Geek Chic, Ain't it Cool?

Curator's Note

In 1996, Austin-based movie geek, Harry Knowles, founded his blog, Ain’t it Cool News. The website drew upon what Knowles called a “worldwide geek network” of spies and informants and by 1997, AICN was notorious for supplying unauthorized, behind-the-scenes information and publishing early reviews of test screenings. Knowles became an object of public fascination, as the press profiled him in countless articles and television segments. He was blamed for negative buzz about Batman and Robin (1997), acclaimed for reassuring audiences that Titanic (1997) was well worth the studio’s massive investment, and even threatened with legal action for posting images from Starship Troopers (1997).

The accompanying clip from a 1998 episode of Inside Edition is representative of the discourse surrounding Knowles, which celebrated the idea that this stereotypical geek—unkempt, overweight, and living and working in his childhood bedroom, crammed with movies and memorabilia—could have such significant sway over his (and Hollywood’s) audience. This clip also demonstrates how Knowles’ power and influence was routinely connected to his impact on Hollywood, tracing his move from geeky outsider to Hollywood insider. The resulting myth around Knowles unfolds somewhat paradoxically in the sense that his identity as an outsider and a geek, so pivotal to his newfound fame, was simultaneously neutralized by his invitation inside the exclusive Hollywood scene.

The seemingly symbiotic relationship between Knowles and Hollywood in the late nineties is even more complicated in retrospect and it is a story worth remembering and examining now, as Hollywood marketing increasingly invites audiences to feel like insiders and members of exclusive groups. This year, The Hollywood Reporter detailed Knowles’ attempts to keep AICN afloat in the midst of significant financial troubles. Formerly a middleman connecting Hollywood to a highly engaged audience of geeks, Knowles found himself less and less relevant as studios adjusted their practices in order to directly connect with this demographic online and through fan events like Comic-Con. Instead of Hollywood turning to Knowles for publicity, Knowles has become increasingly reliant on Hollywood. Even the success of his recent Kickstarter campaign seemed unlikely until the final 48 hours, when Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro, and Eli Roth recorded messages of support. Though he was initially characterized as an unruly and influential tastemaker, the construction of Knowles’ stardom in relation to Hollywood’s pre-existing hierarchies actually reinforced the industry’s hegemonic power: Knowles brought the geek, while Hollywood brought the chic.

Comments

Jordan Gowanlock's picture

Knowles' invitation into the Hollywood scene

It’s interesting the way you describe Knowles’ identity being imperiled by being welcomed into Hollywood. One would think this would be an ideal outcome for such an ardent fan, yet the public seems to begrudge him the perks that other reviewers from bigger media outlets enjoy. Knowles seems to be yet another case of the obscure ethics that are wrapped up in the geek ethos. One can be allowed success but only under certain conditions. Independence and entrepreneurship seem to be one of those conditions.

Erin Hanna's picture

Knowles and Hollywood

I completely agree that given Knowles’ passion for movies, recognition from Hollywood is a completely logical desire and outcome for him, and many fans like him. And I think that’s exactly why this relationship is so incredibly complicated. What really fascinates me is that Hollywood seems to be the yardstick through which to measure Knowles’ successes or failures. Even as reports like the one I posted claim that Knowles represents a significant force (one that I think stands in for relatively new and unknown audience of Internet users in the 90s), situating him in relation to Hollywood also works to contain that power. As a complete outsider, Knowles might operate according to a different set of rules or logic, but as a participant with Hollywood, even on the periphery, he is subject to its logic and hierarchies and therefore significantly less threatening.

What’s even more interesting, though, is that Knowles’s approach has changed very little since the late 1990s (even his website remains virtually identical). Hollywood, on the other hand, has changed a lot. While I wouldn’t argue that this is directly a result of Knowles’ intervention, studios that had initially struggled to find ways to prevent Knowles and his readers from infiltrating their test screenings now collaborate with websites such as gofobo.com to offer tickets and provide a forum for reviews (as well as encouraging the circulation of these reviews on other social media) or present massive panels at Comic-Con meant to drum up publicity beyond the convention center. This change in approach, I think, is less about a fundamental shift in how marketing works and is, instead, a trick of redirection, to invite audiences to participate in a more controlled (by Hollywood) forum. If Knowles, at one time, represented the potential power of online audiences, it is worth thinking about how Hollywood has contained this power, not by diminishing it or eliminating it, but by readjusting their own practices in order to make this power more productive for their purposes.

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