The Fan—Harry Knowles
From his Austin home he spills the studios’ secrets, virtually.
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ON A SUNNY, BREEZY DAY IN MARCH, I threw a party for my old friend Jonathan Demme, the Academy award—winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, who was in Austin for the South by Southwest Film Festival. As he made the rounds, meeting some of the luminaries of the Texas film community, he encountered a three-hundred-pound movie buff whose smiling face was framed in red: long, bright red hair and a wispy but full red beard. “I know you,” Demme said as he was introduced to Harry Knowles. “Everyone in Hollywood is afraid of you.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone’s being afraid of Harry, who has been a fixture in the Austin film and comic book scenes for most of his 26 years. If there’s a free movie preview or a hot premiere in town, he’s the first one in line. He lives for the culture of movies and loves to talk about them. Polite and well-mannered, he’s opinionated in the enthusiastic way of a collector. And, indeed, like his father, Jay Knowles, who made his living running a comic book store and a memorabilia business (and still mans a booth every month at Austin’s Citywide Garage Sale), Harry is something of a collector: He traffics in movie trivia, movie reviews, and inside information about the inner workings of the movie business, not just in Texas, but around the world: who’s shooting what and when, who’s casting whom, and the like. Harry writes what he thinks and knows and puts it all up on his Web site, Ain’t It Cool News (aint-it-cool-news.com), which he created in 1996. At first, his only readers were other film fans, but word quickly spread, and now the site gets some 300,000 visitors a day, including many studio executives who want to see what’s been leaked about their various projects and what everyone else is doing. That’s the source of Harry’s influence—and of the fear he inspires. When he types, people listen. Quentin Tarantino calls him the Wolf Blitzer of the Internet, but Harry is not so sure. “I think of myself as the Harry Knowles of the Internet,” he says.
The centerpiece of Ain’t It Cool News is Harry’s film criticism, which includes a detailed description of the movie as well as what he did before and after he saw it, from a visit to a toy store to what he ate for lunch and dinner. He also publishes missives from his network of spies. Typically fans of special effects and science fiction, they pass along what they’ve heard, and Harry presents it in their own words, though he gives them nicknames like Moriarty and Robogeek to protect their identities. Some spies give Harry gossipy tips; others give him actual scripts, production stills, and even props; still others report from the test screenings of unfinished films that studios quietly put on to help them predict audience reactions.
Then there are the scoops—the things no one but Harry has. For instance, he published the earliest photos of the monsters from Starship Troopers. He broke the news about who would be cast in the Star Wars prequels. He was the first to report the passionate audience responses to an early cut of Titanic, which his spies saw in a secret Minneapolis test screening; the rave reviews he ran helped turned around the word of mouth about that once-troubled production. After Harry chastised a studio executive for firing writers from a project, they were rehired. After he chided a major producer for abandoning a remake of Lord of the Rings, the production resumed. Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs recently called Harry to see if it was true that he had a script for the Toy Story sequel; he did. Somewhere in his house, Harry also has one of the two rumored extant scripts for the new Stanley Kubrick thriller, Eyes Wide Shut. The secretive Kubrick reportedly never even let his stars, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, see a complete script, but Harry managed to get his hands on one. Not that he’s read it; ever the fan, he had his father hide it so that the finished movie would be fresh.
For his efforts, Harry has been rewarded in several ways. Advertising on the site, including a banner from Variety magazine, should soon begin paying him “five figures a month.” He has assumed the coveted role of blurber: Days after Harry mentioned to me that he got a call from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct), full-page ads for Eszterhas’ new movie, An Alan Smithee Film, began carrying a quote from Ain’t It Cool News. (Tarantino, too, has talked about using a blurb from the site.) He has also gotten the odd on-screen job offer. “Joel Schumacher wants me in an S&M scene in his new movie,” Harry says (this despite his trashing of Schumacher’s Batman and Robin). And, of course, he has gotten publicity—an amazing amount even by show-biz standards, especially when you consider that he has no publicist. To date, Harry has been written up in Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, the New York Times Magazine, Parade, US, and Entertainment Weekly, which named him to its 1997 list of the one hundred most powerful people in Hollywood. During this year’s SXSW, camera crews from NBC News and Inside Edition followed him around for a day and a half.
Despite the press, Harry is the same large red fireball I remember bouncing around comic book conventions run by his parents in the late seventies—the kid who would stop and look at your comics and say, “I have that, but in better condition.” (He did.) In 1983, when his parents divorced, he moved with his mother to the town of Seymour, which he describes, as only he would, as “forty miles south of The Last Picture Show.” In the spring of 1989 he moved back to Austin to go to college and live with his father. In 1993 his mother died in a fire, and he used a small inheritance to buy a computer. Three years later he was run over by a cart filled with one thousand pounds of film stock and was housebound for six months. During that time, he started Ain’t It Cool News, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today if you visit Harry in the memorabilia-crammed bedroom of the North Austin house he shares with his father and sister, you’ll still find him lying down, talking on the phone, and typing away all at once. He types late into the evening, falling asleep at his keyboard, and when he wakes up, he starts typing again. “What I do is so much based on being me, on being an individual and a filmgoer,” he says. “I’m just Harry, and that’s cool. I just love watching good movies.”