Inside The Blogger Wars Part I: Finke, Waxman, Poland and Wells among others
By Robert W. Welkos – SCROLL DOWN to read PART I
After someone slipped “The Hollywood Reporter” the script for the HBO comedy “Tilda,” the trade publication said it looked as if the title character, a controversial showbiz blogger, bore a striking resemblance to the real-life Nikki Finke of Deadline.com
The script, according to THR, describes Tilda “as ’50ish’ with long blonde hair, the last vestige of the prep school girl she once was, and a demeanor that alternates between charming and monstrous.”
Resemblance or not, if Hollywood truly wants to shine a spotlight on the Wild West World of online entertainment journalism and its best-known bloggers, there is no shortage of characters or story-lines that could keep viewers glued to their TV sets.
Like fictional mobsters in those early Bogart movies, today’s showbiz bloggers invite parody. For humor’s sake, they could even be given colorful monikers: Nikki “The Rat” Finke, Sharon “Bubble Wrap” Waxman, Harry “Cool Geek” Knowles, David “Mad Dog” Poland, Jeffrey “Twilight” Wells, Tom “Golden Boy” O’Neil or Pete “Hurts-So-Bad” Hammond.
Like a popular soap opera, a writer weaving plot twists around Hollywood bloggers wouldn’t need to turn in sensible scripts. All that would be required is plenty of action, melodrama and farcical escapades.
You want sex?
—Hollywood Elsewhere’s Wells once e-mailed “3:10 to Yuma” director James Mangold requesting some on-set stills of the topless scene with actress Vinessa Shaw. “Guys like naked women,” Wells wrote Mangold.
You want conflict?
—The Wrap’s Waxman is fuming because Newser.com has been posting Wrap exclusives without giving her website credit. Newser’s Michael Wolff calls her claims exaggerated and accuses The Wrap of blatantly and systematically doing what Waxman accuses Newser of doing.
You want mystery?
–After The New Yorker published a profile of the reclusive Finke, Richard Rushfield, writing on Gawker, offered $1,000 for “a recent photograph of the scourge of industry reporting.” He noted: “As far a we can tell there is but one other known picture of the most hated woman in Hollywood media; a mysterious rumpled image dating back to Nikki’s debutante days in which the first seeds of diabolic rage can clearly be discerned.”
You want feuds?
Wells on Poland: “I actually like David personally and I think it’s great of him having a kid, but he’s a bit of an asshole. He doesn’t want to talk to me.”
Poland on Wells: “If I called him and said, “Let’s do a TV thing, just you and me, he would do it in two seconds flat. For me, it’s not an okay relationship. I don’t hate Jeffrey, but his behavior is unacceptable.”
Wells on Poland (explaining how Poland once had him thrown out of a van at the Sundance Film Festival): “I was looking for a ride from Salt Lake City airport to Park City. I said, ‘Can I get a lift with you guys’ and Poland told his people on the cell phone he does not want me in the van. It’s not that big a deal but it was kind of a dick move.”
Poland on Wells: “The story was, in reality, Jeff spent the week before Sundance calling me names on his blog. I went up to Sundance (with my staff) and he jumped in a car I was not in. He said, ‘Take me to Park City.’ They asked me why he was in the car? He completely just decided he was doing this. I said to him on the phone, ‘Get out of the car, Jeff.’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘You have no right to be in the car. Get out of the car.’ Poland said the car wouldn’t depart unless Wells climbed out. ‘He’s now turned this into me throwing him out of a car!'”
Wells on Poland: “Poland is an Islamic Jihadist.”
Poland on Wells: “He is psychotic.”
You want sniping?
Finke on The Wrap: TV writer Joe Adalian is “the latest to leave that sinking ship The Wrap (aka The Crap) which is having terrible money problems, and wholesale staff turnovers, and persistent inaccuracy woes, not to mention only miniscule web traffic.”
On Friday, Finke took another swipe at Waxman’s website, blogging: “TheWrap (aka TheCrap) keeps getting turned down by the private investment companies which it has recently approached for survival funding — Saban, Shamrock, and a long list of others. And the new owners of The Hollywood Reporter aren’t interested in buying the website, given its deteriorating situation, although it’s been offered to them again and again. Meanwhile, several more current staffers are openly looking for new jobs in this tough media market.”
In an e-mail to HollywoodNews Friday, Waxman strongly refuted Finke’s assertions, saying they’re “so wrong, it’s upside-down wrong. We are close to announcing a new capital raise. Last night, we won a bunch of awards (at the L.A. Press Club’s National Entertainment Awards), and we have (a) new content agreement with CNN and Patt Morrison at KPCC.” Finke, she added, “is jealous and threatened.”
Waxman on Finke: “The word I hear from one source involves a scenario in which La Finke, much feared, widely read, deeply disliked, could leave Deadline.com for another job elsewhere.”
Poland on Finke: “She does what Ari Emanuel tells her to write and Brad Grey tells her to write.”
Poland on Waxman: “She wants to be Arianna Huffington. The problem is Arianna is a multi-millionaire. Arianna is legitimately a TV person. She’s a celebrity. Sharon is not a TV person nor is she capable of doing it.”
Waxman on Arianna: “You know, Arianna is a friend and someone who I’ve always admired. I’m not ashamed of saying that. I think she is really interesting figure and what she has built at The Huffington Post is remarkable.”
Sasha Stone on Poland: “I’ve been fighting with him for years.”
To be a successful blogger, says Stone of Awards Daily, requires a certain type, um, personality. “A certain part is you have to have a huge ego,” she told HollywoodNews. “You also have to be bold enough to say, what I say really matters. How many people really are going to think that? If you had enough self-respect and dignity you would never say that.”
Stone, who has been blogging about Oscar races for a decade, described the world she inhabits as “a disgusting, dog-eat-dog, blog-eat-blog world” driven by websites that are competing for advertising.
This should be a proud time for Hollywood bloggers. They’ve finally come into their own.
Studios hate them (always a sign of respect), sources leak them news (who’s playing whom), they are flown to distant locales and put up in fancy hotels so that they can interview directors and cast members of important films, and they’re courted, during Oscar season, like major newspapers and magazines.
But showbiz bloggers and their websites face hurdles both economically and journalistically that once might have been overlooked.
As Hollywood, like the rest of America, tightens its belt to deal with the economic hard times, showbiz websites are scrambling for readers and ad revenues.
At Ain’t It Cool News, a highly successful website that draws 500,000 to 600,000 page views per day, publisher Roland de Noie said he has seen ad revenues at his site plunge 40% from 2008 to 2009. On a good day, he noted, AICN takes in about $3,500 from ads, but that only happens a few days a month when a really big movie opens in theaters. He said studio advertising remains stubbornly focused on Old Media rather than interactive.”Their budgets are significant in print advertising just because that’s how they’ve been doing it for decades, since the ’20s and ’30s,” he complained to HollywoodNews. When the studios want to cut advertising, he noted, it’s usually the interactive side of the studio that suffers.
Sasha Stone, who started up her Oscar predictions blog a decade ago when there weren’t many showbiz sites, said she is now being told that she must expand beyond a six-month window when readers flock to her site to catch up on all the twists and turns of the latest Academy Awards race.
“There were just a couple of us (when I began) and then it really started to explode online,” she recalled. “Then the L.A. Times had a site; then the New York Times had a site; and, then the New York Times had an Oscar blogger. It was really strange. I kept thinking it would reach critical mass, that there was no way to sustain this. Now I have lots of competition.”
To compete, Stone is doing something she has never done before, she is thinking of going to the Cannes Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival this year so she can see and opine on the movies early.
“I always waited,” she said. “I thought, it doesn’t matter if I see a movie or not, it doesn’t change anything. I now realize it’s important for people to read your opinions.” She said by going to these festivals, she hopes to attract advertising year-round. “I’m trying to compete to try to keep up with people who are competing against my own readership,” Stone said.
David Poland, who runs Movie City News where he writes The Hot Blog, said changes are also coming later this year to his website, which he admits isn’t very visually attractive. His concern is whether a website has to sacrifice substance for style.
“I have to consider, there’s the New York Times blog, the L.A. Times blog, there’s Nikki and Sharon,” he said. “How do we service our readership? It’s irritating to me because I believe that the advantage of Movie City News is that we put up content that is interesting and compelling.”
De Noie said “Ain’t It Cool News hasn’t changed its look very much over the years. “We don’t want a hell of a lot of video content,” he said. “We have some, but not enough to schedule ads for. We’re trying to develop a kind of regular (video) presence on the site but haven’t got there yet. One of our big issues is we don’t do advertorials. We are pretty selective on what types of creatives we allow on our site. There are no pop-ups, no pop-unders.”
Sharon Waxman, who points out that she is not simply a blogger, but she also runs a business and oversees a staff of 14 at The Wrap. She noted that the website will actually expand this year and has plans to hire a replacement for the departing TV reporter and two other reporters.
Unlike some other websites, she said, The Wrap has a plurality of revenue streams: display advertising, syndication and special events like a speaker series or conferences. She bristles when asked if her website, which she said has 1 million unique visitors a month and 2 million unique page views, has the same business model as Finke’s Deadline.com. “I’m not sure what Nikki’s business model is,” Waxman said. “Nikki has never run Deadline as a business. She took a salary from L.A. Weekly and now she takes a salary from Jay (Penske).”
Finke declined to comment for this story.
Another problem facing the showbiz blogosphere is credibility. One senior studio PR executive, who asked not to be named because he was not speaking officially for the studio, said much of what he reads on Hollywood blogs dealing with his company either isn’t true, is premature or amounts to pure speculation.
“Sharon and her team The Wrap are creating a veritable online trade and you can’t discount what Nikki and Mike (Fleming) are doing (at Deadline.com),” he said. “They’re changing the way we’re all doing our business.”
“But most of what I see is not what is happening,” he added. “What (the blogosphere) has done, it has turned what used to be a predictable news cycle and rhythm about the way things were reported into a 24/7 assault of information. Everything from gossip to news, seems to go by in a flash.
“It used to be a two-horse town,” he continued. “Now, it’s an open playing field where anyone with a mouse and a keyboard from practically anywhere can access the game for information as long as they have sources. Harry Knowles (of AICN) can do it from his basement in Austin. You have two extremes – Harry at one end and Nikki at the other.”
“It seems everybody and everyone is a blogger and being a blogger is easy to do,” said Scott Feinberg, who runs the Oscar predicting website And the Winner Is.
“The challenge is, separating the ones who really know their stuff from the rest of the pack. That’s not easy. How do you do that? There are no white pages for blogs, no Zagat for bloggers. You have to stumble upon someone you enjoy reading or who has a track record when the Oscars are considered.”
Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere echoed this thought: “Any kid in Iowa or Kabul or western Australia can have a blog and say, I am a film authority, and they may well be, but I have paid the dues killing myself all through the ’80s and ’90s in print (media) and shifting online in the late ’90s. I think that gives me a distinction (from most other bloggers).”
Alison Bass, a senior lecturer in journalism at Mount Holyoke College and at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, who teaches digital and multimedia journalism, said showbiz bloggers thrive because the entertainment industry is built on gossip.
“I don’t feel sorry for the studios because they’re the ones doing the leaks,” Bass said. “They are playing the game.”
The real question, she said, is whether the consumer will eventually be turned off by a steady diet of rumor and gossip and go to websites that they can trust?
“It depends on whether the readers of these blogs find them credible,” Bass said. “When bloggers report unsubstantiated rumors, they eventually lose their credibility.”
While she is often attacked for her acerbic rants, Finke is a wiz at delivering news scoops on a daily basis. What rubs many the wrong way is the tone she employs and her brazen “TOLDJA!” whenever her scoops pan out.
She has attracted a wide following. Last November, comScore ratings showed, Deadline.com exceeded 1.1 million unique visitors compared to 515,000 for Variety.com and 336,000 for HollywoodReporter.com. Her popularity is attributable to many factors, but many readers come to read her latest skewering of Hollywood bigwigs.
One of those was Ben Silverman, the former Universal TV chief, who Finke likens to the gift that keeps on giving. She bashed him from the day Jeff Zucker chose him for the post until the day he he stepped down. How could you not have fun writing about a Hollywood exec who once referred to rival network heads as “D-girls,” a derogatory term used to describe powerless female executives? Or, who threw a party featuring bikini-clad women on floats and a caged tiger (he claims he didn’t know the tiger would be there).
Finke raised the issue of Silverman’s alleged pot use: “My understanding is that Jeff Zucker heard rumors of the Peabody award-winning producer’s marijuana use only after the hiring,” she blogged. Her description of Silverman’s claim that he never “did blow” and telling people that he’s 35, and single, and wears hemp sneakers and pot leaf designers, and has parents who were hippies, and loves Cheech and Chong, remains a side-splitting gem.
Interviewed by Worth magazine (linked by Finke) for his response to her criticisms, Silverman replied: “How do you have time? You’re either in the business, moving the business, or you’re sitting at home with your left-over food bitching about the business. I’m like, ‘Who cares?'”
If Finke is someone to be feared, Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News is someone filmmakers warmly embrace both because of his knowledge of films and because the industry believes his tastes mirror those legions of acne-scarred teens and Comic-Con groupies who can’t wait to see the next “Iron-Man” or Adam Sandler comedy.
Knowles bragged to HollywoodNews: “I’m very good with creative types. Quentin Tarantino calls me up to talk and we shoot the shit for three or four hours without taking a breath.”
Unlike Finke or Waxman, Knowles’ roots are not in journalism, but in movie fandom.
“My father raised me on the entire film business basically since I was a little kid,” he said. “He had a store that sold movie memorabilia and press books and old Hollywood magazines dating back in the 20’s and 30’s up to modern day. I read all that stuff and I sold it to people. If you want to talk about Ritz brothers comedies (or) exploitation films from the ’60s from Italy, I can talk about all that stuff.”
A few weeks ago, Knowles posted a blog while attending the South-by-Southwest Film Festival in which he excitedly discussed having drinks with Ed Norton and Tim Blake Nelson prior to their screening of Nelson’s comedy/crime/drama “Leaves of Grass.”
“I was there because I was told Ed Norton wanted to meet and chat with me over drinks at the Alamo’s famed HIGH BALL,” Knowles wrote. “Shit. Drinks with Ed Norton? That’s like getting in a bare knuckled brawl with William Shatner. Well, not quite that magnificent, but pretty damn epic. What was interesting about this particular set up was, I wasn’t interviewing them.”
To be sure, this coziness with Hollywood isn’t confined to Knowles. Many entertainment journalists, both in Old and New Media, have a slobbering love affair with all things celebrity. As a result, their objectivity is often questioned.
Patrick Goldstein, who writes “The Big Picture” film column for the L.A. Times, complained last fall when 20th Century Fox flew a group of bloggers and entertainment writers to London for a “Fantastic Mr. Fox” junket.Goldstein figured that “someone in the bunch, even if he or she were there on Fox’s dime, might ask (director) Wes Anderson for his response to the unflattering profile of him written by my colleague Chris Lee.” Goldstein claimed that Jeffrey Wells, after a “pricey breakfast” at the Dorchester Hotel, lobbed a “softball question” to Anderson.
It didn’t take Wells long to respond on Hollywood Elsewhere.
“Goldstein supposed that I’d been bent over, bought off and Crisco-disco’ed by the fact that 20th Century Fox had flown me into London and put me up at the Dorchester, which led me to conduct interviews in an obsequious fashion. Well, let me explain as plainly as I can.”
“I was in the tank for Anderson going in because I don’t like whiners. If you sign up to work with a director (and especially a particular-minded auteur-level director), you don’t whine about the collaboration not being mellow or groovy enough, as Oliver and Gustafson apparently did. You man up and suck it in and ride it out. Making movies is not about feeling personally happy — it’s about artistic servitude and making the best damn movie you can so you can be proud of it when you’re 90 years old.
“I have always supported demanding directors whenever people have complained about them being tough to work with. You could easily find (or certainly imagine) similar complaints about demanding, world-class directors like Jim Cameron, David O. Russell, Brian DePalma, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick, etc. By the same token Tom Cruise could have theoretically said about the making of “Eyes Wide Shut,” Gee, I thought we were going to make a movie for two or three months and it wound up taking a year, for God’s sake, and I felt overworked and unhappy! Talent talks and bullshit walks.”
Poland, who also attended the London junket, took Goldstein to task, telling HollywoodNews:
“Patrick has no idea what the content coming out of that trip is, and was acting like junkets don’t happen on 50 weekends of the year and that the LA Times and every traditional media outlet that chooses to afford to access them do just that, with all the upside and downside that all junkets have.”
(Welkos note: As an L.A. times reporter, I once accompanied Poland and other journalists aboard a U.S. Navy submarine based in San Diego as part of a Universal Pictures’ junket to hype director Jonathan Mostow’s film, “U-571.” It was one of my more memorable adventures as we each took turns piloting the sub as it cruised off the coast of Mexico. Afterward, we all got photos of us steering the sub along with a Navy windbreaker).
“Sometimes I think people are just hearing something and just posting it without any analysis,” said one veteran Hollywood publicist, who did not want to be named. However, the publicist singled several bloggers for praise, including Anne Thompson of Indiewire. “She does original reporting because she knows how to,” the publicist said. The publicist also lauded The Envelope’s Pete Hammond (“He’s important”), Entertainment Weekly’s David Karger (“He’s good”), and Kristopher Tapley of In Contention (“He actually sees the movies”).
“I think the blogs have had a tremendous impact in a very short time,” Hammond said. “They have the trade papers on the ropes.” The danger, he noted, “is that some bloggers like to be part of the story, be part of shaping the story.”
Alex Ben Block, senior editor at The Hollywood Reporter who cut his teeth on newspapers, said the rise of showbiz bloggers is worrisome because they are more interested in getting the story posted quickly before they check out all the facts. “From a journalist’s point of view, it’s a very difficult thing to deal with,” Block said. He explained that traditionally, if a reporter receives a news tip, he will take time to make a few calls and check out the tip before running with the story. Today, by the time that reporter is finished hanging up the phone, the story is already posted on somebody’s blog.
Another thing that irritates Block is the snarky tone adopted by many bloggers.
“If you like snark, and obviously a lot of people do, it’s very entertaining (to read) if you’re not being the one lambasted or the false news being printed isn’t about you,” Block said. “It’s like reading a comic book.”
At the same time, he said, if a newspaper runs a story that contains a factual error, it will usually print a prompt correction. In the blogosphere, however, you’re quickly on to the next story. “If you make mistakes and fall on your ass nobody cares,” Block said.
“It’s not just breaking stories, it’s breaking stories accurately,” Waxman said. “There’s so much pressure to get it out. With many websites, people either don’t have the journalistic training to spot the holes in a story or they can’t overcome that impulse to push the button and post the story.”
“Until people get out there and see what it takes to break news and get it right, it’s very easy to be arrogant,” Waxman said.
For all the criticism they take, showbiz bloggers are having a dramatic impact on entertainment news, and nowhere is this more evident than in this year’s Oscar race.
Tom O’Neil of Gold Derby said he had been critical of Chicago talk show host-turned-actress Mo’Nique after the co-star of “Precious” refused to campaign for an Oscar nomination. When she finally got her moment of glory winning best supporting actress at the Academy Awards, she expressed thanks to the Academy for showing the honor was about performance, not politics.
“Mo’Nique was addressing me in her Oscar acceptance speech,” O’Neil told HollywoodNews. “I had been very critical of her not campaigning when she should have.” O’Neil said after the speech, he received “200 e-mails” congratulating him.
O’Neil is critical of bloggers who “often just push stuff through” and are “so overly competitive, that they will leap over journalistic protocol just to be the first and live to regret it.”
Meanwhile, Hammond scored the biggest Oscar scoop of the year when he broke the story that Nicolas Chartier, one of the producers of “The Hurt Locker,” had sent out an e-mail urging Academy voters to name his small-budget movie as best film over mega-blockbuster “Avatar.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has rules against such things, subsequently banned Chartier from attending its Oscar show.
“It’s weird,” Hammond recalled. “I knew it was a story but it was something I had for a few days. I was trying to figure out what to do with it. I had to check it out and a few different things. I did that. Then I went with it but in the context of a bigger story: how people are handling Oscar campaigns. Are they getting off message or staying on message.”
“The Hurt Locker” went on to win best picture, but Hammond was forced to defend himself from charges of bias. Hammond said he was shocked “at the some of the vitriol that came my way, especially from other bloggers, who took the position that he was in the camp of one movie and against another.”
Hammond said, “It really was not about the movie, it’s about this guy injecting himself into the Oscar process, knowing there are rules about the right way and the wrong way to campaign for an Academy Award and the producer crossed the line.
One of those criticizing him was Sasha Stone of Awards Daily. “She doesn’t look at herself as a journalist,” Hammond said. “She basically runs a fan site for Oscars and got caught up in it. She was making accusations that were completely untrue.”
Stone told HollywoodNews that what prompted her criticism of Hammond was that “he was completely played. Somebody gave him that e-mail and he posted it. Didn’t he ever stop and wonder why they did it. To me, the motive behind that e-mail was suspect.”
But Stone subsequently backed off her criticism. “I was wrong, though, to assume motives on Pete Hammond’s part: he has no motives,” she blogged. “True, he’s not a “Hurt Locker” fan, but he is not ‘in the tank’ for any movie, he prefers (“Inglourious Basterds”) and “Up in the Air” to “The Hurt Locker.” This may be one of the reasons why he doesn’t also feel protective of the film, he is also a real journalist. I don’t really consider myself a real journalist. I am an Oscar blogger, for better or worse.”
PART II OF INSIDE THE BLOGGER WARS COMING NEXT WEEK: WHO ARE THE BLOGGERS?