The once-feared journalist is now publishing short stories on Hollywood Dementia
Deadline Hollywood founder Nikki Finke — whose take-no-prisoners way of covering Hollywood was a must-read for power players — is now looking for the best fiction about Tinseltown. Hollywood Dementia has already published made-up tales from uber-attorney Bertram Fields, TV writer Cynthia Mort (Tell Me You Love Me), and Late Show with David Letterman scribe Bill Scheft, among others, since launching in August. EW talked with Finke, who provided a copyrighted photo of herself (seen above) about why she decided to publish fiction and whether she misses breaking news about Hollywood.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: After you left Deadline by signing a non-compete clause, why didn’t you just go quietly into the night?
NIKKI FINKE: I thought about it and, in fact, after I left Deadline, I wasn’t working for a year and a half. A ton of offers came in, including an incredibly good one from Politico to be a Jack Anderson-style columnist. Others wanted me to run digital companies and work in the media business that wasn’t Hollywood. But I needed to take some time off and figure out what I wanted to do next. It was never a question that I was going to retire. I’m just not built that way. Among the things I did during that year and a half, I took a transatlantic cruise and read 22 books in a 15-day period. It was heaven.
When you were on that ship, did you mention your name to anybody? Were you recognized?
This luxury small-ship cruiseline lets you choose to be part of the passenger manifest or not. Privacy is something that has been, and continues to be, very important to me. For instance, I don’t do Facebook or talk about my personal life on social media. It’s nobody’s business. The media called me a recluse while I ran Deadline, but I just was working 24/7 and I didn’t have time to go to lunch with executives or do the rubber chicken banquets and all that. Trust me, no one ever recognizes me because I take steps to make sure they don’t. Even now, whenever I travel, I don’t use my real name.
Even when you check into hotels?
Yes. I’m so used to hiding it because I value my privacy. You may recall a point where there was this bounty on my head for a photo. So ridiculous. These illegitimate media outlets were trying to get my picture and then of course there was that Rupert Murdoch online website that crashed and burned but not before they posted the wrong picture of me. Which was pretty funny. I still don’t know who that woman in the picture was.
It made you that much more mysterious.
I never cultivated a mystique. I just worked a lot.
Were you disappointed that Tilda, that HBO comedy loosely based on you starring Diane Keaton, never got off the ground?
I was thrilled that the show’s two executive producers [one of whom is Mort, who already contributed to Hollywood Dementia] had a knock down, drag out fight so Tilda never went forward after they filmed the pilot. Here’s why: I had zero role in conceiving or writing or producing or consulting on Tilda and never would. It shocked me when I first heard about the project, whose main character was a smoker, big drinker and recreational drug user. That’s not me. Then again, I have grown accustomed to not recognizing myself in media portrayals that present a lot of nonsense about me.
Where did you come up with the idea for this fiction website HollywoodDementia.com?
What I realized during my time off was that I didn’t want to work for somebody else. I wanted to be my own boss again. I’m a control freak. The one great thing about my post-Deadline situation now is that I can do something that doesn’t necessarily earn a dime. The only problem was that nothing really interests me except Hollywood, and I had to keep my next venture within the settlement. So I couldn’t report on the entertainment biz. And then I realized that fiction would be within the settlement. I realized I couldn’t write enough stories to keep people interested, but I could enlist other writers to do fiction for the site. I started to very quietly pass the word that I was interested in publishing Hollywood insiders’ short fiction. And to my great surprise, people started to submit — really good people. And between March and April, I realized this could really be something. HollywoodDementia.com is a combination of illustrations and text. I wanted the illustrations to help draw people into the stories which are about all aspects of Hollywood.
Is it wrong to assume that these works of fiction are actually covers for events that occurred in Hollywood?
Look, all fiction is based on real life, and all art is rooted in reality. But I must say that to my knowledge, no one has written a quote-unquote “cover” for some event that really happened to real people in Hollywood. I do ask the contributors sign an agreement that their stories are not plagiarized and that they’re works of fiction. I can’t tell you if a conversation that’s depicted actually took place, though I can recognize that it might have taken place. I recently published a writer’s story where I recognized certain aspects of how a particular company ran itself. But there were things in the story that also never happened.
Ideally, is there a part of you that hopes this website will be a mini-version of Primary Colors?
I don’t think of Hollywood Dementia that way. My goal is to present Hollywood as unvarnished as possible. These are stories that could happen in Hollywood. They have the verisimilitude of people and events. What I bring to the table is knowing how Hollywood people speak, act, and transact business. That’s my expertise and what I bring to the editing and writing process. Not just anybody could edit this site. There are so many times that I have read novels about Hollywood and thrown them across the room because I’m thinking, “Oh puh-leeze, you think what nastiness you’re describing happens in Hollywood? You don’t know the half of it.” The books are too tame. Hell, Entourage was too tame. Take the late Jackie Collins: I used to be amused by her books because I know she knew about Hollywood, but she never presented how Hollywood really was. She wrote glossy mini-portraits of Hollywood filled with glamour. And yet anybody who has anything to do with Hollywood knows it is actually an extremely unglamorous business. It’s a very tough and cruel industry.
What’s in it for the writers?
They love the exposure. They love getting the reaction of people. They also know Hollywood is reading the stories. And they like being associated with the site because it’s got a cool factor. I’m very happy it does. Soon, they’ll also be compensated. Because several networks and studios and producers have approached me about making a TV or movie deal for Hollywood Dementia’s content. It’s very, very exciting for all the writers who are participating.
What’s the next step for this?
Podcasts, and hopefully book publishing, and the big thing is possibly doing a TV anthology series or movie development deal.
How do you gauge whether Hollywood Dementia is a success?
This is the absolute truth: I never once, in the entire time that I ran Deadline Hollywood, ever looked or cared about what traffic it got. The idea of posting clickbait and all that drivel just never factored into my concept of real, breaking news journalism with a point of view. Instead, I always thought that if you build it, they will come. If you give people a great product they find useful and insightful, then you’ll get readers. And that’s how I feel about my new site. I don’t care if HollywoodDementia.com ever gets a lot of traffic. I just care about putting out the sophisticated quality product I want to put out. I expect every story I post to reveal something about Hollywood. And to give a perspective about Hollywood that you don’t get elsewhere. That is all I care about. I don’t care about advertising, I don’t care about readers. I just care about being proud of the site. And I’m incredibly proud of Hollywood Dementia. Just as I was incredibly proud of Deadline Hollywood.
I’m sure a lot of your old readers want Nikki Finke the journalist back.
Every day I get a number of tweets and emails saying “We love the new site but we miss your Hollywood reporting and analysis and commentary.” Amazingly, the Hollywood executives and agents claim they miss me. I still get story tips. They can’t let it go. I’ve let it go for now. I mean, yes, I get asked to do many media and documentary interviews about Hollywood business and culture and content in a non-fiction way, but right now I’m ignoring them. I don’t know if I will forever, but I am for now.