Harry Knowles

GQ, Sept 2003

The Trouble With Harry: Internet movie critic Harry Knowles is more powerful than Hollywood could possibly have imagined. But is film’s man of the people now part of the studio system?

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Photographs by Chris Floyd

Things first started to look up for Harry Knowles – the most celebrated online movie geek in all of movie geekdom – when a dolly carrying 1200 lbs of movie collectibles crippled him in a car park. He was in his mid-twenties at the time, helping his father work the collectors’ shows in his hometown of Austin, Texas, when he ventured into the lot, tripped over a hose, fell straight into the dolly’s path and lost the use of his legs. It was while Harry was confined to his sick bed, with only a computer and his beloved movies for comfort, that he hatched the idea for “Aint-it-cool-news.com”, named after John Travolta’s sneering rejoinder in “Broken Arrow”. And now AICN is now one of the most popular and notorious movie websites on the web.

The dolly story is pivotal to what Harry now calls “the legend of Harry Knowles” – that is, the personal odyssey of a fat movie geek to a fat movie geek icon come website impresario come author and fledgling television celebrity. For Harry is no ordinary nerd entrepreneur. He commands an international army of spies, some at the highest levels of Hollywood, who secretly slip him the inside skinny on what really goes down in movieland, the stuff the studios don’t want you to hear. Nothing smutty, mind, no sex or drugs – it’s not that kind of site. But the secret deals and hush-hush screenings, the clandestine meetings and imminent sackings, these are all the stuff of AICN scoops, the kind of splashes that Hollywood Reporter would kill to print.

Serve the scoops with a generous salad of idiosyncratic reviews, many of them rattled off by Harry himself, and you have a site that pulls half a million page-views on a slow day, and has placed its leader, once just a corpulent cripple, firmly but discreetly on the Hollywood map. Though his name sounds plucked from the Ealing Studios – ‘Arry Knowles? He’s the best safecracker in the business! – Harry now hob nobs with Oscar-winners, he has co-authored a book about his rise and rise, and most recently he has secured a spot on SKY Movie Channel’s review show. In other words, Harry Jay Knowles has arrived. And he did it all by staying in this pokey little shack in Austin where he’s sitting now, wheezing gently and tucking into a burger.

“Please excuse me, but I’ve been doing interviews all day,” he says, in the thin piping voice of the truly obese. “I’m starving.”

Now I’m not saying Harry Knowles is fat but when he goes to the zoo, the elephants throw him peanuts. No, seriously, he puts his belt on with a boomerang and if he contracted a flesh-eating virus, he’d still live a long and fruitful life. At the time of writing he’s 320 lbs, but you should have seen the “before” pictures – pre-dolly, after his alcoholic mother died in a fire, Harry had to fight to keep her ranch out of federal grasp, and “I was so depressed. I went up to 540 lbs.” (That’s the current Knowles and Tyson rolled into one). And though he’s back on his feet now –the dolly accident was 8 years ago – only the other week he toppled down two flights of stairs and re-buggered his back. Which would explain why he does interviews from home: the poor man can barely walk. He looks like a ginger Jabba the Hut hobbling painfully around on crutches, catching a breather every few yards. It takes Harry a count of three and a fit of shuddering red-faced exertion just to stand up.

The other reason for “doing press” at home is to scare the bejesus out of journalists. Knowles inhabits the kind of creepy, sweltering lair where you would expect to run into Buffalo Bill of Silence of Lambs. It’s not so much the skeleton hanging from the tree, or the goat’s skull on the steps, nor even the graveyard complete with ghoulish statues and mossy tilted headstones – that’s just Halloween décor left lying around from last year’s party. It’s the depth of Harry’s obsession that is most unsettling. I was expecting to meet a standard-issue nerd, bloated with film facts, whose commitment to keeping action figures in their boxes was rivalled only by his disdain for personal grooming. (And many a hack before me has made mention of Harry’s pong, unfairly I would say). Instead, I find a 30+ friend of Stallone, Tarantino and Peter Jackson who still lives with his memorabilia-collecting dad in a dishevelled bungalow on the outskirts of Austin. Between them they have so crammed the place with collectibles – comics, posters and action figures and such – that there is scarcely room to move, particularly for Harry. So the younger Knowles set up a smaller satellite cabin in the back yard, which he has similarly stuffed with ebay fodder. And this is how they live – two generations of far-gone film fan each separately beset by the arcana of their obsession, with only a graveyard and the sound of night-time crickets between them.

“The first scoop that really hit was Batman and Robin in 1996,” Harry reminisces. “I ran some reviews of a test screening where a member of the audience stood up at the end and yelled ‘Death To Schumacher’ [meaning Joel, the producer], and People magazine ran a story about the leak. Warner Bros said ‘he shouldn’t be allowed to print stuff like that, someone should stop him’ and the Sony guy said ‘it’s scary, it’s like revenge of the audience’ or something. I mean, I couldn’t have asked for better quotes. They empowered me.”

Until then, AICN had been just another movie site, all be it more outspoken and slavishly tended than most – during his cripplehood, while Harry was submitting showbiz stories to the Drudge Report, he spotted an opportunity for a website that was not only informative and current, but unashamedly opinionated. “I was basically doing comingattractions.com but with a cult of personality behind it. I like commentators. I still feel network news misses the likes of Walter Cronkite.” In those early days, there were no spies, it was all Harry. But fellow geeks on the fringes of the industry – from video store clerks and boom operators right up to major directors – took a shine to this enthusiastic Austinite, and soon enough the illicit news began to trickle in. The spies would submit reviews of test screenings, on-set reports and draft scripts and whatever news and reviews came Harry’s way he would post up on his site. It was subversive stuff and the word spread fast. In those heady early days his LA sources were sticking up AICN posters in cinema bathrooms and surreptitiously handing out AICN cards at screenings, while Harry himself sat in his Austin cabin, thrilled that a movement was growing around him.

“Back then, the big story everyone was waiting on was the kid in the back bedroom of his father’s house that changes the world,” says Harry. “That was the dream of the Internet. So when the ‘Death To Schumacher’ story broke, here’s me, some crippled kid, and Warner Brothers and Sony are afraid of me? Perfect. I’ve taken journalism classes. I know what stories create endearment. People were calling me from foreign countries in the middle of the night asking for a comment and I took every call because I realised, this is where you make it, this is where the legend is born.”

By 1998, the legend had swelled to its peak and Harry’s enthusiasm for his site was reaching a messianic pitch – to his mind, he was David to the studios’ Goliath, the wheelchair bound fan who gave voice to the unheard, who championed the worthy and slammed the overhyped, cocking a snook at the studios as he went. Whether he was leaking exclusives about the casting of Ewan McGregor in Attack of the Clones, or derailing huge corporate publicity strategies by posting reviews way ahead of time, Harry, the People’s Geek, spoke only out of his “unrepentant love” for moving pictures. The New York Times called him “Hollywood’s worst nightmare.”

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That, however, was then. Now, Harry may be Hollywood’s secret weapon, or at least that’s what his detractors say. The geek world is merciless with its tall poppies and when the Harry backlash gathered steam, around the year 2000, it had all the ferocity of a baying mob. Not every online movie geek was delighted to see Harry hit it big. Many resented their new name-dropping poster child for using his exposure to uplift only himself and not the whole tribe – one rival site owner described Harry as “a bully in the playground. It was a matter of time before someone punched him on the nose.” A punch on the nose, however, would have been a kinder blow compared to the online assault he has sustained for the last three years. Filmthreat.com carries the most comprehensive Knowles drubbing, though Hollywoodbitchslap.com is the most vitriolic. And the shit-flinging continues to this day. Nasty personal stuff, too, about how Harry’s gay, a virgin and a fat “Orange Blob” who smells. There are even gangs of geeks who offer awards to whomever can pass Knowles a dodgy “scoop” and make his site the laughing stock. “These monkeys, they think that when they talk amongst themselves, somebody else isn’t watching,” says Knowles. “I know where these punks hang out. I know what they’re up to.”

To Harry’s credit, however, he has never stooped to name-calling himself. He even allows the abuse to continue on AICN message boards. “The last time stuff like that hurt was in 3rd grade. But I learned from Cyrano de Bergerac that as long as I am cleverer than you in attacking myself, I’m OK. Being called gay doesn’t matter. I’ve been dating this girl since before the site started. The only thing that rings true is that I’m fat. I know I’m obesely, grotesquely fat. But I’m happy with who I am.”

There are graver slurs, however, than his weight or sexuality which cast a shadow over Knowles’ reputation – his integrity has been repeatedly challenged, which is a serious matter for any critic, particularly the renegade voice of fandom. For all those who admire Harry for getting away with all these expenses-paid trips to movie premieres and film sets, there are others with websites of their own, who accuse him of accepting studio bribes and selling out his readers. Harry takes a deep breath. He’s heard this all before.

“Look, the most expensive jolly I ever took was when John McTiernan [director of Diehard, The Thomas Crown Affair, Rollerball] flew me, my father and a friend of mine to New York in his private jet. He got us three suites at the Four Seasons hotel for four days. And my girlfriend was in town, so obviously I had sex like a crazy monkey the whole time. On the last night I saw Rollerball and bombed the living fuck out of it. Now John McTiernan won’t talk to me.”

Leaving aside the monkey sex – Harry’s a little too quick to affirm his heterosexual libido, he even drags the subject into his movie reviews– this is an age-old question of journalistic ethics: Can an entertainment journalist accept gifts and hospitality without compromising his integrity? Well, SKY has stumped up for my Austin jaunt and you could hardly call this a puff piece, so yes, of course – the answer comes down to the credibility of the title and the writer’s own moral compass. For Harry, however, these are one and the same quantity. And his defence is suitably sweeping.

“Now this might sound hokey, but I’m an Eagle Scout, fifth generation,” he says. “So I was raised morally straight.” By way of proof, he rattles off his tenets – loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous etc. – and he’s right, it sounds hokey as hell. But this is Texas and the Eagle Scout schtick tucks neatly into his existing legend. When he was squashed by the dolly for example, Harry recalls refusing to sue the City of Austin for millions, even though he was crippled, broke and had no medical insurance. His reason?  “Because they would have shut down the Coliseum which is the only place that movie collectors can afford to trade. I would have put a whole tribe of people in trouble. I can’t do that. It’s not right.”

He did, however, rave on his site about a script he received without mentioning that it was written by a longtime contributor to AICN, one Drew McWeeny. But that’s by the by. “Come on, you’re talking about my ethics, but at least I didn’t call the election wrong on election night, I didn’t cook up the Jessica Lynch story…” He has a point. It’s unfair to hold Harry to the standards of the Wall Street Journal. After all, he is less a journalist and critic than a self-promoting fan on the make, which is a large part of his appeal. He bills himself as the antidote to the passionless critics in the newspapers, the “must-see!!” ad-blurb of movie posters and the infantile “thumbs-up!” of Ebert and Roeper – Harry Knowles as the saviour of film criticism, no less – but his own rambling “gonzo” style is a bleak alternative, almost comical in its goofiness. He rambles and gushes and often descends into teenage fan worship of the most embarrassing kind – “Johnny Depp is literally performing on another cosmic level of existence,” he writes in his review of Pirates of the Caribbean. And he is quite happy to spew forth superlatives for conventional blockbusters, all be it in sloppy copy, littered with spelling mistakes and tedious personal asides, such as how he cried during this scene and groped his girlfriend during another (again the sex – doth he protest?)

In true fan style, Knowles loves his new prominence in the industry – though the studios refused to comment on him, aside from a few off-the-record references to a “love-hate relationship”, Harry undoubtedly has a measure of influence in the biz. But more importantly, he now gets to hang out with his heroes, names he can’t help but drop along the way. “That was Roger Avery, he just called to shoot the shit,” or “that ‘Kill Bill’ script was given to me by Quentin, I was the fifth person to read it” or “Stallone invited me to spend 10 days on the set of Driven. He saw me chatting with Robert Rodriguez who I’ve known for like 7 years, all kinds of off-the-record stuff and he’s like wow, you know…”  Other names he happens to mention include Robert Rodriguez, Cameron Crowe, Paul Thomas Anderson and Peter Jackson. “I’m the guy they can talk to about any genre, period, movie you can think of.”

Indeed, the “legend of Harry Knowles” has come a long way since his symbolic squashing by that dolly, but it is far from over. Business is booming for Harry – when the dot com bubble burst, bandwidth just became cheaper and AICN started to cash in properly for the first time, so now Harry has 6 employees, all in Austin and doing very nicely thank you. And though Harry does this for love not money – “I don’t need the money,” he says, “I’m independently wealthy.” (Turns out the geek did inherit his mother’s ranch after all) – his business brain is already considering the scope of the AIC franchise because “there’s nothing in the title that says movies!” He’s building a gaming site ready to launch in 2004. And beyond that, there’s always politics. “I’ve got readers throughout the Pentagon, the White House hits our site quite a bit. I get 2000 hits a month from inside Langley, that’s the CIA…”

He rocks back in his chair musing on the future of the legend.

“I fully accept that when I’m gone, and some guy writes a big dissertation on what Harry Knowles was, he might decide I was an egocentric megalomaniac. But I also know that history changes. So I tend to think that 1000 years from now, maybe even 200 years from now, no one will know my name. Maybe.”