R@NGE W@RS: Film Criticism on the Internet
By Mark Olsen
In the face of growing commercialization, the Internet's Wild West days are over. As trailblazers continue to push the ethical boundaries, online film journalism is currently going through some growing pains
Why has Film Comment chosen now to once again consider the place of the Internet in film journalism? The short answer is: we got confused. Confused by a number of recent online border skirmishes that threw into relief the dilemmas facing the readers and providers/caretakers of movie-related websites. The question being: who is this for, anyway?
If one of the indisputable benefits of the Internet is its spirit of semi-egalitarian, everybody-join-in informality, that same spirit also ups the potential for total chaos: in the time it takes to flick a switch, the floating cyber-party can degenerate into a free-for-all of personality mongering and petty bickering. Individual responsibility for keeping attitudes/behavior in check increases in proportion to the amount of verbal tonnage you can emit from your desktop.
One such incident, between the Film Threat site and Ain't It Cool News, shines a light on the shadowy realm of non-professional, fan-run news/gossip sites, the type that initially gave the Hollywood establishment hives because they were beyond conventional influence. Whereas Film Threat once existed as a print publication, and was forced through economics to transition to the online world, Ain't It Cool News (and especially its showman/magnate creator) is the epitome of Internet culture, for better or for worse. While Film Threat's recent three-part exposé of Ain't It Cool's perceived lack of ethics and increasingly compromised values was something that simply had to happen sooner or later, nonetheless it did have more than a faint air of ax grinding about it.
The other recent online pissing/posting contest between two journalists at more established commercial websites raises questions about the very nature of the type of journalism that seems to be flourishing on the Internet. Without question, Dave Poland of RoughCut and Jeff Wells of Reel are two of the highest profile and more studio-accepted online journalists. There's a certain level of healthy, semi-friendly rivalry between the two, since they do essentially the same thing. Their respective columns are grab bags consisting of news, semi-substantiated gossip and reviews. Not to belittle their respective talents as columnists/writers/whatevers, but neither strikes me as exactly what you'd call a critic. There's a definite difference between what they and people like Kenneth Turan or J. Hoberman do.
Wells and Poland are always circling their wagons, making themselves the center of a little hub, the place to get "the word" (to borrow a phrase from Wells), to feel like the insider's insider (again borrowing from Wells), regardless of who or where the reader is. While part of that has to do with any given website's need to keep people coming back for more (these are businesses after all), I still balk at getting too much information and opinion from a single source. Though it is useful to be able to one-stop shop for movie news and information, both Poland and Wells too often seem the very definition of the word gadfly. I read them both feverishly, hungry for the type of more more more the Internet provides. All the same, too often the overall attitude coming from Wells' and Poland's respective domains is one of condescension and one-upmanship.
It's a continuing source of acrimony among Internet-based journalists that they are usually excluded by the studios when it comes to access to advance screenings, junkets and interviews. If you can't see a movie, it tends to be, well, difficult to cover—though amazingly, many publications, both online and off, don't let that get in their way. So when Wells recently upset Sony by running an early review of The Patriot, it jeopardized the privileges of others as well—so much so that the incident and subsequent fallout made Variety. Throughout the furor, both Wells and Poland used their columns as pulpits from which to harangue one another and defend themselves. It wasn't pretty, although it had its own intramural dogfight charm, the kind of ridiculous, bareknuckled fracas that can now be found almost exclusively on the Internet.
Whereas both Poland and Wells have shifted to the Internet from more traditional journalism, the other breed of online personality comes from a completely outsider perspective. Again, individuals quickly come to the fore: Garth Franklin at Dark Horizons, Patrick Sauriol at Coming Attractions, or Greg Dean Schmitz at Upcoming Movies pretty quickly demonstrated they were hard-working folks whose dedication stems largely from an old-fashioned love of movies. And, again, the operator's relationship to the studio/publicist/access axis is a key condition of their existence. But these sites also operate in a more catch-as-catch-can fashion, relying largely on what is either sent to them by other writers or they themselves can snag from the information vortex. News on films in production, and reviews of screenplays, including ones not yet in production, can be found on the Internet well before the official press machinery of a given release begins to rev up. More homespun, less press-release diplomatic, this is the stuff that gives the Internet the same free-for-all excitement as public access TV.
Harry Knowles. There, I said it. Thus far I've tried to avoid saying his name for the exact reasons I will now have to go on about him in some detail. For those just entering: Austin, Texas—based, 28-year-old Harry Knowles created and oversees the Ain't It Cool News website (named after a catchphrase from the film Broken Arrow), which has gained incredible notoriety for running "reviews" of supposedly press-free test screenings, thereby thwarting studio efforts to keep their films under wraps. (Many other sites, including some of those mentioned above, do the same thing; Knowles simply shouted loudest about it.) Since the site's inception in 1996, through deliriously old-fashioned showmanship, self-promotion and a seeming disregard for anything approaching restraint, good taste or ethics, Knowles has quickly made himself into the go-to guy for the mainstream media whenever they need someone to represent the online film community. He even appeared across the aisle as a guest reviewer on Roger Ebert's show. As the costs of marketing, publicizing and actually releasing a major motion picture to upwards of 3,000 screens has soared, collective media consciousness of a picture, its buzz, has become all-important. A potential fly-in-the-ointment like Knowles, working at least in part outside and against the Zen-like Normandy Invasion approach of most major releases, immediately identifies himself as a problem to be dealt with and neutralized.
And so those black-tower-dwelling, suit-wearing evil executives we hear so much about but never see did exactly what was expected: they opened the door, invited young Knowles to step behind the curtain and slowly suckered away his objectivity and credibility. What was once the wild frontier of film information (depending as it does on reports from secret "spies," the site has always been too unwieldy and scattershot to be considered either journalism or criticism) has now become a minefield of glad-handing, studio plants, publicist smokescreens, and general unreliability. Not that the site ever specialized in dead-aim accuracy, but over the last year or so, as Knowles' media presence and personality cult has grown, the perceived quality and reliability of the site has gone remarkably downhill. And, as explored in the Film Threat exposé, the level of Knowles' complicity in the site's downturn and his continued denials of unethical conduct are staggering.
The main thrust of the articles is centered around a general sense of ethics, both journalistic and personal. It's alleged that Knowles has obtained information from other resources on the Internet and passed it off as coming directly/exclusively to him. He has shamelessly accepted (in fact, demanded) gifts, trips and preferential treatment, all the while insisting that his objectivity and credibility are not being influenced. He has also allegedly allowed confidential videotapes (of work prints, unfinished effects work, etc.) provided to him by "spies" to fall into the hands of tape trading/bootlegging circles, resulting in at least one person being fired. Also, Knowles has used his site to promote the work of regular (pseudonymous) contributors without acknowledging his connections to them, both personal and professional. The end result of these allegations (many of which have been floating around for some time) is serious damage to the overall integrity of Ain't It Cool News. Knowles, understandably, refutes these charges, or at the very least claims that they do not affect the site's content.
Above and beyond the incidents dealt with in Film Threat, Knowles continues to dig himself into an ever-deeper hole of delusional personality-mongering, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to watch him bare his pathology in public. Case in point: Premiere's recent cover story on the then-upcoming summer blockbuster X-Men, which was largely about the intense Internet buzz surrounding the film, features a fascinating and all too telling Knowles quote: "I've been trying to tell my fans to calm down." Does he mean the movie fans who use his site or the fans of Harry Knowles? Either way, he's suggesting that he can tell a group of people anything, with the assumption that they will listen and comply. Likewise, in a June L.A. Times article on studio marketing and the Internet, Knowles unwittingly confessed his own weakness for insider access with a tidbit about his exclusive set visit and subsequent invite-only screening of Ron Howard's How The Grinch Stole Christmas five months ahead of the film's release date. Though his normal m.o. would be the posting of unauthorized photos of costume tests or sets (as with X-Men), in this case, "I told Ron I wouldn't have a problem keeping the photos a secret."
Though his site may reek more and more of compromise and sellout, one shouldn't rush to beat up only on Harry Knowles. He's simply doing what most everyone else who's muscled their way onto the Internet wants to be doing: enjoying his moment in the spotlight. There's something comical about his perpetual justifications of Ain't It Cool News as a strictly "personal" endeavor, an unapologetic reflection of his own interests and idiosyncracies Knowles seems to lack the wherewithal to notice that his renegade e-fanzine is already a part of the system it was originally trying to buck. It's not sad, but it is predictable. Nothing stays new forever, and everybody's always known that e-life was eventually going to merge with the old analog and duct-tape world into a new status quo: it's too economically configured to go any other way. We all know the impact that the Internet has had on movies, from their aesthetics to their production, from distribution to exhibition, and on film criticism and journalism as well. There's no going back. But here's a last word from this "old media" practitioner, and avowed Internet addict, who loves the physical rush of instant, hardcore information: every frontier eventually becomes settled territory.