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COVER STORY

The Trouble With Harry

Internet Geek Harry Knowles Discovered a Brave New Way to Cover Hollywood. Then he Fell Into a Familiar Old Trap.

September 03, 2000|DAVID WEDDLE | David Weddle is the author of " 'If They Move . . . Kill 'Em!' The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah," published by Grove Press. His last piece for the magazine was a profile of screenwriter and director Rick Famuyiwa

It's 9 on a Monday night and thousands of producers, directors, actors, theater owners and reporters are flooding the second-floor lobby of the Orleans hotel in Las Vegas to gnaw vulcanized chicken wings and deep-fried mystery hors d'oeuvres and fill the great red-carpeted hall with a cacophony of affectation. It's the first evening of Hollywood's great hustlefest, ShoWest. Major studios are here to promote their product by throwing lavish parties, screening flashy trailers and trotting out the stars. Conventioneers will tour the vast ballrooms of Bally's hotel, where manufacturers of the latest innovations in projection and sound equipment hawk their wares.

* Change hangs heavy in the air at this 2000 gathering. Foremost are new digital projection systems. Soon filmmakers won't be filmmakers anymore, and theater owners will have to embrace new gimmicks such as high-speed projectors and giant three-story screens. Those who are able to grasp the possibilities quickly will flourish. Those who resist may become anachronisms faster than silent movie stars.

* Should anyone doubt this, they need look no farther than the far end of the hall, where a Falstaffian figure--living proof of the perils and opportunities of fast-changing Hollywood--holds court before a pair of star-struck filmmakers. Even in this pale-green fluorescent light, he casts an enormous shadow: nearly 6 feet tall and more than 300 pounds; a great frizzy mane of tomato-red hair cascading down the back of his pea-green windbreaker; an equally massive briar-patch beard dangling over his untucked blue denim shirt. And on his broad feet, a pair of leopard-skin loafers with Day-Glo green soles.

* He is Harry Knowles, proprietor of Ain't It Cool News, a movie Web site (http://www.aintitcool.com) that has shaken Hollywood's control-freak establishment by publishing industry gossip and unauthorized reviews of test screenings and screenplays for films that haven't been completed. In just four years, Knowles has rocketed into the zeitgeist as the Matt Drudge of online entertainment journalism--with all of the ethical baggage that parallel implies.

Knowles' audience at the moment is Derick and Steven Martini, a pair of handsome 20-something brothers who produced and starred in "Smiling Fish and Goat on Fire," one of five independent films screened in theaters adjacent to the lobby. The Martinis listen with wide-eyed delight as Knowles explains how he came to be the first journalist to visit the set of Ron Howard's new production, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," scheduled for release in November. It started when a couple of Knowles' spies acquired the screenplay and e-mailed reviews to his Web site. Though Knowles had not read the script, some reviews made it sound pretty awful. "They described stuff like a high school that the Grinch goes to and how you see the development of the Grinch," Knowles says in a soft Texas drawl. "It was like: what is this? The Grinch's troubled youth?" The Martini brothers groan. "It sounded like Beverly Hills, 90210, in Who-ville."

Days later, Knowles continues, Ron Howard's assistant telephoned. Howard was very upset. He wanted to fly Knowles to L.A. so he could watch some of the filming and get a better idea of the movie. Knowles accepted. "Then I sat down and I talked with Ron," Knowles explains, pushing his small oval glasses up the bridge of his button nose, long blond-red lashes blinking as he allows the moment to sink in. "He was real concerned about why people hate him so much on the Web site in terms of his direction of the 'Grinch.' It was real easy to tell him, 'Look, you've never done a movie that's vaguely as visual as this film. They don't believe you have the visual panache to pull this thing off.' And I want to tell you, they walked me through all of the sets and showed me all of the makeup and costumes, and they've done an incredible job."

"Really?" Derick asks.

"Oh yeah," Knowles nods, pushing his glasses up again. "I mean, basically, they have brought the Dr. Seussian universe to life."

"Cool," Steven nods.

"So I told Ron, 'Personally, if I were you, I wouldn't hide this stuff. People need to be convinced that you're doing Dr. Seuss justice.' " Howard had been keeping every aspect of the production's elaborate art direction a secret. It was time, Knowles says he counseled Howard, to release a few selective photos, maybe a picture of Jim Carrey in makeup as the Grinch. A few weeks later, a picture of Carrey as the Grinch appeared in Newsweek. Knowles smiles. "So I guess they changed their policy." (When asked later to confirm Knowles' account, Howard refused to comment.)

"Did you . . .?" Derick tentatively ventures. Knowles reads his thoughts. "Yes," he says with the satisfaction of the first 10-year-old on his block to see the latest "Star Wars" movie. "I met the Grinch."

The Martini brothers break into giddy grins. "Awesome!"

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