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.
He discovered a talent for tunneling through to primary sources and coming up with proto-scoops about casting, special effects and upcoming releases. His voice and tone are unchanged to this day: He was casual, enthusiastic, sincere and cheerful. He had landed his first semipro gig providing weekend box-office returns for the stone-age version of Matt Drudge's Drudge Report, and it was one small step from there to launching his own site. He announced it thusly: "I specialize in cool inside movie news. Specifically the news from movies that excite us fans. If you work in the industry feel free to contribute. Your identity will never be revealed."
Ain't It Cool News materialized at a perfect moment of convergence for sci-fi blockbusters, digital-effects breakthroughs, comic book franchises and Internet maniacs. The early 1997 theatrical rerelease of George Lucas' Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition -- with its controversial digital alterations, accompanied by a feverish hunger for news of the forthcoming prequel trilogy -- gave Knowles his first momentous opportunity. "My entire generation has grown up in the shadow of one movie: Star Wars," observed Knowles in his 2002 autobiography, Ain't It Cool, and he was there to feed their obsession. His enterprising reporting on the Star Wars multiverse drove a spike in traffic that soon got him booted off his cut-rate web host. But it also got the attention of Lucas -- and the fact that he even knew the then-25-year-old's name is like being recognized by the Jedi Council.
From there, Knowles went on an unprecedented tear: Between 1996 and 1997, Knowles and his growing army of informants dug deep into such movies as Independence Day, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Mars Attacks! and Alien Resurrection. He ignored press embargoes and sabotaged the secretive, tightly controlled system of test-screening and marketing rollouts, pre-empting the gatekeepers and bypassing the old guard with one unauthorized reveal after another. In June 1997, Sony sent Ain't It Cool News a cease-and-desist order to take down Starship Troopers production sketches. Knowles took down the art and replaced them with the Sony edict.
Chris Pula, then-head of movie marketing at Warner Bros., denounced AICN in The New York Times and People, calling it "disruptive" and claiming "what they are doing is scary and inappropriate." The studio, via Pula, blamed the poor showing of its franchise-crippling 1997 bomb Batman & Robin on bad word-of-mouth generated by Knowles' team. The showdowns only boosted his online street cred.
The power of AICN also could be used for good. When early buzz declared James Cameron's Titanic a Cleopatra-scale disaster, Knowles sniffed out an early screening and deputized a posse of readers to attend -- which yielded a raft of positive reviews. Knowles still is bragging: "We changed the word-of-mouth of that movie half a year before it came out."
A Simple Plan producer James Jacks remembers that when Knowles was posting positive prerelease coverage of the 1998 Sam Raimi thriller, "Paramount saw the reviews, which were very supportive. And Sherry Lansing said to me, 'We'll give you notes, but you don't have to change anything if you don't want to.' "
Whether as a problem to neutralize or a force to reckon with, Knowles became impossible to ignore. His persona and cartoon-nerd appearance were seared into people's brains, and he widely was courted as an oracle of the web. Reporters from The New York Times and Los Angeles Times made the pilgrimage to Knowles' bedroom to observe him at work. Russell Crowe, appearing onstage at the 1997 Austin Film Festival, interrupted his L.A. Confidential Q&A to call out Knowles, sitting in the audience. "You're that guy," said Crowe. "The guy with that website, aren't you?"
No wonder it all went to his head. "I was an arrogant little f--- when I was in my 20s," says Knowles today, grinning. "Like nobody's bigger than me." You can see a glimpse of Harry Knowles at his most callow and hateable in a 1998 TV clip from Inside Edition. "When Lethal Weapon 4 was filming the gas station blowing up in L.A.," he boasts, "I had, like, 76 people on set covering that. That's, like, double what CNN had to cover O.J."
He loved to tout his network of "spies" -- "friends in the industry that aren't people that people know I know." In 1999, Steve Jobs called Knowles and threatened to sue him for writing about a purloined screenplay for Pixar's Toy Story 2. Disarmed by Knowles, Jobs soon began outfitting him with the latest Apple computers.
Knowles "was offered every golden teat that would come around for writing." He also found himself heading into the teeth of a fearsome backlash. After indulging in all-expenses-paid studio- and director-bankrolled junkets to screenings and to the sets of such projects as Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Green Mile and The Lord of the Rings -- and praising many, though not all, of those movies -- Knowles earned a "junket whore" label that stuck. Los Angeles Times Magazine published a profile in which Knowles came off like a megalomaniacal bully with dubious ethics. Film Threat more or less claimed he was on the take in exchange for positive coverage. (Knowles denies these allegations: "I don't want to cross that line.")
Despite a lingering reputation as a pushover who provides rave blurbs and exclamation points for movie ads, the truth is, Knowles can be ruthless. In 2001, director John McTiernan sent a private jet to Austin to fly Knowles to New York and put him up at the Four Seasons for an early screening of Rollerball, his $70 million remake of the 1975 cult classic. "I f---ing loathed it," recalls Knowles. He says he told McTiernan as much, warning, "You don't want me to write about it." Knowles claims that a confident McTiernan was unperturbed: "Do your worst. What could happen?"
What happened was the bad buzz that sprang from Knowles' early review detonated Rollerball. MGM delayed the release by six months; horrible word-of-mouth festered. When it finally hit screens, Rollerball grossed a disastrous $25.8 million worldwide. "I knew that I would never talk to McTiernan again," says Knowles. And he hasn't.
And he's still capable of biting the hand that feeds him. Knowles says that Nerdist, now a division of Legendary Pictures, bought $100,000 worth of advertising on Ain't It Cool News in the wake of the site's July debt crisis. (Legendary is also the production company behind Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy.) "You know what the first review I wrote after that was?" asks Knowles. "My Dark Knight Rises review, where I tore it to f---ing pieces. I don't care! My relationship with Thomas [Tull, Legendary's CEO] is such that he knows he's always going to hear the truth from me."
Perhaps the most unforgiving detractors of Knowles belong to the beleaguered tribe of old-school print reviewers, who still revile him as the philistine destroyer of film criticism. Knowles and his online ilk represent "the Internet free-for-all," as critic Armond White puts it, "an alternative deluge of fans' notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions and clubhouse amateurism."
In the age of Rotten Tomatoes, crowd-sourced reviews and dozens of geek-centric websites spawned from the DNA of Ain't It Cool News, the case against Knowles now seems dated, even quaint. It's true that Knowles is a wildly undisciplined writer who uses Ain't It Cool News as his never-ending diary and that he's far more interested in promoting what he loves than in strict ethical rigor. But some critics, including Roger Ebert and the late Pauline Kael, have praised his cinephile dedication. Screenwriter Damon Lindelof, who recalls that AICN was one of his first browser bookmarks, similarly is magnanimous.
"It's not trying to pass itself as some bastion of journalistic integrity," says Lindelof of the site. "It's Ain't It Cool. It's, 'Hey, here's something cool that I came across, ain't it cool?' Whether it's legit is secondary to its coolness. And in a landscape that is increasingly devoured by cynicism and snarkiness, that is noteworthy."
Always highly opinionated about everything that's wrong with the moviemaking business, Knowles has made several runs at showing how it should be done. A decade ago, as the growth of Ain't It Cool News was leveling off, Knowles teamed with Jacks (whose credits include Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused) to develop Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars at Paramount. Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn) -- who had cemented his friendship with Knowles through a shared love for violent genre movies and assembling monster-model kits -- was hired to direct. When he fell out, Jacks and Knowles enlisted Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). Del Toro, another close friend of Knowles, flirted with adding it to his list of films in development. Even Iron Man's Jon Favreau devoted considerable time to John Carter.
"Jon told me one of the reasons he wanted to do it was because he wanted to work with Harry," says Jacks. "He has access to people that most don't."
Meanwhile, in 2003, Todd Garner, the head of production at Revolution Studios, had trekked to Austin to meet Knowles. "I wanted to engage in that culture, and I didn't have a way in," recalls Garner. He hired Knowles as a creative producer on two projects -- Ghost Town, a fantasy Western, and Scale, about a group of climbers who ascend giants, not mountains.
Hollywood development being what it is, none of the movies materialized. Garner left Revolution when it downsized, and John Carter of Mars fizzled after Lansing, then Paramount's president of production, declined to renew the option. The rights eventually landed at Disney, and its 2012 John Carter was a notoriously expensive failure -- though Knowles thinks the movie is an underrated gem.
Knowles finally got his first official film credit in 2011 as an executive producer, alongside Joss Whedon and Stan Lee, for Morgan Spurlock's documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope. He and Jacks have continued their collaboration, and they're working again with Conran on a sci-fi project titled The True History of the World; it could become Conran's first feature since his 2004 debut. Conran has spent years on the film's design, and Jacks is prepping to take it out to financiers.
One place where Knowles -- who says he hates L.A. -- remains an outsized figure in every sense is Austin. "Harry, almost by force of will, made Austin the film mecca it is now," says McWeeny, who gives equal credit to the rise of South by Southwest (the festival's film component was only 2 years old when AICN launched; this year, a record 73,338 people attended screenings), the expansion of the Alamo Drafthouse cinema as an exhibition jewel and Knowles writing about it all. "If you want to make movies, you move to Los Angeles or New York. If you want to watch movies, you go to Austin."
As readers can tell from his frequent confessional posts, Knowles' personal life in recent years has brought him both a measure of domestic stability and a series of ominous health scares.
In 2006, he met a fan on MySpace, Patricia Cho. For their first date, she came to Knowles' place, and they watched Live Freaky, Die Freaky, a stop-motion musical retelling of the Charles Manson story. They married in July 2007 with Auric Goldfinger (pop culture's most notorious redhead) and Pussy Galore as the bride-and-groom figures atop the cake.
But four months before their nuptials, Knowles was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes exacerbated by his obesity, which gradually had overtaken him again, and he decided to get a gastric band surgically implanted. "At the start of all of this, I was 417 pounds," he wrote. "I wore 7XL shirts and size 62 pants. I was a very fat fat-ass. Technically, I still am. And I've been a happy fat man, but when diabetes came into the equation -- which has a possibility of blindness, which would really f--- up my favorite passion in life, film -- I decided to take the steps necessary to defeat it." Two-and-a-half years later came his collapse, spinal operation and the start of a three-day-a-week physical therapy regimen focused on strengthening leg muscles atrophied from his years in a wheelchair. Today, he can trek 600 feet using a walker before his legs give out. After cutting back on temptations like "my Kryptonite" -- Austin's Tex-Mex cuisine -- he's back down to 305 pounds.
But if Knowles used to be bigger, the same can be said of the Ain't It Cool News' audience. ComScore doesn't document online traffic from the site's heyday, but it's safe to say that it was an order of magnitude larger than the current 300,000 unique monthly visitors. In a sense, Knowles is a victim of his own pioneering success in reinventing the way movies are covered. Writers and editors who grew up reading Ain't It Cool News now are competing with him not only on a dizzying number of geek sites such as Slashfilm, Collider and Latino Review but on legacy-media sites including EW.com, New York magazine's Vulture and THR.com.
The site continues to fight its way back to profitability; earlier in March, Knowles was able to pay himself for the first time since last summer. He also is trying to diversify. After shooting 30 episodes of an online TV show for Nerdist's YouTube channel in 2012, he's pitching a new series of Ain't It Cool TV shows. And at the end of 2012, he released an Ain't It Cool movie app.
Whatever the future holds, Knowles is looking out on a world he helped to create, legitimize and evangelize. "The current state is quasi-orgasmic," he says. "Between Disney going into the Star Wars-making business, Marvel having a slate that includes Guardians of the Galaxy and Sam Raimi just saying that he and Ivan Raimi are going to sit down to write Evil Dead 4 -- the enormity of the good news happening in the geek nation after the Mayan apocalypse has been just stunning." Abrams directing the next Star Wars film leaves Knowles giddy: "I like his desire to keep things secret," he says. "Whoever is developing Star Wars should be devilishly playful with the audience. This is exactly the sort of magician you need."
In February, as if to signal it was too soon to write off Ain't It Cool News, Knowles had two killer scoops: The casting of the villain of 2014's Fast and Furious 7 (spoiler alert: Jason Statham) and that Disney and Lucasfilm are planning a series of stand-alone Star Wars films, the first centered on Yoda. The Internet exploded, much like it did over his Star Wars coverage nearly 20 years ago, and Knowles was holding the match.
On any given day, Harry still has the power to be Harry.