The Madness of King Geek
Harry Jay Knowles' Cool Movie News
Two quick questions: How do you explain someone like Harry Jay Knowles, and the corollary, should you even try? You might as well try to explain the allure of the Martian canals, or the wind, or George Lucas' Star Wars release schedule. (Actually, Lucas' schedule is pretty easy to figure out, but you get the idea.)
At 25 years old (he was born the very day that Tor Johnson died... make of
that what you will), Austinite Harry Knowles has taken his passion for film and
film-related information to the next most obvious level: He's created a website
(http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com) to distribute news and rumors of upcoming projects that he's interested in, everything from Spielberg's The Lost World: Jurassic Park to Tarantino's upcoming blaxploitation homage, Jackie Brown. Using a network of approximately 700 "spies" culled from the crews of those same movies and from the public at large, Knowles is well on his way to becoming a celebrated pop culture figure.
As it stands, his site averages over 7,000 hits per day, and has been profiled in a recent edition of Entertainment Weekly, as well as a number of lesser periodicals and newspapers (on the day I visited his home, both New York magazine and People called to chat). Industry insiders read the site religiously -- everyone from studio big shots (Lucas himself has made his presence known) to lowly script readers who graciously send Knowles copies of upcoming projects (to the tune of seven to ten scripts per week). That means Knowles frequently knows what's going on in Hollywood months, sometimes even years, before the rest of us. And then he shares his information with the world at large. That's cool.
In person, Knowles, who likes to describe himself as "King Geek," comes off as something like a cross between Chewbacca (big, hairy) and all the rabid film and fandom geeks you ever met at all the sci-fi conventions you ever went to. But in a good way. His enthusiasm for what he does and what he wants to do is wildly infectious. Talking to him is akin to talking to 10 different versions of Quentin Tarantino simultaneously, while 10 different film scores play in the background and 10 different films unspool around you. The experience can be a bit overwhelming, and sometimes you find yourself wondering what he's talking about, but he just keeps on talking and, eventually, you figure it out, amidst all the "you know?"s, "cool!"s and "fantastic!"s.
According to Knowles, his burgeoning fame is hardly a chance occurrence, coming as he does from a family tradition steeped in fantasy films, posters, Mad magazine, and other fringe ephemera.
"My parents started up a collectibles business when I was a negative three [years old], and so I was very much spawned into this realm. They would be doing a convention show, selling posters and whatnot, and I would be being baby-sat by the film room, which was usually [operational] 24 hours for two or three nights in a row. I'd wander out when I was hungry, then go right back in and watch more movies. As I grew up, my babysitter was 16mm films, as opposed to videos like they do now."
Most children of the Seventies have memories of being placed in front of the television for hours on end, but Harry's father, Jay Knowles, estimates that by the time his son was seven, Harry had already been to over 50 film festivals, soaking in the nitrate pond that was his most formative influence.
"As a kid," says the younger Knowles, "we had the entire upstairs of our house devoted to films. We had a big old screen that would drop down from the ceiling, a 16mm projector, and all that sort of stuff. My father had the one big comic shop and movie poster shop in town at that point, the N.E. Mercantile Company. They closed it up in '76 or '77, so it's long gone, but I remember having 30,000 copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine crammed in my room when I was a kid. That was because San Antonio had banned the Famous Monsters some years before, I guess because of that whole EC comics scare. None of the new distributors would carry them. So my parents went down there and picked up a whole load of numbers 26-58 or so, plus the beginning of Monster Scene, the first 10 issues of that, literally the whole run. It was very cool."
Most kids can only dream of situations like that -- I know I did -- but the Knowles household was the real deal, and still is.
"My parents read this psychological child-rearing book about how the more images you put up in a kid's room, the more imaginative they'll be. So, I ended up having literally no white space anywhere in my room. My furniture was covered with Marvel superheroes stickers, you know? `Peter Parker picked a peck of pickled peppers.' Luke Cage -- `I'm gonna get you mutha!' It was just fantastic and as a result, my brain sort of went into overload. I was a complete media kid. It was great."
Although the Knowles' current house is not the one Harry grew up in, his present home -- which he shares with his father -- remains, for want of a better phrase, "Geek Headquarters."
The house is unassuming on the outside, although once visitors pass through the front door, they are pleasantly assaulted by stack, mounds, and piles of films, videos ("we've got about 2,500"), posters, magazines, books, and collectibles. A quick look around reveals signed 8x10s from Marilyn Monroe, Ray Harryhausen, original Superman Kirk Alyn, Cornel Woolrich, Britt Ekland, Ray Milland, and others. Unread scripts are haphazardly piled on end tables, while a smallish Christmas tree festooned with eyeball-like objects monitors the kitchen. On one wall, an original King Kong poster glares down ($60,000, if you're interested), while shelves of 16mm films (2001: A Space Odyssey, Disney's Song of the South, and an unedited German print of King Kong) and videos battle for the remaining space. You cannot see the walls, except in the corners.
Knowles' tiny bedroom, the nerve center for his website, is equally gloriously cluttered. A still-in-the-box Vincent Price Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture Kit sits in the background, while framed Star Wars autographed cast photos battle for wall space with Madonna and other, lesser luminaries. It's here that Knowles works on the ongoing project that is aint-it-cool-news.com, which, oddly enough, began with Knowles' near-demise at the hands of his own collectibles.
"About a year and a half ago, I was setting up at the City Wide Garage Sale and as I was coming down one of the slanted walkways at the Coliseum, I tripped over a hose with about 1,200 pounds worth of stock behind me on a dolly, which then rolled over me. Everything below my neck went dead for a little while and I was pretty badly injured. I ended up being stuck in my house in rehab, just trying to get better, for quite awhile. So, to escape the boredom, I began diving into the Internet, you know?
"Now, at the same time that I was laid up, I received some of the first shots that anyone had seen of Star Wars: Special Edition, which I then posted to the Internet news groups. Well, everyone got angry and told me that you can't post pictures to a news group, you had to have a Web page. I didn't know how to do a Web page, I was imagining some great gobbledygook of code or something.
"So anyway, I went out and bought some of those huge, four-inch-thick How to Design a Website books. All I really wanted was the Star Wars info up and online, really. The initial thing was just to put up some news, some pictures, and not much beyond that. And then it grew.
"Because I didn't want to tell everyone that I was digging up all this info by myself -- I wanted to make it seem like there were people out there that were providing me with all of it, I began creating these fake spy IDs, and then next thing I know, I actually have real spies -- real people -- sending me stuff. All it took was telling people that there was a real World Wide Geek Network, and, lo and behold...."
For newcomers, the website is addictive. For film fans, it's positively heroin. Updated on a daily basis, the site usually consists of several paragraph-sized chunks of condensed information about what's going on in the secretive world of film. A new day brings new info on the casting of Liam Neeson or Ewan MacGregor in one of George Lucas' Star Wars prequels (a favorite topic), as well as notes and rumors about Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys, James Cameron's waylaid Titanic, and, of course, Godzilla.
"It's insane," says a grinning Knowles. "I now have about 700 spies who report on a regular basis, and the cool thing about all this is that every time I get a source, it provokes another person to add to the original info. All of a sudden, I'm a news syndicate, right?
"A lot of people wonder how this all took off, and I think the reason has a lot to do with the fact that the fan community never had a central voice, right? The Star Trek fans would never speak to the Star Wars fans, the Gothic fans would never want to talk to anyone else about their stuff, and so on. What I did was put all the news on one page, and then as soon as that news is outdated, I replace it with a new page. That way it forces people to read about these other projects. I mean, in a million years, would you ever click on something that said Bad Trout [an upcoming Robert Zemeckis project featuring talking trout]? No way. But now people do."
While the notion of getting "spies" to do the work of scaring up new information was not part of Knowles' original plan, once the networking began, there was no stopping it. This snowball effect has ended up jamming Knowles' e-mail box with up to 700 messages a day, some bearing important news, and some just looking for free copies of the Men in Black script. As far as who all these people are, Knowles says he frequently doesn't know.
"Oh yeah, I don't know who most of my spies are. I mean, just think of the way the Internet is: You can send something anonymously to pretty much anyone. They might be able to find what server it originated from, but they can't tell who you really are. As a result, that gives a lot of strong anonymity to spies. You really can't figure out who these people are, and a lot of these folks are just plain old common movie fans who really aren't placing their identities in jeopardy in the first place.
"Now, I do have people -- on the set of Godzilla, for example -- who are actually involved in the production, but either way, it's nearly impossible for the studio to figure out where it's coming from. A lot of times, I don't even know who these people really are."
Considering that much of the information filtering into aint-it-cool-news.com is allegedly "for studio eyes only" and that much of it could be construed as having been stolen, do studios ever threaten legal action against the site?
"As far as reactions from the studios, the only time I ever had anyone say, `Take it down' was when I received a note from Sony's lawyers asking me to remove some images from Starship Troopers.
"I'd had 'em up for three months already. Untold thousands saw them, right? Finally I get a cease-and-desist order, and within five minutes I put up a link to the lawyers' e-mail address, Sony's e-mail address, and a passionate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style letter to the lawyer and to Sony, so that the fans could see what was going on. I also forwarded a copy of the letter to Matt Drudge [of the equally renegade online news service The Drudge Report] who in turn forwarded it to the people at Wired magazine, who then called me up and did an interview about the whole thing. Cool, huh?"
Due to the high profile accorded Knowles' website by a recent (and upcoming) rash of national news stories, every passing hour brings new arrivals to his Geek Headquarters, and Web surfers can never really anticipate what it is they're going to find there. Sometimes they don't even know what it is once they've found it. A case in point is the now-infamous April Fool's Day page, which Knowles used to good effect, turning out some subtle tomfoolery that somehow managed to go clear over the heads of much of his target audience, including some studio brass.
"I had a Robert Rodriguez-directed El Santo vs. the Aztec Mummy gag in my head for months, you know, just boiling with it and so I thought it would be fantastic to throw that out on people. Joking aside, I would love to see Robert Rodriguez direct an El Santo movie. He could do it for under $2 million and put B-effects in it, and it would be great. So anyway, I held it until April Fool's. At about the same time, a friend of mine in South Austin said, "Wouldn't it be cool if Kurt Russell was cast as Boba Fett?" As it turned out, I only had about half a page of my normal information at that point, so I came up with the Tim Burton/Simpsons gag, and the George Romero/Jim Carrey Night of the Living Dead IV bit. That was sort of the `Ha, ha, April Fool's!' tag to the page."
The idea of Tim Burton directing a live-action Simpsons film was so on-target -- as was the Romero/Carrey Living Dead project -- that Knowles' e-mail was deluged with requests for more info. The next day saw a lot of red faces, but the dye had been cast: aint-it-cool-news.com was such a powerful source of information, that no matter what Knowles printed, people reacted. (The April Fool's page is still up, and well worth checking out.)
Alongside all the free press he's been receiving, Knowles has recently signed on with the magazine Sci-Fi Universe to provide a monthly column on "All Things Harry." Much to Knowles' delight, the mag is published under the auspices of porn-magnate Larry Flynt's LFP publications, and as such, Knowles' first paycheck bears the Flynt signature. A collector to the end, he's thinking of printing up T-shirts with the check emblazoned on the front. This, too, is cool.
"The thing that I think's so remarkable about my page is that it's so damn amateurish. Typos everywhere," he jokes.
"Really, the thing about it is, a lot of movie reporters and film people are so inside the industry that they become jaded, and they no longer find the movies themselves interesting, they find the people who are starring in them and the scandals behind them interesting instead. Let's face it, George Clooney is not that interesting. He sounds like a great guy to go hang out with at a bar, but damn it, I just don't care who he's in bed with. It just doesn't matter, right? And so, I like to concentrate on the movies, because ultimately, that's what I'm going to go see."
The next few months will see even more attention and World Wide Web hits focused on Knowles' site. With articles on him appearing with the frequency of bad lines in an Ed Wood film, it'll soon be time for aint-it-cool-news.com to find a larger server, and perhaps, Knowles himself to find a larger house. Like maybe a museum.
As for the future of King Geek, he makes no secret of the fact that he wants to work on film projects of his own. This summer, he plans to shoot a video feature with the help of some friends, and if that goes well, bigger things are on the horizon. After all, he already has half of Hollywood clicking on his very personable Web page every single day.
"I think a lot of people who read the site don't understand that I'm a complete cinephile. I don't have a favorite film, a favorite genre, I do have a Top 100, but I just don't see how you can rank a film like, say, Freaks alongside The Silence of the Lambs or Chariots of Fire. I mean, you just can't compare them that way. And then you bring in Busby Berkeley musicals, and where do you put those? I love all of 'em. I guess that's why I'm doing this."
So very cool.