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This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I was both impressed and fascinated by Ain’t It Cool News when I first came across it, which must have been around 1997. I could tell instantly that Harry was “one of us” — a geek raised on Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Universal monsters and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. It’s an informal worldwide society with deep roots in all aspects of popular culture.
It seemed to me that Ain’t It Cool News had an interesting agenda — as if it were saying: “We’re huge movie fans, but we expect some respect from the studios. You spend millions of dollars on trailers and campaigns trying to convince us a crappy movie is worth seeing, so we’re going to let our fellow geeks know the truth — both good and bad — before they give you their hard-earned money.” That was interesting — it certainly sent a ripple of fear through Hollywood at the time. It has been interesting to watch Hollywood come to terms with this potent and potentially threatening use of the Internet.
Harry had a major effect on my career path, long before I met him. When our Lord of the Rings movies were first announced in 1997, there was a fair degree of negativity from the media in general. Much of it was based on my lack of Hollywood track record and general bewilderment as to why I was the guy who would be making these films. I felt it was a negativity that would be hard to shake off while I was buried away in New Zealand making these movies. So I contacted Harry and asked him if he’d like to invite his readers to ask me 20 questions about our Lord of the Rings adaptation. Nothing would be off-limits. I wanted to connect directly with both fans of the Tolkien book and fans who knew my previous work. Both were reading Ain’t It Cool News. Within hours of posting his request for questions, Harry had thousands of responses, which made a big impression on Miramax, which was funding LOTR at the time. I answered the 20 questions as best I could, and it created a goodwill that saw us through to the release of the movies. I still suspect most of those questions I got were ones Harry wrote himself! They were pretty sharp.
But he had a greater influence than that. In 1999, when we were casting Lord of the Rings, it was a struggle to find our Frodo. I assumed he would be a British actor, but after 200 auditions, nobody excited us. Out of the blue, Elijah Wood sends us a self-filmed audition tape. Quite honestly, Elijah never crossed our minds, but he won the role purely on the quality of the audition he had filmed himself, wearing a costume in his backyard. It wasn’t until much later that I learned Elijah had run into Harry Knowles on the set of The Faculty, and Harry had convinced him to try for the role of Frodo. We felt lucky, but it was Harry who thought Elijah could play the role.
Today, it’s probably fair to say that the studios have “tamed” Ain’t It Cool News and the dozens of similar websites that sprung up in its wake. But it would be a mistake to call it a Hollywood victory. It forced the studio marketing people to treat fans with way more respect. They had to engage and focus on the expectation and opinions of the fan community. It has given fans a voice and power they never had before, and Harry was the catalyst in making that happen.
Fifteen years on from my first contact with Harry, I’m very happy to continue the relationship with Harry and his Ain’t It Cool News readers. I consider I have a friendship of sorts with many thousands of people I have never met, and it’s a relationship I value. Neither Harry nor I has changed that much. Once a geek, always a geek!
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