THE GEEKS STRIKE BACK: DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (part two)

I’m usually quite happy to stick to my rants about movies. Normally, I couldn’t care less how the webmasters of other sites choose to conduct themselves. If you don’t like their site, you don’t have to go there. Sometimes, though, fate intervenes, and I have to pull the aluminum baseball bat of truth out of the closet. Then, it’s time to live up to the name “Film Threat”. Led by internet poster boy Harry Knowles, the staff of Ain’t-It-Cool-News has been engaged in a battle for quite some time; not with Film Threat, but with ethics. Now the boys at AICN aren’t evil, just immature. Still, it’s long past time for a reality check. This sort of behavior has raised a number of questions and now it’s time for some answers.

HARRY EXPOSED AS THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER OF THE NET: SEEKERS OF TRUTH REJOICE
Response to Part 1 of this article has been tremendous. So much so, that new information kept arriving right until late Tuesday night, June 20. We’ve received a great deal of support, particularly within the film industry. Many others, though, have questioned our motivations behind these stories. Those questions would be:

Why does Film Threat even care about AICN? At first glance, you’d think Harry should be able to do whatever he wants. He even told me, “to some people it might be masturbatory, but hell, it’s my site. They can run their sites the way they want to.”

Well, a wise man once said (I think it was Green Lantern), “with great power comes great responsibility.” At this point, I’m not convinced that Harry’s reviews convince anyone to go to a movie, but the perception of his influence and power produces two kinds of fallout.

First, whenever the mainstream press (radio, television, print, whatever) refer to or talk about any movie websites, it’s always about AICN.

Second, when studios decide how to interact with the independent online press, Harry comes first, and all others are judged by that relationship. Now if you’re Film Threat or E! Online, sites that have media connections outside of the web, the effect is minimal. However, if you are Coming Attractions, Dark Horizons, Zentertainment or any of the other indie websites, every immature, unprofessional, and/or unethical action by AICN is then reflected upon you.

Who made Film Threat the Internet hall monitor? Hey man, don’t shoot the messenger. If Harry and his pals can’t grasp the repercussions of their actions, then somebody must intervene in a manner AICN cannot brush off as they usually do. It could have been anybody. This is not a battle between Harry and Film Threat or Harry and Coming Attractions, it’s a battle between Harry and the real truth about AICN. None of the information presented in our first installment was new (except for a certain name). As it turns out, we at Film Threat are the only ones who would step up to the plate. Well, this time. Apparently Jamison/Gold, a web design firm, had attempted a sort of “intervention” three years ago. They hosted and actually partially owned AICN for a while after Harry had been booted off his original budget ISP because of traffic.

What’s the source of FT’s information? Film Threat had accumulated a great deal of material from a variety of sources — much of it from Harry’s site itself. Other information also came from sources in and around AICN since its early history. Still more data came from those dealing with Harry from the other side of the table such as filmmakers and studio employees. ^ Still, as information came in, I only had more questions. For the answers, I needed to talk to the crew at AICN. Our correspondence with the boys at AICN includes a taped, 100-minute phone conversation that I conducted with Harry Knowles. Though 28-years-old, it occasionally seemed as if I was really talking to a couple of 14-year-olds, and like most boys of that age who perceive they are in trouble, none of the “characters” at AICN seem to know when to stop talking. ^ By now, I’ve heard every argument imaginable concerning the issues at hand, particularly from the zany cast of characters at AICN. We’ve been called jealous. We’ve been called unfair. AICN “spy” Moriarty (Drew McWeeny) called me all sorts of names after some idiot gave him my home phone number. He, Harry, and others have stated, threatened, or implied any number of things since the initial posting. However, they never said or proved that we were WRONG. They never disputed the facts.

THE SECRET ORIGIN OF AIN’T-IT-COOL-NEWS
Before we can really discuss AICN, we should see how it began and what Harry had intended it to be. Here’s Harry’s story:

Ron Wells: “How did [AICN] start?”
Harry Knowles: “It was right around February of ’96. I had had an accident at a show, back around January 24th in ’96, that left me laid up. My legs wouldn’t work and I didn’t have any medical care. Before I had launched the site, I had been in newsgroups for what felt like forever, writing up little news bits. … On the newsgroups I felt that was way too much of… fandom measuring their dicks against one another… (The newsgroups) were turning into that area of the convention where everyone sits around and bullshits… which is fine, but that’s not what I thought was supposed to be there. I’d been (around) that for a year and a half or so… and people had been saying that I should put up a website. It’s amazing what you can put your mind to when you’re stuck in the bedroom for five months, but that’s how the site got started.”

RW: “What’s the mission of AICN?”
HK: “The way I see the site is that it’s that place that isn’t run by a studio where I can talk to both filmmakers and to fandom and show them what each other is thinking about film. Primarily, I wouldn’t say that it’s a news website. It’s more a discussion about what’s going on in film and what film is. My opinion is all over everything. When I first started the site… the three areas were news, Harry’s world, and a shop where I would try to sell collectibles. Because I was stuck here at home… I thought my life would go by and no one would know I existed because I thought I was going to be paralyzed. The three areas were the ones I thought reflected who I was. Film news,… my experiences and my life and the collectibles that I’d been doing since I was two or three. Initially, that’s what the idea for the site was.”
Okay, now these comments really clarify what AICN was meant to be. It’s NOT supposed to be the source for Hollywood news but a dialogue or discourse. Most importantly, to Harry, it’s a personal conversation.

THE TROUBLE WITH AIN’T-IT-COOL-NEWS
Where to start? It seemed best to focus on specific arguments, so I’ll stick to the following topics: Pseudonyms, “Spy” trouble, graft, and that Oscar fiasco.

The Case for the Pseudonyms
One of the most controversial aspects of AICN is the widespread use of cover names. These pseudonyms can serve a number of purposes, though I’m sure Harry or the rest of his crew can always make the distinctions.

Ron Wells: “Is there a reason that everyone contributing content to the site other than you operates under a pseudonym?

Harry’s Explanation #1, Harry Knowles: “Early on, I had the idea that it would be cool to have all these characters writing in stories. Corona Coming Attractions already existed well before I started. Editor Patrick Sauriol was doing an excellent job. One of the things I liked about the Internet was that everybody wore masks. What I thought would be cool is to have a bunch of these characters that would have these fictional names and they would have these backgrounds to them to build up their characters. Once they become… ongoing characters like Moriarty (AKA Drew McWeeny), they get into their characters.

To me, I didn’t get into this as a writer of journalism, I got into this from writing short stories. I had had five or six college courses in journalism, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I thought there was a chance to do this “gonzo” journalism kind of thing. Your intro would be fairly fantastical but your stories would be solid. You would have the correct information. My idea got to the point where nearly everybody decided to have a pseudonym.”

Harry’s Explanation #2, HK: “There’s a lot of people who provide stories for the site where I can’t use their names. Not because of anything other than they work in the business.”

Harry’s Explanation #3, HK: “The other side of it is that by allowing people to write with the pseudonyms, they were able to escape who they were for the day.

Well, that’s three explanations, but I have a couple more.”

Film Threat’s Explanation #4: Pseudonyms within Pseudonyms. Information I have indicates that some of the false names used in the AICN’s Talk Back section really conceal the same contributors whose material is discussed. This allows them to appear as a third party to defend their own arguments.

Film Threat’s Explanation #5: A Mask for Harry. Do the cover names mask information written by Harry but taken from other locations? An insider source told Film Threat that during the period of 1996-97, Harry explained that he often took scoops people posted to Usenet and then repackaged the material as coming to AICN from spies within the studios.

Spy Trouble – The (Ab)users of Pseudonyms
We’ve actually accumulated quite a list of spy identities, but there’s no need to reveal them all right now. At this time, we’ll only identify three specific individuals as abusing their “confidential” status. They are:

MORIARTY AKA DREW MCWEENY
Boy, when we revealed this last time, it drew a whole lot of attention. It also drew a great deal of speculation why we did it.

Here’s what Harry had to say on the matter:

HK: “Just so you know on the whole Drew McWeeny/Moriarty thing? The reason we wanted that taken down is that he is a confidential source.”

Hmmm… a confidential source. Another editor told me he didn’t know of a “source” who didn’t want to be known but also be a featured writer providing much of the content for the site. I don’t recall all of the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage bearing the byline, “Deep Throat”.

What kind of content does this “source” provide? Aside from the frequent contributions titled, “Moriarty’s ramblings, uh, Rumblings from the Lab”, which recently has included such confidential info as:

What I’m seeing is all editorial and criticism. What is there to validate McWeeny as a “source”?

Moriarty himself revealed that he has one produced screenplay, for a no-budget production entitled Walter Did It, directed by and starring one Tom Makedon from Chicago. Drew apparently hated it and that’s probably the most you’ll ever hear about it. No listing exists for either the film, Drew McWeeny, or Makedon on either the Internet Movie Database or the All-Movie Guide as of this writing.

Is it fair to present Drew McWeeny/Moriarty’s real name and picture? The picture, until recently had appeared on another website in relation to a documentary about the whole “Phantom Menace” mania. As recently as a private screening for a rough cut of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, Drew attended with Harry and wrote about the experience as Moriarty, so I can’t imagine that after a couple of such incidents the studios don’t know what he looks like.

The name is another issue. It’s one thing to use a cover name as a shield to protect yourself from retribution when you work inside a story. It’s another matter to hide behind it like a coward when all you really do is criticize other people’s work. If Film Threat is going to come down hard on a really awful film or filmmaker, we’re not going to be chicken-shit about it. If you’re going to criticize anyone, you should take personal responsibility for what you say. Or at least get paid. According to our sources, Drew McWeeny has not been paid for his writing services on AICN. And anyone who has read McWeeny’s self-important scrawlings really can’t blame Harry for that one.

Robogeek – Paul Alvarado-Dykstra, the COO of AICN
I include Paul as an example of someone who in no way can be considered a “confidential source”. As a paid staff member of AICN, he bears little risk of retribution, though he may bear some responsibility in the, uh, “Oscar Fiasco”.

Joe Hallenbeck
Joe Hallenbeck is the name of Bruce Willis’ character in “The Last Boy Scout”. It is also the spy-name of one of AICN’s most vocal and most frequent contributors. Well, at least until a few months ago. Film Threat had received some disturbing allegations regarding Joe’s withdrawal from AICN. Due to the seriousness of these charges, we will respect Joe’s privacy, but I would discuss them with Harry.

Ron Wells: “There’s a writer you had by the name Joe Hallenbeck. What happened to him?”
Harry Knowles: “He became a student at a college and wound up with a girlfriend in San Francisco.”
RW: “So, he’s currently in San Francisco?”
HK: “I’m not sure, I don’t stay in contact with him.”
RW: “Did he have any kind of unfortunate situation come up that you know of?”
HK: “He, um, let’s see… if memory serves, Joe had a problem with … he had sold a videotape that he wasn’t supposed to sell, then the MPAA came down with an investigation on him. To be honest, I don’t know too much about what happened there.”
RW: “When was the last time you talked to [Joe]?”
HK: “He called me up about three weeks ago.”
RW: “How did he get the video that he sold?”
HK: “Um, just through somebody there in Los Angeles. I don’t know who Joe was dealing with.”

Now, the info I have indicates that Hallenbeck was selling bootleg videos at swap meets. In and of itself, this is not a rare occurrence, as verified by anyone who has attended a major comic convention. Actually, my sources indicate it was the FBI who got involved. The tape in question was of unreleased studio material which was soon traced to its source, and I’ve been told that individuals at the pertinent studio were at least fired.

Now the most important question here, is whether Harry knew the tape in question was being sold, and whether it came through him from one of his own spies. After examining the matter, I’m fairly sure the answer is NO.

Still, there’s an important lesson. Harry doesn’t live in a void. While his actions may color the perception of the rest of the Internet movie sites, he himself is susceptible to criticism from the misdeeds of the others associated with AICN.

HARRY’S ADVENTURE ON THE GRAVY TRAIN
Harry receives a lot of things from the studio in exchange for his in-depth coverage. Airfare, nice hotels, doo-dads, and whatever extra may be lying around a set. Here, he tries to explain to me the whole graft thing, but I guess I’m just not getting it.

Harry Knowles: “You guys get DVD’s sent to y’all, right?”
Ron Wells: “Yes.”
HK: “Okay, when the studios send you a DVD, do you write a positive review of the DVD so you can get the next DVD?”
RW: “No, reviews are written (for Film Threat) at the time the movie is released.”
HK: “What you’re saying is, somebody at the studio can send you something and you think you could be unbiased about it?”
RW: “There’s a difference as far as what you get. All members of the press get tickets to press screenings.”
HK: “When you’re given access to a star to interview before you see the movie, does that affect your review?”
RW: “What’s the point?”
HK: “This is the thing, I hold there’s no difference.”
RW: “You don’t think there’s a degree of what’s acceptable, that there’s a gray area… Are you saying that getting a DVD is no different than getting airline tickets and a hotel room to come in for a set visit?”
HK: “Not really. I’ll explain this. If it’s the film I was wanting to cover, if I had the money, I’d pay all of the expenses anyway… In your coverage, you wrote that I’d sent people to (the set of) “Mystery Men” and that I’d gone to “The Mummy” set along with a whole bunch of other sets. You said we’d never written negative reviews. If you read my reviews of “Mystery Men” and “The Mummy”, they’re negative. Okay, I didn’t like those films.”
RW: “Toward the end of your “Mystery Men” review, you talk about faults, but you explained why you liked the film.”
HK: (Pause) “Hang on a second, let me pull up the “Mystery Men” review. (Sounds of keyboard tapping). (Pause, indignantly) I’m not a fan of “Mystery Men”. (Pause) “I’m a fan of aspects of it, it’s an incomplete film. I don’t think it’s a piece of trash. …Huh. If you read the entire review, but not the last paragraph you’ll see there are a lot of problems with the movie. I liked the movie but it’s not a really, really good movie. Um, and I talk about the problems with the film. On “The Mummy”, I didn’t like the movie.”

You can check out the Mystery Men review yourself. I would look for the paragraph that begins, “I really like this film and I’m not making any bones about it.” As for The Mummy review, Harry’s right, he wasn’t so crazy about it.

Admission of your sins won’t necessarily absolve you of them. Neither Harry nor Paul seem to make the distinction that the DVDs and press screenings are required for people to do their jobs. If the studios really thought they could sway critical opinion this cheaply, they’d always provide an open bar. While the marketing departments may spend $10 bucks on me, tops, they seem to be spending over a $1000 on Harry each time they provide airfare, a nice hotel, and transportation to a promotional event such as a premiere. One source indicated that Sony Pictures was ready to sue Harry for posting certain pictures from “Starship Troopers” until they realized it would cost less to buy him off and ship him in for the grand premiere. The studios see this as a promotional expense, and when they spend this much on a single person, they expect some reciprocation.

THE OSCAR FIASCO
To recap, the day before final nominations for the Academy Awards were announced this year, AICN ran a list of between 8 and 11 possible nominees for each major category reportedly “hacked” from the server for Oscar.com. Unfortunately for AICN, the lists were actually just a bunch of guesses by a staffer from ABC.com, stored on their unprotected home computer and accessed via a cable modem. The shit hit the fan. Now, the two parties involved at AICN have the opportunity to toss a little at each other.

Harry Knowles: “The Oscar thing was a mistake where Robogeek had told me that it was an Oscar server, and I had no idea how to determine that. I said, ‘are you sure?’ and he said, ‘oh, absolutely, I do this stuff all the time.’ He was the one who confirmed that side of the story for me. It turns out that he had at best, guessed. I took the mistake upon myself and took responsibility for it.”
Ron Wells: “Do you think that’s misleading?”
HK: “No, because I mentioned what had happened.”
RW: “Did you mention that the one who verified the server was Robogeek?”
HK: “I mentioned that my technology person did it.”
RW: “Is there anything in particular that convinced Paul that it was the Academy site?”
HK: “To tell you the truth, I don’t think Paul knew how to find out. I think he wanted it to be real, and he told me it was. Paul misrepresented the case, and he knows that.”
RW: “Weren’t you concerned that a story of that scale might have been faked?
HK: “I spent about 18 hours working on that story before it went up on the site. It was one of those things where, this would be a really big feather in our hat if we were able to get this right.”

When you get stories like that where there are three days until the story’s revealed anyway… getting the story would be a front page type of thing, it would be a big scoop… it’s a big sort of deal. What I was doing was going through a checking credits on everyone, to make sure that all the nominations, all the people that were listed were correct.

The next thing was to confirm the location, to confirm that it was the Oscar server, and, uh, Paul didn’t do his job. If there was a pompousness, an assuredness to the way I posted that story, it was because I believed at the time, 100%, that it was real because I was assured that it was an Oscar.com server. …that next morning when everything blew up, I called up Paul and said, “Paul, tell me that they’re wrong.” I said, what happened? Paul basically said that to the best of his abilities, everything looked like it was right. But I said, “You didn’t know for sure?” He said, “It looked right.” I said, “but Paul, wasn’t there something you could look at to tell you that it was definitely real?” He said, “I don’t know.” That’s when I realized what had happened. It was a fuck-up and a mistake and we turned right around and corrected the story as soon as we could.

By email, Robogeek (Paul Alvarado-Dykstra) offers the following rebuttal:

Greetings,

Per a recent conversation with Harry, it occurred to me that you might benefit from some clarification regarding my (miniscule) role in the unfortunate Oscar non-nomination list.

If memory serves, late one night Harry asked me to check a publicly accessible (i.e. not password protected) IP address, which contained a Filemaker Pro database. I reported to him the rather exhaustive contents, which corroborated an independent report he had apparently received.

However, I did not offer any authoritative judgment per said contents being the Academy’s “semi-final” nomination list. I only offered as my opinion that this was a reasonable possibility, and a fair guess given the information available (which constituted significant circumstantial evidence). While there was no way to confirm the ownership of the IP address at the time, the contents were quite compelling.

As editor/publisher of AICN, it was not only Harry’s story to begin with, it was ultimately his call — and he made it, with caveats. It turned out to be wrong, and he issued an apology and retraction.

It shouldn’t bear pointing out that, in the context of four years of publishing, AICN’s batting average remains pretty remarkable. Of course we aren’t perfect, but what publication is?

Cordially,

Robogeek

What’s my impression? Neither Paul nor Harry had any idea what they were doing, and didn’t even know enough to realize this was over their heads. They got greedy for a scoop that, if true, would open them up to all sorts of charges they had blithely ignored. Reportedly, as a result, Roger Ebert has distanced himself from AICN and Harry’s chances of ever reappearing on Roger’s show are nil.

FILM THREAT SINS REVEALED
Hey, we’re no angels. The great thing about America is the opportunity to rise above your level of competence. Occasionally, we surpass it. Here’s a look at some hard life lessons in Film Threat’s past:

The Experience: In 1989, Gore took a paid trip to the set of an indie film in Pittsburgh called, “Simple Justice”. He promptly wrote a scathing story, not realizing his status as a marketing expense. The Lesson: No more paid set visits unless you’re willing to be somebody’s bitch.

The Experience: In 1991, Chris and former editor Dave Williams attended an early test screening of George Romero’s “The Dark Half” as guests of the special effects people. After writing about story problems in Film Threat Magazine, the producers and Romero were pissed. The effects guys were nearly fired and Gore’s friendship with them was destroyed.
The Lesson: Do not publicly review incomplete films. It is not fair to the filmmakers who should have the time to work out the problems.

The Experience: Following SXSW 2000, I went on auto-pilot to complete 16 reviews in 14 hours from my notes of the films I saw over a four day period. I violated Film Threat policy against reviewing roughcuts when I blazed through a review for “How’s Your News?” Though the producers loved the review, the documentary was a long way from completion, and upon notice, FT apologized and took down the review.
The Lesson: Dude, take a break.

The Experience: While still with Flynt, Film Threat Magazine joined with Universal Pictures as a sponsor for a new Kevin Smith film, “Mallrats”. Editors were enthusiastic following “Clerks” and saw an early test print of the film. This version had a different ending, which didn’t necessarily work, but also didn’t have the nasty edge of the “Ben Affleck has anal sex with a minor” ending. Scenes were also later added of Affleck menacing the character of Jason Lee.
The Lesson: Don’t judge a film so much by a test screening. It can actually get much worse.

Basically, I just have two points. First, no one is infallible. You learn as you go and mistakes are what you usually learn from. Second, we at Film Threat can at least learn from our mistakes and usually no one makes the same mistake twice.

THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES
There’s been so much information coming in, I’ve had trouble digesting it all. However, I do believe I’ve come up with a portrait of Knowles and AICN and their real problems. They would be:

An Internal Dilemma.
An Asian girlfriend once explained to me that human beings contain not one belief system, but several spheres of belief. This is how we can maintain two contradictory thoughts and not freeze up like some robot on “Star Trek”.

Harry Knowles seems to possess two different views of himself: as a fan, and as a journalist. Unfortunately, to be successful at either, you need to separate the two. The “fan” is probably wetting his pants every time a studio foots the bill for a trip to the set of a film he’s excited about. The “journalist”, however, can’t be taken seriously as he stumbles home covered in the stench of the studio’s bed.

It doesn’t matter how much Harry believes in his own impartiality. Any acceptance of studio gifts beyond pocket change will tint the perception of “Harry’s Adventure in…”.

Lack of Awareness of the Repercussions of Your Actions
The Oscar mess is a good example. Does Harry need scoops that bad? Being wrong, he should have had Paul explain why he thought that was an Oscar server. It’s Harry’s name on the site and he bears ultimate responsibility for any fuck-up. Even if he were right, Knowles should have considered what the fallout would be if he had actually “hacked” his way into an Academy server.

This isn’t the only problem. Due to the hunger for scoops, I’ve heard that many people have been punished or lost their jobs due to proprietary information they have sent AICN. My current understanding is that Lucasfilm is planning to prosecute whoever released the test footage to that CGI “Frankenstein” project to the fullest extent of the law. I’ve heard some items, including “X-Men” photos that Harry was asked not to post, have resulted in the punishment of studio employees. It doesn’t matter what Harry’s intentions are. AICN is responsible for the repercussions of any item they post.

Keep Yourself in Check
Life is not “Massacre at Central High”. Just because Harry now has notoriety, is not an excuse to lord it over everyone else. The list of stories just from Austin, Texas relating egotistical behavior is quite long. One tale is of the time Harry was invited to dinner with Quentin Tarantino and made his friends and his own dad sit at a different table. ^ Another tale is of the time Harry was called into Jamison/Gold. They, at the time, owned a chunk of AICN because Harry couldn’t be bothered to hire a lawyer to negotiate a deal for J/G to host AICN. Knowles was called to the mat for his non-responsiveness. He apparently had to be dragged to this meeting by Glen Oliver and was oblivious to the danger to AICN of an immediate shutdown. When Harry was called on his brush-off of J/G, he responded only with a list of celebrities he had to meet while in town for the “Starship Troopers” screening.

Oh, Just Grow the Hell Up
I believe, after an investigation and interview, that I have a relatively clear picture of Harry Knowles. I doubt his childhood was too entertaining. I’m sure the onset of media attention incited a level of self-worth he had never previously known. However, just because you live with your dad at age 28, does not absolve you from acting as an adult. The national media put Knowles on all those 100 most powerful lists. Once they are no longer charmed they will turn on him with a fierceness he cannot imagine. Harry needs to be aware of how his actions affect those around and the people whose inside information he uses. It’s not fun, but neither is being an adult. Studios are part of show BUSINESS. If Harry wants to deal with them, he’ll have to start acting like one himself.

NEXT THE FINAL CHAPTER: Threats, the media fallout, a big bunch of dope and an end to the madness.

HATE MAIL: If you would like to read what others have to say and “Talk Back” about this story, visit Film Threat’s Hate Mail section and tell us what you think.

Get the whole story and read part one of DECONSTRUCTING HARRY: AIN’T IT UNETHICAL?.

Stills from the film Millennium’s End: The Fandom Menace directed by Jeff Cioletti. The film contains interviews with Harry Knowles and Drew McWeeny AKA Moriarty.

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