AUSTIN, Texas — Harry Knowles' desk is a wobbly TV tray crammed with scripts, magazines and a malfunctioning computer keyboard. Three twin mattresses stacked one atop the other serves as his oversized chair. Every square inch of wall, ceiling and floor space of the cramped room is plastered with movie posters, monster masks, autographed pictures, comic books and, for good measure, Christmas ornaments.
It is in this stuffy bedroom, in his father's small house, that the 25-year-old college dropout--bored and laid up with a bad back--has created a World Wide Web site (http://www.aint-it-cool-news.com) that dishes up gossip about Hollywood productions well in advance of their release. Reviews of test screenings. Casting decisions. Set construction details. If it comes from what he deems a credible source, it gets on the Internet. And it has some Hollywood executives in a tizzy.
As his reputation has grown, so has his roster of "spies" across the country who e-mail information that has repeatedly frustrated the best-laid plans of studio image makers.
"If you're test-marketing a movie, people will tell their friends about it," Knowles says. "All I've done is bring everyone together. The Internet has given the audience a voice, and I've just tapped into that."
What most concerns many in Hollywood about Knowles and other like-minded movie junkies who use the Internet like a giant telephone party line is the destructive power of bad word of mouth--particularly when the filmmakers may not have yet finished their work. When "Alien Resurrection" was tested last week in Camarillo, dozens of those who attended e-mailed Knowles with their reviews within hours of the final scene. By the next morning, their comments--mostly positive--were on his site.
"It's really not fair to judge a work of art in progress, and I'm speaking from the standpoint of 'Alien' having a great response," Jeffrey Godsick, senior vice president of publicity and promotions at 20th Century Fox, said Monday. "It's a bit irresponsible in that these are truly unfinished pieces of art that are being reviewed out of context."
In Hollywood, gossip takes on the aura of truth, observes Mark Johnson, producer of such films as "Rain Man" and "Donnie Brasco."
"Buzz and spin control are enormously important to movies in the early going," he says. "And we've all had bad test screenings on films that have gone on to great success."
For filmmakers, screenings are a learning process, adds Bob Levin, president of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures. "Judging a film then is like reviewing a play that opens in Boston and suggesting it's the same show that will open on Broadway."
Hearing this, Knowles sinks deeper into the pile of mattresses that is his bed, recliner and work station. "I'm not about trashing movies," he insists, "though bad movies deserve to die. I just want to tell people whether they're wasting their money."
This he does by devoting 14 hours a day to his Web site, working through the night to field calls and read the thousands of e-mails and tips he gets each week. Since he started the site in April 1996, Knowles says, his list of informants has grown to 1,100, with a core group of 150 trusted confidants. Everyone from movie fans to grips to producers to entertainment reporters who can't get their stories into print contact Knowles with tidbits, he says. Their performance is carefully tracked in a thick book of names with two columns: "Came True" and "Didn't Come True."
"People love to talk," Knowles says with an impish grin. "They don't see it as betrayal. They think it's fun. And with the studios creating this 'us-them' mentality, it's easy for someone like me to get information."
Entertainment lawyer David Colden says upset publicists and film executives should look no further than themselves for creating the Knowles situation. In the old days, he notes, the film industry maintained total control over the information it wanted to get out--or suppress. Having created so much interest in the "business of the business" it's now virtually impossible to keep things under wraps.
Not every studio executive expresses concern about Knowles and other Web gossip brokers. "Reviewing unfinished product may be unfair to the filmmakers, but it has little impact from a studio point of view," says Tom Rothman, president of production at 20th Century Fox. "Pre-opening buzz is greatly overblown. Like any sort of new technology, these Internet reviews will explode for about a month and then be forgotten. What matters most is whether people like the film."
Either way, Knowles feels that he's tapping an inner need of movie buffs.
"We fans want to know everything down to whether the sets are made of balsa wood or pine, or if the storyboards are in charcoal or pastels," says Knowles, a sci-fi devotee who owns 2,500 videocassettes. "It's so cool to find out. It's not enough to just say, ' "X-Files" is filming.' People who are passionate about films want so much more. So, here I am."