finke has built a must-read site for dish on TV and film production and dirt on who's being fired or hired.
But news is only part of Deadline Hollywood's appeal. There's also Finke's outsize personality and her taste for revenge and retribution. Last month she called Ted Harbert, chairman of NBC Broadcasting, a "pint-size putz" and "gofer" who had been in the "witness protection program" since Comcast Corp. acquired the network in 2011.
Harbert's crimes? He'd been brusque with a Deadline Hollywood reporter at a party last year, and Deadline's rival, the Hollywood Reporter, had recently gotten the story about his getting additional duties at the network.
Now Hollywood's enfant terrible has gone from reporter to subject. A clash with her boss — budding entertainment news mogul Jay Penske — has Hollywood wondering whether Finke's reign is nearing the end or will she resurface like a villain in a summer blockbuster who refuses to die?
A print traditionalist who was initially wary of the Web, Finke, a columnist at LA Weekly when she became an online pioneer with Deadline Hollywood in 2006, quickly made a brand name of her website and became a household name herself. Penske paid several million dollars to acquire Deadline Hollywood in 2009.
Although Deadline Hollywood now has several reporters around the globe, it is still in many ways Finke's personal diary. When she's under the weather, she posts a note to readers. When she misses a story, she'll often claim that she knew about it but hadn't gotten around to writing it yet.
Finke's combative nature and know-it-all style have rubbed many people the wrong way. Her tough tone is credited with raising the bar on entertainment coverage, but her bullying personality and willingness to play favorites have made ranting about her the favorite pastime of many executives.
"Nikki is nothing if not authentic," said Gavin Polone, a producer who has sparred with Finke over the years. "The aggressive, acerbic and vindictive character of her writing is a result of who she is."
Finke doesn't just spew her venom at industry figures. She also mocks rival reporters. When she gets a scoop, she labels it "EXCLUSIVE," and if a speculative story of hers turns out to be right, she proudly boasts: "TOLDJA!"
"I think the more aggressive reporting and getting beyond the spin of the industry was a very good thing for entertainment journalism," said Elizabeth Guider, a former editor at the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. "It was good for all of us."
But Guider isn't a fan of Finke's personality.
"I never managed to have a civil conversation with her," Guider said. "She wanted to intimidate."
Finke may have met her match in Penske, with whom she has been at odds since October, when his Penske Media Corp. acquired the trade paper Variety — and then declined to give her a shot at running it.
Since then Deadline Hollywood and Finke have covered Variety with their customary vitriol despite the shared ownership, much to Penske's chagrin.
"Editorial morale at the struggling entertainment trade is at a low ebb and anxiety is running high," Finke wrote of Variety in January. On Sunday, Deadline's chief film reporter, Mike Fleming, made fun of Variety for running a humor piece from the satirical website Hollywood & Swine.
The tension between Finke and Penske now appears to be boiling over and the two may part after only four years. Finke has a window in her contract opening this week that allows her to leave Penske Media, and she is giving serious thought to exercising it, said people familiar with the situation who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
Neither Finke or Penske would comment on the status of their relationship. On Sunday, The Wrap, a rival news site, said Penske had fired Finke. Both sides insisted that that was not true, and Penske Media said that the story was "defamatory and disparaging" and that the company has "turned this matter over to our attorneys." (The Wrap has not pulled its story.)
On her website, Finke disputed the Wrap's account but declined to discuss her employment status. "The fact is I'm out of town and about to begin my long-planned summer vacation," she wrote. "And the last thing I want is to be bothered now by a bunch of media and/or moguls asking for comment."
Despite all the bluster of Deadline Hollywood, Finke keeps a very low profile and is rarely seen in public. Unlike many in the Hollywood press corps, she doesn't go to movie premieres or industry parties, but instead is glued to her computer and telephone, searching for scoops and settling scores.
If Finke does exit Deadline Hollywood, she probably won't stop haranguing the local moguls. She owns the domain name NikkiFinke.com and has indicated to people close to her that her intention is to start a new operation should she be unable to come to terms with Penske.
The news that Finke is having problems with an authority figure is no surprise to people who know her. Throughout her lengthy career, which has included stops at Newsweek, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and many other publications, she has fought with her bosses. When Penske acquired Deadline Hollywood, Finke laughingly told associates that she'd warned him: "You don't want me. I'm a pain in the ass."
"It would be naive if Jay Penske thought this wasn't coming," said Polone, the producer, who added that that would make Penske "like a rich guy who adopts a tiger and then is surprised when his hand is bitten off."