Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Trouble With Harry

At the peak of his popularity in the mid-2000s, Harry Knowles was making $700,000 a year through his self-proclaimed film nerd sanctuary Ain't it Cool News. No critic from now until the end of time will dream of collecting that sort of cash ever again. This astronomical success is, much more than any virtues of his own, a testament to the inestimable value of being in the right place at the right time. When Knowles founded Ain't it Cool in 1996, there was simply no competition; not even fellow early tech adopter Roger Ebert had the same magnitude of online presence that The King of Filmgeekdom commanded. Studios trembled in his shadow - a Knowles pan spelled certain devastation for a film, and his word is credited with the financial failure of such classics as Batman and Robin and Rollerball.

Here's the rub, though: Harry Knowles is a sexist manchild who, even at the height of his powers, was only able to generate dialogue amongst readers half his age. His "films are awesome!" credo holds its own valuable optimistic appeal, but in Knowles' case the awesomeness of a film is generally correlated to how much the studio heads kiss his ass at the junket before he watches it. Everyone's gotta start somewhere, and I believe that people of dubious principle can mature with time and reflection. But what happens when you don't develop? What happens when those studios you once cowed grow savvy to how easily bought you are, how derelict your journalistic integrity is? What happens if you've been writing the same crass, nonsensical bullshit for the last seventeen years of your life? Feast upon this juicy morsel from his Blade 2 review, all the while remembering that this is how an actual person felt about Blade 2 (NSFW!):

BLADE 2 is the tongue, mouth, fingers and lips of a lover. The Audience is the clit. Watch your audience. This is where Guillermo Del Toro goes down on the audience. It starts with long licks with a nose bump on the joy button slowly. He smiles as he does this… Watching the audience begin to squirm, then he takes the audiences’ clit in his mouth and just licks it like crazy, the audience is ready, on that precipice, then calm. He backs off… long licks again, brings in a finger to massage a bit, licks from the bottom to the top… The audience is cooing… He has them, they want release. He acts like he’s going to give it to you, takes you right to the edge, the audiences’ backs arched, ready to cum….
(If you'd like to further subject yourself to the erotic imaginings of a delusional "big kid at heart," then grab your dick and double click!)

And now, the opening paragraph of his review of The Conjuring, eleven years later:
Paranormal Investigation has been around for a very long time. Ghost stories told that span centuries. As a boy, I was absolutely certain that the house I grew up in was haunted. Things were seen, not only by me, but with witnesses – and even now as a grown up, I can see those events in my life with crystal clarity. Bad things had happened in that house. My mother felt it, Dad thought it was funny. There were also a lot of articles and tv shows talking about paranormal things. The popularity of EXORCIST and AMITYVILLE HORROR – all while Stephen King was publishing THE SHINING, and Kubrick made a film. But through the publicity of things that were being sold to us… there were the stories about Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Vatican backed them.
Eleven years. Come on, dude. Surely you must have been reading the work of your colleagues and had the self-awareness to recognize the disparities. To call him a hack is a waste of breath; of course he has nothing valuable to say, but in some ways the man is savvy, at least enough to garner a readership of prepubescent boys whose advertising revenue he could coast on well into the 21st century.

Things don't work like that on the World Wide Web anymore, though. Media monkeys must now dance in perpetuity, providing a litany of fresh and continual and innovative content, to keep their charges entertained and their clickthroughs flowing. Knowles' one bid at brand expansion was a web show under Chris Hardwick's esteemed Nerdist banner which, given his complete lack of charisma, flopped and was cancelled. The King's stunted growth resulted in dwindling traffic and increasingly negative press and, for whatever reason, he didn't have the money saved to cover whatever massive expenditures he was incurring. There's no way to determine where he squandered all of his ill-gotten lucre, but considering that this is a man who felt it necessary to have 76 people covering an exploding gas station on the set of Lethal Weapon 4, bad business decisions would be my guess. Bad enough, in fact, to land him in trouble with the IRS to the tune of $300,000.

Paisley fedora, rainbow peace sign shirt
What's a hack to do when the Fed's breathing down his neck and everyone on his site hates him? Why, launch a Kickstarter, of course! Unable to take responsibility for his show's cancellation and instead blaming it on Nerdist's "direction shift from show creation to a more viral video focused mindset," Harry Knowles thought it wise to ask his fan-hater commentariat for $100,000 in order to produce a second season. Requesting such a handsome fee from a group of people who frequent your site primarily out of schadenfreude is unwise; doing so under full public knowledge of your financial struggles, without any visible business plan, and lacking any ideas for expansion besides a "live studio audience" is tantamount to larceny. Unsurprisingly, the uproar was devastating, with well over 15000 comments lining Knowles up against the wall. The comments on the actual Kickstarter - and keep in mind that you can only comment if you've donated to the project in question - are a mix of concern trolling, straight-up trolling, and a few cherry-picked bon mots about how exciting this whole enterprise is. Harry typically only responds to the latter.

My hesitations about Kickstarter are only magnified by farragoes like this. The project, perhaps unsurprisingly, reached its funding goal on Thursday, after an inexplicable upswell to the tune of nearly $60,000. Deadline's Jen Yamato wrote that Eli Roth, Rian Johnson, and Guillermo del Toro (yes, even after that Blade 2 review!) all contributed to the Kickstarter in its twilight hours; judging by the staggering average pledge of $179 per backer, it's clear that Knowles called in a bevy of last-minute favors. How is this otherwise failed attempt at crowdsourcing an accurate reflection of what the public actually wants? Why couldn't Knowles get all of his wealthy friends to bankroll the project in the first place? How desperate do you think those phone calls were? Or maybe I just envy those fourteen people who spent $200 to be crew for a day on the show. PEOPLE ACTUALLY SPENT MONEY TO FLY OUT TO AUSTIN AND DO WORK THAT MOST PROFESSIONALS ARE PAID FOR. Knowles' busted-ass rewards are all insulting, but this is a two hundred dollar slap to the face.

To some degree I feel sorry for him. He has clearly led a difficult life, at least in certain regards. But my sympathies only extend so far for someone who has written at length of Hayden Panettiere's "deviantly awesome" regenerating, underaged hymen. Further, all evidence points to Knowles being a self-interested egomaniac, demonstrating little interest in the successes of his peers on the lower rungs of the industry. In fact, in instances such as this interview with the screenwriter of last year's Sinister, himself a longtime Ain't it Cool News contributor, he reveals himself as downright hostile and jealous.


I know that shit is ten minutes long and y'all aren't going to watch it (though you'd be missing out on some truly stunning second-hand embarrassment), so I assembled a soundboard! Appreciate all the while that this is how Harry talks to someone he considers a "friend."

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What I love most about this interview is how C. Robert Cargill remains completely tactful and even charming while being passive-aggressively berated by this awful man. Pay attention, Harry, those are the kinds of skills that help you get jobs! It's almost enough to make me like Sinister.

On the surface, there's not much to distinguish this sad new chapter in Harry Knowles' life from any other show of entertainer entitlement and delusion. Elementally, though, this saga acts as a revealing window to how broken the film and film criticism industries remain today. Innovation and merit are superseded every single time by connection, even if those connections are just donating out of a sense of protracted pity. The truly galling thing is Knowles' employment of Kickstarter for a web series that, by all accounts, will not need $100,000. The clueless people who donated $40,000 to his campaign, somehow unaware of his history of financial mismanagement, were essentially suckered out of their money by a group of wealthy last-minute benefactors stacking the deck. Watch a few seconds of that interview again and tell me what on that set could conceivably demand such a high price. (If you answered "Knowles' massive memorabilia collection," you're sadly correct!) Herein lies the shady side of crowdfunding: it isn't always funded by a crowd, but by a mixed group of impressionable people who don't necessarily represent their constituency and wealthy friends who don't necessarily have actual interest in the project. del Toro donated five thousand dollars to Knowles but I'll be damned if he spends a second of his life watching this dreck. In all likelihood, the second season of Ain't it Cool will accrue about 8,000 hits per video, accompanied by a swarm of thumbs-downs and a comment section vacillating between fat jokes and vicious criticism. He'll just continue to cluelessly anthropomorphize the angry voices of the majority until his second chances run out. Sad? Of course. But you reap what you sow.

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