For me, your mistakes are what make you endearing in this world. It’s our flaws that give us beauty.
Harry Knowles redefined the audience’s relationship with cinema when he founded the immensely popular Ain’t It Cool News, revolutionizing the film criticism industry and empowering the “fanboy” as a highly impactful force in Hollywood. An iconic figure among film geeks, Knowles’ legion of followers are led by his passion, which is evident in his writing, his search for the latest and greatest news, and through his strong connection with others. Knowles is also the co-founder of the Fantastic Fest, a genre-focused film festival held annually in Austin, Texas.
On Thursday, March 6, 2014, Cinequest honored Knowles with the first ever Media Legacy Award followed by a Knowles-selected screening — the thrilling suspense film Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood (Lord of the Rings) and John Cusack (Being John Malkovich).
Content Magazine sat down with Knowles in the Cinequest VIP Lounge for a lively interview about his dad’s influential advice early on, how a tragic accident led him to be an outspoken advocate for films and film fans worldwide, and why the City of San Jose might be in for some friendly competition.
Content: What was your earliest exposure to cinematic culture?
Knowles: My father had a pop culture collectible shop that sold movie memorabilia—classic memorabilia from the 1920s, 1930s, all the way up to the modern day, along with comic books and props. He was someone who really believed that if you sold the stuff, you had to be an expert on it because you dealt with people who were fans. The fans were always experts at knowing what they wanted. The main way I was educated about cinema was through that…. and trivia. For example, I know everybody who ever played a Wolfman character and all the horses’ names for all the silver screen cowboys.
Content: As an early web-based media pioneer, what led you to create a cinema site for fans?
Knowles: In the early 1990’s, I wanted to be a “fat character actor” so I moved to Austin (Texas) and got a couple of parts in a couple of films. Then, after an accident, I wound up paralyzed for several months. That was back in 1995-1996. The Internet wasn’t visual-based yet; it was all text browsing. During that time, I was writing box office analysis for the Drudge Report and was the only person who had a by-line on Drudge’s page other than Matt Drudge.
(With the paralysis) I found out I had at least six months of recovery ahead. I thought, well, I’m either going to be depressed here in bed for the rest of my life or I can do something with this time I’ve been gifted. So, what should I do? I went online since I already knew all the websites that had movie content and skimmed through something like Idiots Guide to HTML — which wasn’t that useful. Instead, I discovered you could see the source code through the browser and I learned how to set up my first web site from that.
Content: Was it challenging to choose a name for your new web publishing adventure?
Knowles: I was trying to come up with the name for the site like “Harry’s Movie Emporium” or something like that. I had just been to a preview screening of Broken Arrow before I had gotten paralyzed and had been quoting John Travolta’s “Ain’t it cool? Ain’t it cool?” like over and over. At some point, I came up with “Ain’t It Cool News?” Then my dad pointed out it’s even got four letters for a call sign: AICN. Yeah, I liked that.
It was kind of a success out of the gate. What I wanted to do was create a new vernacular for talking about cinema – a conversation between me and someone I wasn’t talking to directly. When I wrote, I also decided to not correct my mistakes. I wasn’t going to use spellcheck. I don’t believe in automated intelligence. For me, your mistakes are what make you endearing in this world. It’s our flaws that give us beauty. I’m not writing for IMDB. I’m just writing what’s in my head.
It’s all about citizen journalism. I was doing this before Wikileaks. I’m 42 now—I started this 18 years ago. There was nothing like me back then. Movie fans were not empowered. I started by getting access to scripts and shared comparisons between scripts on my site. Hollywood’s reaction was: He’s reading scripts??? Nobody does that! How dare you tell the world movies aren’t born perfect.
Content: What was your reaction to receiving Cinequest’s first Media Legacy Award?
Knowles: When I was contacted by Kyle (Burt) & Michael (Rabehl) about being the first recipient of Cinequest’s Media Legacy Award, my first thought was: Am I significant enough to receive a media legacy award? And then I really thought about it….. Yes, I am significant! Yet no one had every contacted me in my entire career and said we want to give you an award. I had always expected my local town (of Austin) to give me my first award.
Content: What’s your take on Cinequest and visiting San Jose for the first time? Did you experience any new films?
Knowles: When they asked me to program a film for Cinequest, the entirety of films popped into my brain. Grand Piano debuted at my film fest, Fantastic Fest, which I co-founded with Tim League. Grand Piano is absolutely electrifying. It’s in the genre of “if Hitchcock used it, they could use it” and, as a result, it’s just an old-fashioned suspense film.
It is a rare animal to introduce Harry Knowles to a new film — that doesn’t usually happen. Cinequest has done it. Hunting Elephants, I had not seen before and it was incredibly involving. The opening film The Grand Seduction was a new surprise. I liked all of the Science Fiction shorts in the Shorts 5 program. Really enjoyed every filmmaker and every volunteer that I (and my wife) have met here.
It is a rare animal to introduce Harry Knowles to a new film—that doesn’t usually happen. Cinequest has done it.
Out of all of the cities in the U.S., San Jose is #10. Austin is #11. We’re like buddies in a way. Or rivals, as I put it. I realized I need convince people in San Jose to come to Austin so we can take over the top ten status. Competition is good for the soul.
Content: Why are films so important to you?
We, as society, have become consistently less and less empathetic. I feel watching film with an empathetic eye is the best way to care more about the world, learn more about culture, learn more about people from everywhere. That’s the main reason why I’m not all about glossy, pop-cultured, geeky movies; I’m about experiencing cultures that I’ve never thought to experience before.
Interviewed by Jen Myronuk