The film industry and the Internet didn’t meet cute. Almost as soon as the Web emerged as an essential new medium, fan-generated movie sites like Film Threat, Dark Horizons and especially Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News appeared out of the ether.
Unpretentious, unabashedly opinionated and willing to review films cloak-and-dagger-style, from test screenings and purloined scripts, these “fanboy” pages quickly garnered equal amounts of adoration from young readers and ire from studios.
Ten years later, most of the head geeks are still around, and Hollywood has learned to live with them. As for the fanboys themselves, their eventual acceptance into the cabals of film punditry has helped many of them to mature.
“I think the fanboy sites have come to understand the process that filmmakers go through,” says Gordon Paddison, executive vice president of interactive marketing at New Line. “In the early days, they were all about the final product.”
Harry Knowles agrees. “In the beginning I was very anarchistic,” he says. “I’ve become much more sophisticated, in terms of just understanding how the studio system works, why bad films get made, why projects can seem to have every reason in the world to get made, and then don’t. Those are all questions I was extremely frustrated by in the beginning.”
Outreach from the Hollywood establishment has certainly helped. Far from trying to snuff out or co-opt the sites, many studios now regularly work with them, screening films they hope will appeal to influential writers.
“The studios have learned that if they give access to the material, they might be able to get good buzz on it,” Knowles says.
Fanboy pandering is hardly a safe proposition, however.
“They will bite the hand that feeds them,” Paddison warns. “I remember a story where one filmmaker took his film down to Harry, flew in on a private jet, did the razzle-dazzle, and Harry just gutted him like a pig. So they have pretty much retained their soul.”
Film Threat founder Chris Gore concurs. “We do this out of our passion and love for film,” he says, “rather than supporting some bottom line.”
Yet along with Knowles and key Web zeitgeisters, the panoply of online film reviewers has grown so large and variegated that authoritative voices seem in danger of being swallowed up by the deluge of blogs and kaleidoscoping niche sites.
Gore — who prefers the title “movie geek” to “film critic” — sees this as cause for celebration.
“Film criticism is effectively dead,” he notes happily. “I would love to take credit for killing it with my badly written reviews, but it was the blogs and audiences that did it. Audiences really democratized film reviewing on the Internet.”
Paddison, along with other observers, is highly skeptical that fan sites will ever replace traditional criticism, though Knowles sees plenty of potential for the fanboy future.
“Just about everybody associated with the site has gone on to have beginning success in the industry,” he says. “We’ve all sort of grown up from being the rebellious types. But at the same time, there’s always a new generation of people who want to have an unfiltered voice.”
And it is ultimately that voice that attracts the audience. Knowles says: “I get a lot of letters from readers who say, ‘You’re the only film critic who has my voice.’ Which I assume means illiterate, uneducated, Southern, semi-virginal ….”