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.
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.