We Are All Harry Knowles

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Well, by we I mean me and anyone else who has blown entire paychecks on movie lobby cards to add to his collection, or sat through James Bond or Planet of the Apes marathons until our vertebrae began to fuse, or spent an entire gorgeous early spring day inside, in the dark, at the Cinematheque at NYU to watch a day’s worth of reel-to-reel black-and-white prints, or stood on line at the old Carnegie Hall cinema to listen to Howard Kissel opine on Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre after a double feature of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.

Harry Knowles is the man behind Ain’t It Cool News, the behind-the-scenes movie website to which most movie websites owe their existence and/or success. It’s been leaking embargoed Hollywood insider info like the Titanic leaked champagne — and oh, yeah, Harry may bear some responsibility for the success that film enjoyed.

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.

Alas, Harry and his website have seen better times.

While Ain’t It Cool News had been making $700,000 a year in gross advertising revenue at its height in the early- to mid-2000s, that had dipped to the low-six figures by 2012. The business had no cash reserves and no way to pay the bills. Its bank account had been seized.

Plus Harry has had some serious back issues, which have plopped him into a wheelchair at times. I can commiserate there, too, although I’ve managed to avoid a wheelchair.

Well, from all us bleary-eyed movie geeks, here’s hoping that AICN stays online, and that Harry stays ambulatory and with his ear to the ground. Which is a neat trick. But that’s what movie magic is for.

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