Ain't It Cool's Harry Knowles: The Cash-Strapped King of the Nerds Plots a Comeback
The founder of the once-renegade movie site, who earned the admiration of Peter Jackson and Steve Jobs, is struggling for money and relevance in the wild media landscape he helped to create.
This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It was July 2012, and Harry Knowles was working up a sweat. Eighteen months earlier, the creator-owner-figurehead of Ain't It Cool News collapsed and had back surgery to treat the effects of spinal stenosis, a chronic condition stemming in part from a 1996 fall that left him intermittently reliant on a wheelchair. So now he was walking on a treadmill at a clinic near his Austin home as part of his physical therapy.
His phone rang. Still trudging, Knowles answered. It was Roland De Noie, his business manager.
"I really f---ed up," said De Noie in a panic. "It's all my fault." He had discovered that Ain't It Cool News -- the website Knowles started in his Texas bedroom that grew to be the scourge of Hollywood, redefined the nature and pace of entertainment journalism and turned an overweight, ginger-haired self-diagnosed movie nerd into the face of a geek nation on the rise -- owed about $300,000 in unpaid taxes. While Ain't It Cool News had been making $700,000 a year in gross advertising revenue at its height in the early- to mid-2000s, that had dipped to the low-six figures by 2012. The business had no cash reserves and no way to pay the bills. Its bank account had been seized. "We're not going to be able to get out of this one," said De Noie.
Knowles tried to get his childhood friend to explain, but there was no simple answer. It was the advertising slowdown or bad business practices or horrible decisions or a combination of all three. But the fact remained that Ain't It Cool News was bleeding out.
"It's all over," said De Noie.
After a messy, heated conversation, Knowles got off the treadmill and climbed into his wheelchair. Feeling sick to his stomach, he rolled himself into the bathroom. He called his wife to come pick him up.
Then, with the door shut, Harry Knowles started to cry.
Five months later, Knowles is gleefully indulging in movie glossolalia -- his relentless, digressive, incantatory mania for framing every anecdote, recollection and critical argument with Hollywood name-dropping and film references, for which he has an encyclopedic total recall.
In the living room of his nondescript ranch house in north Austin, he in a wheelchair and a reporter on a low-slung couch, Knowles talks and talks, unspooling his tales. It doesn't help that we're both still coming down from 27 straight hours of phantasmagorical movie-watching at the 14th edition of Butt-Numb-a-Thon, the annual film festival/birthday party/ordeal he mounts at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse theater. Or that we're surrounded by a Hoarders-style panoply of DVDs, signed movie posters, comic book covers, animation cels, toy armies of action figures, film props (Knowles has been waving around an ornate key from The Hobbit), a glossy of Knowles with Quentin Tarantino on the set of Kill Bill, a plaster model of Georges Melies' "Man in the Moon" with the spaceship bullet stuck in its eye and an aquamarine bottle of Samourai Parfums de Alain Delon cologne. Or that while we talk he's screening a herky-jerky documentary about stop-action animation, with the murmuring sound turned down low and the projector fan wheezing softly. (Knowles watches little TV, but he's a cinematic omnivore, burning through Blu-rays at a blistering rate.) Or that Knowles -- it is his 41st birthday, after all -- is wearing big black Oswald the Lucky Rabbit ears.
Given Knowles' financial distress, the latest Butt-Numb-a-Thon almost never happened. "How could I distract myself with a giant party when the whole thing is falling to pieces?" Knowles remembers wondering as the December festival approached. Clearly, however, pulling off yet another BNAT has cheered him up. This year's edition featured a trademark mashup of premieres, A-list personal appearances (Peter Jackson, Paul Feig, Rian Johnson and Guillermo del Toro), vintage classics and video birthday greetings (Brad Pitt taped a hilarious Chanel No. 5 parody and sent it along with a sneak clip from World War Z).
After the phone call from De Noie and his initial despair, Knowles went into triage mode. He and his wife, Patricia Cho, had been planning to build a house in Austin, but now he plundered their personal nest egg to pay his writers and contributors, the site's hosting fees, the tax deficit and the bills for an overhaul of the outdated site. Drawing on the experience of clawing back from previous near-death business crises, Knowles furiously began working the phones and offering discounted advertising packages to studio marketers. "If I hadn't had a savings account," he says, "the site would have been dead by August."
Yet Knowles appears curiously unworried. He doesn't quite seem to grasp that he's been speeding along a precipice. Or that Ain't It Cool News might be facing an even bigger existential threat: Is the pioneer of online nerddom still relevant in an age where there are a hundred different sites covering geek entertainment, where sneak peeks now are doled out by studio marketing divisions, where filmmakers have figured out how to work the web to their advantage rather than hide from it, where directors like J.J. Abrams wield secrecy like Tolkien's Ring of Power?
"I'm embarrassed in that I'm 16 years in, and the company isn't far more successful than it is," says Knowles, not looking very embarrassed. In fact, it looks like he's still having the time of his life.
"Ain't It Cool News has always been a business that was run like a really great hobby," says writer Drew McWeeny, one of Knowles' oldest friends and a former contributor (under the byline Moriarty) to the site. "As a result, I don't believe it is the business it could have or even should have been. People came to him and offered venture capital. There were some fairly major overtures made. But Harry would not get in a position where someone else could say yes or no. It remains exactly what it was in 1996-97, which is Harry's personal site with Harry's friends and a few close collaborators. It's still a scrappy little bedroom operation. I suspect as long as Harry is part of Ain't It Cool News, that is what it will be."
It's true. Knowles' unchanging brand of fandom and movie love are the primary forces behind the longevity -- and parlous circumstances -- of Ain't It Cool News. The days of his peak fame and notoriety during the late 1990s are long gone, but his site's design, with its dinky logo animations and orangey palette (an homage to Velma of Scooby-Doo), remains an artless throwback to that era. "In a weird, nerdy, geeky, immature way, I've always wanted to retain the sense that it wasn't quite professional," says Knowles, who named his site after one of John Travolta's lines in John Woo's 1996 thriller Broken Arrow. Weird, nerdy, immature: an accurate summary of the qualities that created AICN, made it a sensational hit and periodically have steered it toward irrelevance and disaster.
"No matter what people want to say about Harry," says McWeeny, "there is a genuine, childlike, driven love of film that I have not seen change since I met him. I haven't seen money alter it, I haven't seen access alter it, I haven't seen celebrity alter it. His parents just raised him movie-crazy."
The carny strangeness of Knowles' upbringing, and its formative power, are impossible to overstate. His parents, Jay and Helen, were hippie aesthetes who opened Austin's first movie memorabilia, pulp fiction and comics shop, and they traveled the West selling their wares at weekend shows and attending film festivals. (Knowles visited his first San Diego Comic-Con as an infant in 1972.) Their child-rearing philosophy was full media immersion. "I was their experiment," says Knowles. "They unleashed everything on me. I saw porn, all the Universal monster movies, all the Charlie Chan films, all the Sherlock Holmes things, all the Fred and Ginger movies. Film for me became how I related to everything else."
His parents divorced in 1983, and for the next six years, Knowles and his younger sister lived with their mother on her family's ranch in northern Texas. At 17, he returned to Austin to work for his father's revived memorabilia business, 20th Century Esoterica, and fitfully attend Austin Community College. By his early 20s, Knowles was a dropout caught in the grip of depression and obesity. At one point, he ballooned to more than 500 pounds.
But after his mother died in 1993, he used part of his inheritance to buy a $3,000 Packard Bell PC and a modem and discovered a brand-new subculture of fellow pop-culture obsessives. An online romance with a girl he met in a chat room inspired him to snap out of his funk, lose 200 pounds and pour his energy into the virtual world of fandom.
On Jan. 24, 1996, Knowles was helping his father pack up after a memorabilia show at the City Coliseum in Austin. Wheeling a heavy dolly down a loading ramp, he tripped on a hose and injured his back, partially paralyzing his legs. Holed up at home in his bedroom -- "like the 12-year-old asthmatic Scorsese, or the wunderkind Coppola stricken with polio," as he later wrote in a flourish of self-mythologizing -- he realized that his destiny was to become a monomaniacal Internet movie journalist.
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