Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly Sunday column, two old friends get together and grind their axes on the movie business.
Bart: You and I have lived through a few journalistic zigs and zags in our years at Variety, and we were always candid with each other in analyzing risks and rewards. Variety was started by the Silverman family but the dynasty ran out of sizzle and sold control. Deadline was started by Nikki Finke but she never managed to create a dynasty before running out of sizzle. So the question is this: Where do you take Deadline from here?
Fleming: I think we built something exceptional with her. That said, a few people have asked me, ‘Why, when it looked like she might come back, did she start a site that is crapping all over you?’ I might as well begin there. The testiness that existed since her acrimonious exit aside, I got it in my head that enough time had passed and I wanted her back. I leaned on Jay Penske to end arbitration proceedings to make it happen, and he did just that. Here was my thinking. I like her. Even though we never met in person during our time together at Deadline, we had a lot of fun. When she and Jay hired me from Variety, they changed my life. My only goal was to get three kids through college without having to sell my house, and that effort is looking good. Since taking over, I have been able to extend a hand to several people I grew up with at Variety, and they’ve been great hires. I wanted to do the same with Nikki. My feeling was, when you reach the top after an unprecedented climb up a mountain like she did with Deadline, what’s wrong with staying to enjoy the view? I also thought a measured dose of her fire would complement the mix Nellie Andreeva and I have now.
Bart: Seems understandable. So why are you now known on her site as Mike Pflegming?
Fleming: She got impatient with the progress of those negotiations and lit a match to the whole thing. I got past that kind of name calling in third grade, but the shots she took at you, Anita Busch and Jay Penske, they were unacceptable. Most of my staff didn’t want her back: she could be blistering as a manager; they were demoralized by the endless late night e-mails about Jay and Variety; and some can’t forgive last fall’s events or the whispers our ad people heard about back-channel calls urging studios to boycott Oscar season. Most execs I queried also felt bringing her back was perilous. We can ignore her bullying tactics if she’s on the outside, they said, but bring her back and the same arm-twisting cycle plays out all over again. Frankly, some talent belongs in a band, but she’s a better solo act. After disparaging us, she still sent e-mails to Penske asking to return. Maybe she thought she’d helped her leverage, but it was the opposite. Jay paid her so generously in success, still pays her health care and allows her to stay in a million-dollar corporate apartment at heavy discount. This, after she unfairly vilified him last fall. She has started all over again. Our profit margins and ads are strong and we are a consistent supplier of accurate, breaking news. The decision makers in town–the elite reading audience we monetize—has embraced Deadline as their destination site. We are doing fine, so who needs the drama? This will all end shortly in arbitration. I felt I was this close to bringing her back, but now it won’t happen. Best of luck to her.
Bart: I would argue that the original Deadline style, which was excellently suited to the turbulence of the Writers’ Strike, is no longer relevant to today’s market. Hollywood knows that the ground is shifting under it. Its new leaders are high on cost cutting but low on transparency. What’s needed in terms of reporting is objectivity and analysis, not noise. The news today is all about the potential links between AT&T and DirecTV, between Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Who will buy Vice Media and Univision? The era of the celebrity CEO is behind us. There’s no one important (or reckless) enough to ridicule. News sources want to be treated respectfully. They deserve it, in my book.
Fleming: I agree that the Schadenfreude that once fueled belittling stories has dissipated. Everyone seems too busy fighting for their lives in a business that continues to squeeze every dollar. It’s so hard to get a movie made right now. Some who found themselves on the business end of her withering attack pieces have asked me to remove these old dispatches, which still show up prominently in Google searches. I won’t do that, but everyone gets a fair shake at Deadline now. Nellie and I have no interest in chasing catty comments or courting a crowd that wants to see blood in the sand at the Coliseum, with agenda and hubris playing out under the guise of truth.
Bart: When I first started working in the industry in the ’70s, the mood was one of exhilaration. The movie business was being re-invented and a new audience was discovering its newly energized product. In today’s corporate Hollywood the predominant mood is one of fear. Jobs are scarce and the bets are big. I think it’s wrong for journalists or bloggers to play on those fears through threats or other forms of coercion. If we can’t get a story playing fair, then it’s not worth getting.
Fleming: Journalists who drew power through the threat of nastiness have come and gone before. The Sweet Smell Of Success wasn’t made up from whole cloth. The risk is, the town might suffer your wrath when you have power, but they might also revel in your demise when you do not.
Bart: In my first job as a general-assignment reporter on the Chicago Sun-Times, I learned early about journalistic clout — both the good and the bad side. Chicago is synonymous with crime and, in reporting on my first two murder stories, I was so eager to learn the facts that I did the unthinkable: Twice in a row I contacted next of kin about the victims before the authorities had told them. Instead of eliciting information I got the weeping, and the recriminations. After doing this twice in one day I repaired to the local bar to confess my mistakes to the friendly bartender, who sternly advised me to be less aggressive in my news-gathering. It took two vodkas to set me straight. But it was a valuable lesson: As “insiders,” reporters can enlighten but they can also harm. The written word can educate and also wreak havoc.
Fleming: I never had to make one of those calls, but I recall as a cub reporter at New York Newsday having to call New York Times editor Max Frankel to ask if he’d begun dying his hair. You swallow hard and just do it. He was gracious in confirming, but I imagined him scribbling my name on the list of people who’d never work at that esteemed newspaper. Hollywood is rarely life and death; it’s mostly egos and spin. That doesn’t make writing with empathy and fairness less important. As for being tough, my final word on Nikki is this. The Trades got complacent when she started Deadline and the shift from print to online journalism was just getting underway. We chose to ignore her, and when a few of her pals fed her exclusives, we celebrated those stories. Since the thrust of her new site seems to be Deadline-bashing, I feel comfortable in making this clear: those who choose to break their news with her will need to be happy with that result. You might get a scant mention, but you’ll find no love here.