Ain't It Cool's Harry Knowles: The Cash-Strapped King of the Nerds Plots a Comeback

Harry Knowles
Harry Knowles
 Wesley Mann

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.

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."

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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.

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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.

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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?"

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