Penske denies Nikki Finke is leaving Deadline -- but it's complicated *

hollywood-sign-oh-vdt.jpgSharon Waxman reported Sunday at The Wrap that "Nikki Finke has been fired from the blog she founded, Deadline Hollywood, and will be leaving the company as soon as this week, multiple individuals with knowledge of the situation have told TheWrap." Waxman says that Jay Penske, head of PMC, acted after the latest Finke threat to take revenge on Hollywood execs who don't play ball with her. Also this: "One individual said Finke has been telling executives in Hollywood that she is leaving." The LA Times also reported Sunday that "the mercurial Finke has been telling people that she is looking to leave Deadline and go back into business for herself. While she was filing her box-office report for this weekend she told some people that it would be her last such piece for Deadline."

But Penske Media sent an internal email Sunday calling the Waxman story "libelous, false, and defamatory...a complete fabrication, with not an ounce of truth to it." That seems pretty black and white, right? Michael Fleming, Finke's biggest and best hire, posted his own take on Deadline: "I don’t believe it for a moment," adding derisive comments about The Wrap. But according to Waxman, Penske has yet to actually answer whether Finke is leaving. And the Penske internal message, signed by the company flack, leaves open any interpretation of "intention to continue its obligations" to Finke under her contract. It's not exactly a loving embrace of the company's most important journalist.

Just to be clear, Nikki Finke has a multi-year contract with the Company, and it is the Company’s absolute intention to continue its obligations under the agreement.

It is sad when a rival business feels the need to fabricate stories to create traffic and notoriety. Due to the defamatory and disparaging nature of some of the completely innaccurate statements made by Waxman, PMC has turned this matter over to our attorneys.

Waxman writes that "Finke’s five-year contract is up next year, and the two have not come to an agreement. One of the individuals with knowledge of the conflict between Penske and Finke said that Finke had repeatedly threatened to sue Penske over his allegedly violating his purchase agreement of Deadline from 2009."

Anne Thompson, another longtime hand in the Hollywood trades, says at IndieWire that "there are some wisps of truth in Sharon Waxman's breathless announcement that Jay Penske has fired Nikki Finke from Deadline Hollywood....The real issue is Finke's Deadline contract with Penske, which comes up next year. It's not so much a question of Penske firing Finke. It's a question of his renewing her. If their talks break down and she leaves, as I understand it the name Deadline goes with her. But the other Deadline employees are Penske's." Thompson's headline: Where there's smoke there's fire.

So many angles at work here. Maybe this is just a heated contract negotiation. Maybe, as Thompson suggests, Penske realized he doesn't need the embarrassments that Finke brings along with her Rolodex. Finke has not seemed happy about the Penske takeover of Variety, and maybe it's time to cash out. One other thing to watch: For Waxman, who has exchanged personal and professional snipes with Finke for years, this is something of an all-in poker move. Either Waxman is completely right that Penske "fired" Finke or she's arguably out of the game. I would hate to be a staffer invested in the future of The Wrap if Waxman overreached on this "shocker," as her headline terms the story — accompanied by that decades-old photo of Finke with a red X drawn through it.

For his part, Fleming is very warm toward Finke is his post at Deadline. "I can only say this: Nikki convinced me to leave Daily Variety after 20 years, and it was the right move and I have never enjoyed collaborating with a journalist more than I have with her. I love what the reporters and editors here have built here with her guidance, it feels memorable and important, and I think we have a lot more to say and do together. Internal stuff happens from time to time and it gets worked out, despite the sensationalized reporting that amounts to wishful thinking on the part of The Wrap, which couldn’t carry Deadline’s jockstrap."

And finally, Finke has not posted about this at all. The denial has come only from Penske and his head of communications, Lauren Gullion.

* Monday morning update: Finke responds but neither confirms nor denies the reports.

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