It's 9 on a Monday night and thousands of producers, directors, actors, theater owners and reporters are flooding the second-floor lobby of the Orleans hotel in Las Vegas to gnaw vulcanized chicken wings and deep-fried mystery hors d'oeuvres and fill the great red-carpeted hall with a cacophony of affectation. It's the first evening of Hollywood's great hustlefest, ShoWest. Major studios are here to promote their product by throwing lavish parties, screening flashy trailers and trotting out the stars. Conventioneers will tour the vast ballrooms of Bally's hotel, where manufacturers of the latest innovations in projection and sound equipment hawk their wares.
* Change hangs heavy in the air at this 2000 gathering. Foremost are new digital projection systems. Soon filmmakers won't be filmmakers anymore, and theater owners will have to embrace new gimmicks such as high-speed projectors and giant three-story screens. Those who are able to grasp the possibilities quickly will flourish. Those who resist may become anachronisms faster than silent movie stars.
* Should anyone doubt this, they need look no farther than the far end of the hall, where a Falstaffian figure--living proof of the perils and opportunities of fast-changing Hollywood--holds court before a pair of star-struck filmmakers. Even in this pale-green fluorescent light, he casts an enormous shadow: nearly 6 feet tall and more than 300 pounds; a great frizzy mane of tomato-red hair cascading down the back of his pea-green windbreaker; an equally massive briar-patch beard dangling over his untucked blue denim shirt. And on his broad feet, a pair of leopard-skin loafers with Day-Glo green soles.
* He is Harry Knowles, proprietor of Ain't It Cool News, a movie Web site (http://www.aintitcool.com) that has shaken Hollywood's control-freak establishment by publishing industry gossip and unauthorized reviews of test screenings and screenplays for films that haven't been completed. In just four years, Knowles has rocketed into the zeitgeist as the Matt Drudge of online entertainment journalism--with all of the ethical baggage that parallel implies.
Knowles' audience at the moment is Derick and Steven Martini, a pair of handsome 20-something brothers who produced and starred in "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire," one of five independent films screened in theaters adjacent to the lobby. The Martinis listen with wide-eyed delight as Knowles explains how he came to be the first journalist to visit the set of Ron Howard's new production, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," scheduled for release in November. It started when a couple of Knowles' spies acquired the screenplay and e-mailed reviews to his Web site. Though Knowles had not read the script, some reviews made it sound pretty awful. "They described stuff like a high school that the Grinch goes to and how you see the development of the Grinch," Knowles says in a soft Texas drawl. "It was like: what is this? The Grinch's troubled youth?" The Martini brothers groan. "It sounded like Beverly Hills, 90210, in Who-ville."
Days later, Knowles continues, Ron Howard's assistant telephoned. Howard was very upset. He wanted to fly Knowles to L.A. so he could watch some of the filming and get a better idea of the movie. Knowles accepted. "Then I sat down and I talked with Ron," Knowles explains, pushing his small oval glasses up the bridge of his button nose, long blond-red lashes blinking as he allows the moment to sink in. "He was real concerned about why people hate him so much on the Web site in terms of his direction of the 'Grinch.' It was real easy to tell him, 'Look, you've never done a movie that's vaguely as visual as this film. They don't believe you have the visual panache to pull this thing off.' And I want to tell you, they walked me through all of the sets and showed me all of the makeup and costumes, and they've done an incredible job."
"Really?" Derick asks.
"Oh yeah," Knowles nods, pushing his glasses up again. "I mean, basically, they have brought the Dr. Seussian universe to life."
"Cool," Steven nods.
"So I told Ron, 'Personally, if I were you, I wouldn't hide this stuff. People need to be convinced that you're doing Dr. Seuss justice.' " Howard had been keeping every aspect of the production's elaborate art direction a secret. It was time, Knowles says he counseled Howard, to release a few selective photos, maybe a picture of Jim Carrey in makeup as the Grinch. A few weeks later, a picture of Carrey as the Grinch appeared in Newsweek. Knowles smiles. "So I guess they changed their policy." (When asked later to confirm Knowles' account, Howard refused to comment.)
"Did you . . .?" Derick tentatively ventures. Knowles reads his thoughts. "Yes," he says with the satisfaction of the first 10-year-old on his block to see the latest "Star Wars" movie. "I met the Grinch."
The Martini brothers break into giddy grins. "Awesome!"
Knowles' companion speaks up. He is Drew McWeeny, a frequent contributor of gossip and reviews. Like all of Knowles' informants, he writes under a cyber-name--in this case, Moriarty. "The studios don't like us," McWeeny says, "but the filmmakers love us. Once we get behind a film, we often will support it from the earliest stages of preproduction all the way through its theatrical run. We have the ability to jump-start a picture."
The Martinis nod.
" 'American Beauty' was one that we helped," Knowles points out. He then tells a story about a small independent film, similar to the Martini brothers', that was picked up by a distributor at the Sundance Film Festival after Knowles gave it a rave review. "That's amazing to me, but it's happening more times than I care to really count."
The evening is winding down and the Martinis invite Knowles and McWeeny to join them for a night out, which turns into a wild evening that culminates at a strip bar. It's also the beginning of a mutually advantageous relationship: The Martinis have gained an ally who can help promote their careers, and Knowles will gain inside information about their films.
"THERE'S ONLY ONE WORD FOR HIM: PHENOMENON," SAYS LEONARD Maltin, film critic for "Entertainment Tonight." Just four years ago, at 24, Knowles started Ain't It Cool News from his cramped bedroom in a home he shares with his father in Austin, Texas. He solicited inside information from a network of spies within the movie industry and from moviegoers who attend test screenings. Knowles adopted the persona of a crusader, defender of movie consumers.
Hollywood didn't buy it. The studios saw him as as a dangerous cyber-vandal who recklessly violated time-honored security protocols and endangered the commercial life of multimillion-dollar productions. Accustomed to managing a relatively docile pack of entertainment journalists, the studios reacted with panic--at first.
Then they struck back. Oh, such sweet seduction. Knowles started popping up at Hollywood premieres and on movie sets, his trips often paid for by some of the very Hollywood hands he had bitten. He became pals with directors and stars, who told him they wanted advice on their films.
Today, Knowles is Hollow Man. He's a Hollywood insider but his readers don't see it. His reporting isn't as tough as it was in the beginning. To keep credibility with his online audience, he has crafted a new role: movie critic with unparalleled access, with power to change Hollywood, to make or break movies and directors, all in the name of helping moviegoers by forcing studios to make better movies.
In the process, Knowles, who recently signed a six-figure contract with Warner Books to write about the Hollywood film industry, has surpassed the flickeringly famous Drudge in a way few would envy. Drudge defies the conventions of political reporting by spooning up gossip that has occasionally been proven untrue. Not to defend the standards of political reporting, but there is little doubt that what passes as "entertainment journalism" today is a lower form of the craft. Knowles has sunk deep in that gooey ethical milieu, while adroitly convincing his audience that he has remained pure.
Yet it would be wrong to see Knowles as just a talented blackmail artist who has exploited Hollywood. He is also a pioneer. "Harry Knowles saw something no one else did at a given moment in time--that such a site would interest lots of people, from fans to people in the industry," Maltin says. "He was in the right place at the right time with the right idea and, in his own curious way, was the right guy."
If no one knows where the Internet will take us, Knowles is among those who have given us an early idea. By gathering information from the masses and from insiders and then reporting back his findings, he recognized the Internet's amazing ability to penetrate conventional barriers and to amplify a message. In the process he managed, for a time at least, to set off alarm claxons in Hollywood by breaching the public relations fortress like few others have. What's not to like about that?
LIKE OTHER OVERNIGHT INTERNET SENSATIONS, KNOWLES REFUSES TO confine himself to the narrow job descriptions of the "old media" and assumes a dizzying variety of roles: gossip columnist, movie critic, neo-gonzo entertainment reporter, industry insider, power broker and cult personality. No matter which hat he's wearing, he remains--first, last and always--a wily provocateur, unhindered by editors or such antiquated notions as journalistic integrity. Instead, he operates with two overriding imperatives: make the writing lively and exciting, and keep your readers pumped up on a constant adrenaline rush of fast-breaking scoops. It's a simple formula, but it's extremely effective.
In an era when many entertainment journalists simply regurgitate the pap fed by studio publicity departments, Knowles' writing is spontaneous, irreverent and bristling with vitality. He doesn't simply review a movie or describe his visit to a set. He's been known to begin stories with details of his hangover, followed by a fight he had with his father, and then what he had for breakfast. When writing about a movie premiere or film festival, he includes a running commentary on his inner thoughts, fears of inadequacy or raging horniness as he rubs elbows with the beautiful people.
"It's a personality-driven site," says the film critic Roger Ebert. "Part of the reason for his success is he's created this larger-than-life persona." It's a literary persona, made up of equal parts fiction and fact.
"What I felt needed to happen on the site, in a very real sense, was that it had to become something of legend," Knowles says. "I very much understand legend-building." And he doesn't confine it to his Web site. The life story that he serves up for interviewers has many elements of heroic mythology. For instance, there is the middle-class childhood in central Texas with tragic overtones: the divorce of his parents when he was 12, his alcoholic mother who died prematurely and the football coach who used him as a tackling dummy (like a scene with Harold Lloyd in "The Freshman").
Lonely and misunderstood by his peers, Knowles sought solace in the transcendental world of movies, spending much of his childhood thrilling to such epics as "El Cid" and "Spartacus." His father sold movie collectibles, and the two of them moved the wares from one nostalgia convention to the next--until catastrophe struck. While setting up for a show in Austin in 1995, Knowles tripped over a hose, and a dolly carrying roughly 1,200 pounds of stock fell on his back. Bedridden for more than four months, his weight ballooned.
But then came the epiphany. Knowles discovered the Internet. He logged on to movie chat rooms. In a newsgroup, he met Dean Devlin, one of Hollywood's most powerful producers, who had long been active on the Internet. Devlin had created the first movie Web site as a means of promoting his 1994 hit "Stargate," and regularly visited movie chat rooms to check out the buzz on various productions. While he was producing "Independence Day," "a lot of flamers were posting things on Web sites that were very hostile to the movie," Devlin remembers. "And there was this guy who was suddenly defending 'Independence Day.' So I wrote to him and said, 'Hey, thanks.' And that's how I met Harry. In those days he seemed to be a guy who was in love with movies, and yet he seemed fair about it."
Shortly after that, Knowles started his Web site and quickly gained notoriety when a spy sent him pictures of the insect creatures for 1997's "Starship Troopers," which was in preproduction. Knowles put them on his Web site without authorization from Sony Pictures. Sony slapped Knowles with a cease-and-desist order. He took the pictures off his site and put the order up in its place. It brought him more attention and more informants within the film industry.
Next he published a report that "Batman & Robin" had tanked in front of test audiences. Mainstream publications picked up the story and the buzz began that Warner Bros. had a major turkey on its hands. Then Knowles' spies reported on a Minneapolis test screening of "Titanic." Conventional wisdom had predicted the picture would flop. But Knowles' spies gave it rave reviews, and Knowles now claims some credit for helping it become the highest-grossing movie of all time.
"It isn't just that the magic of the Web made him into a celebrity," says Ebert, on whose syndicated TV show Knowles has appeared four times as a guest critic. "You can't just look at him as a phenomenon; you have to look at him as a human being. He loves movies. The first time I met him, he started talking about the Ritz Brothers. He's still in his 20s. How many people in their 20s can tell you all about the Ritz Brothers? He has a lot of enthusiasm. That's an important element of his success."
So is his neo-gonzo prose. His primary readers are male adolescents and 20-somethings, precisely the group that makes or breaks big-box-office movies. When they log on, they get to walk in Knowles' leopard-skin shoes through a fantastic and glamorous landscape. They virtually tagged along with Knowles to the Sundance Film Festival, where upon returning to his hotel one night, he decided to take a dip in the hot tub. "There was a girl there," Knowles wrote. "Not only that, but one who loved my page and was SORE. I was sore too. We decide to give each other mutual back rubs after we get out of the hot tub--I go with the girl back to her room."
Harry Knowles--fat geek from Austin, former tackling dummy for the high school football team--had made it to the very heart of Lotusland paradise, where a beautiful blond waited in a steaming hot tub to embrace him. It didn't matter that many of his tales seemed too fantastic to be true. If it could happen to him, his fans thought, it could happen to them someday too.
With Knowles' popularity growing, so was the threat to Hollywood's control. Once again, Devlin was the first to act. He flew Knowles to Las Vegas to see the trailer for "Godzilla" in March 1998. "I thought it was a really cool trailer and I thought he would dig it," Devlin explains. Knowles accepted the free trip, saw the trailer and gave it a rave review.
The studios took note. A couple of weeks later, DreamWorks flew Knowles to Dallas to view trailers for such upcoming films as "Saving Private Ryan," "The Prince of Egypt" and "Antz." Soon other studios were flying him to their premieres, including one for "The Green Mile," and as far away as London for a tour of the "The Mummy" set. In many cases the studios also paid for Knowles' plush hotel accommodations. Director Michael Bay invited Knowles and his friends to NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to watch the filming of "Armageddon," and he introduced Knowles to star Bruce Willis. Director Robert Rodriguez went one better. He cast Knowles in a small role in "The Faculty." Knowles later wrote glowing accounts of each of these productions except for "The Mummy," which he gave a mixed review.
Today the Hollywood establishment feels that Knowles can be worked with and that he can even be a valuable publicity outlet if carefully manipulated. But executives still fear him, for a misstep can unleash a tsunami on his Web site. Like old-time gossip columnists Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper, Knowles has mastered the art of the carrot-stick approach. He's willing to generate positive buzz if filmmakers play ball with him. As for the stick, when The Times contacted the offices of Devlin and Rodriguez, assistants for both men asked if Knowles had agreed to be interviewed for the article. They didn't want to cooperate if it would antagonize him.
A prominent director who has had experience with Knowles and agreed to talk only if not identified, says he learned about Knowles after holding a test screening. The audience response was extremely positive, the reaction cards came in with high numbers and the focus group held afterward was enthusiastic, the director says. Then a review appeared on Ain't It Cool News panning the film. The good buzz suddenly turned sour. Knowles proved to be anything but the filmmaker's friend. In fact, he'd given the studio leverage to exert more pressure on the director to bend to its demands.
"What's so bad is the corruption of the entire preview process--the fact that these e-mails are released as reviews," the director says. "It ruins what had always been for filmmakers a sacrosanct process of getting a reaction from an audience to a very incomplete, tentative form of a film, with temporary music, dirty opticals. It's a part of the process that had enabled you to try this or try that and find out how an audience responded. Now that process is being destroyed because people are running out and writing reviews for the whole world to read."
Knowles counters that when reporters in other fields have published internal documents of the FBI, the Pentagon and tobacco companies, it's regarded as good journalism. Why, he asks, is the entertainment industry considered sacred? Journalists obtain "inside documents on the design plans for next year's models of cars. They get stuff on the new Sony PlayStation games. Movies are no different. It's an art form. Yeah. It's an art form made to be sold to a worldwide audience. The industry tests it like you would a product. If they're going to continue to test something as a product, then they should be willing to accept consumer reports, because really that's all it is. If you've ever seen 'Park Row' by Sam Fuller, that's very much about not letting big business boss the newspapers around. We weren't created to be the tool of some sort of corporation. We were created to serve the public trust."
The argument strikes a chord with Ebert, who finds Knowles a refreshing change from the trend in entertainment journalism during the last three decades. When Ebert started covering Hollywood in the 1960s, there were very few restrictions on journalists. "You could spend a day getting drunk with Lee Marvin in his house in Malibu, driving around Pittsburgh with Robert Mitchum." It was the golden age of the "on-location" story, when superb writers such as Joan Didion and Grover Lewis wrote vivid and insightful portraits of such volatile artists as John Wayne, Henry Hathaway, Sam Peckinpah and Milos Forman.
That kind of incisive writing has diminished in recent decades because the large corporate entities that now control Hollywood have placed restrictions on reporters, and news organizations--desperate to satisfy the public's voracious demand for celebrity stories--have too often accepted them. Fewer and fewer journalists are allowed even to visit sets these days. Reporters for major publications may get 20 or 30 minutes for a one-on-one interview with a star after filming is complete.
For studios, it's all about selling the product. As a result, many entertainment reporters seek little more than programmed sound bites fed by studio publicity mills. "There's no question that there are many members of the entertainment press who know almost nothing about film history or the movie industry," Maltin says. "They don't know anything about anything."
Which is why Ebert admires Knowles. He rocked the system and, despite his questionable ethics, reinvigorated a moribund genre of journalism.
As for the destruction of the film-preview process, "The last secret sneak preview was held about four years ago," Ebert says. "There is never again going to be a secret sneak preview. Hollywood has to accept that this is the way things are. I think it's a good thing, in a way, because now they're going to have to decide for themselves if they think the movie works, instead of going out for audience testing. Once you show the movie to people who are not your employees, it's public property."
IT'S A LITTLE PAST 1 P.M AT ShoWest and the cavernous ballroom is crammed. But few people are thinking about food. All heads turn as an announcer calls out the names of movie stars appearing in features that New Line Cinema and Fine Line Features will release in the coming year. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dennis Quaid . . . Jimmy Smits. . . Harvey Keitel . . . Patricia Arquette . . . Adam Sandler."
Knowles and Moriarty sit three tables from the stars, faces pale and eyes bloodshot from their night of partying. As Knowles slathers mustard on a dehydrated hamburger, a reporter at the table introduces himself. He's a correspondent for Reuters and his mouth spreads into a condescending grin. "So what's the fallout from this Oscar thing?"
Knowles sighs wearily. The night before the 2000 Oscar nominations were announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Knowles received an e-mail from a source who claimed he had infiltrated an Academy computer file and purloined the list of nominees. Knowles believed he had a historic scoop and published the names. The next day, Knowles discovered that the list hadn't come from an Academy computer at all, but from the hard drive of an ABC.com correspondent who was preparing a story about the nominations. The ABC correspondent had correctly predicted 20 major nominations, but missed the best-picture nomination for "The Cider House Rules."
"Harry fell for something that no seasoned journalist would ever have fallen for," Ebert says.
Knowles apologized to Academy officials, who were irate that he had published material he thought had been downloaded from their computers, and he also offered a convoluted apology to his readers. But on this afternoon, looking into the patronizing grin of the Reuters man, Knowles is unrepentant. "Well, it's not like we announced to the world that Bob Hope was dead; CNN did that.
"It's not like we announced to the world that we dropped Agent Orange on our own men on purpose in Vietnam. Wait, who did that?" Knowles feigns momentary memory loss, then looks at the reporter and smiles. "I think it was CNN, that bastion of journalistic integrity. That's a hell of a lot more serious charge than simply having one of your sources wrong on a confirmation of an Oscar story." [Actually, the Associated Press made the error on Bob Hope. And the erroneous report by CNN was not on Agent Orange but that sarin nerve gas was dropped on a Laotian village to kill American defectors.]
The Reuters man presses on. "But has there been any fallout?"
McWeeny laughs. "Good god, no. William Goldman called to set up an interview with us the day after it happened, and last week DreamWorks let us host a special screening of 'Gladiator' in San Francisco."
Knowles pushes his glasses up his nose. "The bottom line is: as long as you have clout, there is no fallout."
While many directors and producers still deplore Knowles' practice of reviewing unfinished movies, his most bitter foes these days are members of the mainstream entertainment press. Journalists such as David Poland, a columnist for the online magazine roughcut.com, are outraged that Knowles depicts them as corrupt philistines while he often accepts first-class plane tickets, luxury hotel rooms and sedan rides from producers whose films he praises.
Knowles is hardly wealthy. He says his Web site turns just a small profit. When asked about freebies, Knowles argues that he doesn't have the money to pay his own way to many events, so he has no other choice but to accept these gifts. Besides, Knowles notes, many members of the press, mostly from smaller news organizations, accept freebies on studio press junkets.
This line of defense doesn't impress Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety. "You know what that's like? That's like Ted Bundy saying, 'But there are all these other serial killers. Why me?' "
As proof he isn't for sale, Knowles points to negative reviews he's given of films by New Line, Miramax, Fox and Sony. "Take a look at his re-review of 'Godzilla' and you'll see how much he's in my pocket," Devlin says. "I don't think Harry's in the pockets of producers or directors any more than anyone else is." Yet Knowles' review in the week before the "Godzilla" release praised it highly. Twenty-four hours later, he revised his opinion. His coverage of Devlin's latest release, "Patriot," was extremely positive, as it generally is for the films made by others who have done favors for him, such as Rodriguez, Bay and Howard.
But even Knowles' bitterest enemies won't go so far as to say he deliberately trades favors for good coverage. Rather, they think Hollywood has co-opted him by appealing to his ego. "I mean, realistically, when Hollywood 'does' you, it's very seductive," says a studio executive who knows Knowles. "I've been to Austin. Harry lives in a run-down house. How could he not be seduced by all of that Hollywood glamour?"
Michael Sragow, who's worked as a film critic for Rolling Stone, the New Yorker and the online magazine Salon, says Knowles is experiencing a familiar Hollywood syndrome. "There are certain things that happen to you when you're in your early years as a reviewer. I remember an interview I was doing with a major filmmaker. In the middle, he breaks off and says, 'Well, this is really great. You're not really an interviewer, you're really a filmmaker who hasn't made his film yet.' Then a couple of weeks later you see that pop up in someone's transcript from some other interview. You have to wonder if Harry Knowles has not been through this or if he chooses not to realize what's happening."
Lately another question has arisen. Who's seducing whom here? Knowles claims he has more than 500,000 hits a day on his Web site-- creating the impression that he has more readers than Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter combined. But even if Ain't It Cool News is getting that many hits, the numbers are deceptive. The same people may be logging on two or three times a day and visiting 20 or 30 pages on the site--all of which could be counted as individual hits. Polls taken by Media Metrix and ACNielsen eRatings, which gather objective data on Web sites, indicate that Knowles' audience appears to number 135,000 to 200,000 individuals a month, or about 5,000 readers a day.
Why, then, does the film industry treat Knowles as if he wields great power? One director, who asked for anonymity, believes it's because most of the Hollywood elite still fear the Internet. Another reason may be that Knowles is malleable. Filmmakers have learned that they can get better coverage if they wine and dine Knowles and that they can manipulate his Web site in other ways. "I personally know studios that are constantly sending false screening reports, and they get posted," says a studio executive. "They do it on other sites, too, but Harry's a prime target. You do it where you think you can get the biggest hit."
For Gaydos, the integrity of Knowles' Web site isn't as troubling as his reputation as a serious critic, a view enhanced by his TV appearances with Ebert and by the Sunday Times of London, which labeled him "the most powerful independent voice in movie criticism since Pauline Kael."
"The worst thing about Harry Knowles is that he's perfectly reflective of the taste of predominantly young America in terms of movies," says Gaydos. "He loves the garbage movies, the big stupid movies and the little stupid movies. It's so middlebrow, just like the E! Online Web site or Entertainment Weekly or Mr. Showbiz; they just reflect the taste of the public, which frightens the hell out of me."
IT'S 11 A.M. AND KNOWLES IS standing in a great black-curtained hallway of the Paris Las Vegas hotel. Stretching to his right and to his left along the 100-yard stretch of blue-and-gold carpeting are most of the members of the international press who've come to cover ShoWest. In 20 minutes, Sony Pictures will begin walking the stars of its upcoming productions down this corridor so the correspondents can take pictures and hurl questions at them.
Organizers have given Knowles a choice position in the throng. A producer approaches Knowles and introduces him to the director of "Final Fantasy," the first full-length photo-realistic computer animated movie. The director is a handsome and reserved Asian man wearing a blue blazer and a black shirt. They chat for a few minutes, then shake hands. "I just wanted the two of you to meet," the producer explains.
Next comes an attractive, dark-haired young woman who introduces herself as Devlin's assistant. Dean's in the green room, she explains, and he wants to know if Knowles would like some one-on-one time with him later. Maybe, Knowles replies.
A commotion erupts at the far end of the hall. Cameras fly into hands, switches flip and attachments click into place like the sound of cocking firearms. Then, a tremendous explosion of stroboscopic light. At the center of the lightning storm stands actress Sandra Bullock; a blond publicist gently guides her down the line. A few steps. Pause. "Look here, Sandra!" A dozen flashes, a few more steps and a pause again. "Sandra, over here!"
Bullock is followed by Kim Basinger. Volley after volley of flashes. "Here, Kim, look over here, please!"
Knowles has seen enough. He leaves without speaking to Devlin. "I couldn't find him," Devlin says later. "He's such a big shot now, our roles have reversed."