Friday, December 23, 2016

Was Ain't it Cool News Actually Cool?

I've wanted to write this post for a while now, but could never seem to find the right approach to do it. So, I'm just going to be straightforward. The Aint it Cool News (AICN) website was massively influential to my development as a movie nerd, and I've wanted to give it its due, especially as it's passed its 20th anniversary. As a teenager in the 1990s, I checked the site every single time I went online. It was at the top of my list of bookmarks for ages. I was absolutely bowled over that a website existed that was solely about collecting news on upcoming films, especially all the nerdy, geeky genre films that I was especially interested in.

Up until the site was launched in 1996, entertainment news was whatever I could glean from "Entertainment Weekly" and the Calendar section of the LA Times. I only saw trailers in theaters and on home media. Television commercials were still the most pervasive form of movie marketing in my life. I had no access to the trade publications at the time, though I'd read enough to know what they were. It was difficult to really follow what was happening with specific films, and even basic information like release dates could be hard to come by. With the internet, suddenly I had around-the-clock access to a huge amount of information, all the up-to-date details I craved. IMDB gave me concrete specifics about directors and actors, official studio sites let me see all the marketing material at once, and there were fan sites devoted to gathering up every last tidbit of information on upcoming projects.

Many of those tidbits came from AICN, and unlike the mainstream media it was run by dedicated movie geeks who presented each new piece of information with breathless hype and speculation. That information could be sneaked set reports, script reviews, early screenings, concept art, interviews, new marketing materials, or just simple announcements that would hit the trades the next day - all of it was new and exciting to me, and I ate it up. It's not hard to see why most of the studios turned a blind eye to the leaks, even though what the AICN crew was doing clearly frustrated some of their plans. By and large, the coverage was extremely positive, and the site's writers were all fanboys and fangirls. Even if the information suggested otherwise, everyone was generally optimistic about upcoming movies being good. There were editorials and reviews once a movie was actually released, but these were usually very kind.

The site was frequently the center of attention in the early years, because there was nothing else like it. However, the way Harry Knowles ran AICN was often very problematic. He was very eager to parlay the site's notoriety into his own celebrity, essentially letting others use the site as an advertising platform on occasion. He was often hypocritical, scolding others for some of the same tactics he and his "spies" used to gather information. I listened to a podcast a few weeks ago, where the hosts bemoaned how terrible some of the content on the site was, especially Knowles overly detailed and frequently off-topic movie reviews. I found myself nodding along in agreement. My biggest issue with AICN ultimately was that the editors made some lousy judgment calls - the completely wrong early preview of the 2000 Academy Awards nominations was one of the last straws. I started losing interest in the site after that.

What really caused their decline, of course, was that eventually other geeky sites caught on, and started providing similar scoops. Then the studios implemented more security and started taking more control over the flow of online information, disseminating much of it themselves. AICN couldn't handle the competition, and frankly flubbed a lot of chances to expand or adapt into something different. I still check in on the site now and then, and it's still got the same page layout that it did in the late 1990s. Most of their better writers moved on to other projects long ago, or lost interest in keeping the rumor mill going. I can't recall the last time that AICN actually broke a real story, and yet the site is still quietly chugging along with Knowles and a small group of longtime contributors. A lot of other film news sites have come and gone in the last twenty years, but somehow AICN is still standing.

I still follow some of the talent that I first encountered on the site, namely Hitfix's Drew McWeeny and Spill alumnus C. Robert Cargill, who wrote for AICN as Moriarty and Massawyrm respectively. And I still feel a little jealous every time I hear about the latest Butt-Numb-a-thon movie marathon that Knowles hosts at the Alamo Drafthouse every year. And every time I hear about Harry Knowles in the news - and it's usually not good news - I can't help hoping that he'll be able to turn it around somehow. For a while he was living the dream, making a living out of being a movie geek and facilitating the geekiness of other movie fans around the globe. I don't think I really understood what a movie geek was before Knowles. I found the AICN ethos and community tremendously appealing, even if the site itself and magical swirling Harry Knowles were often disappointing.

So, I think it's fair to say that I owe a fair bit to AICN, but it was inevitable that I would leave it behind. I'm still a fangirl at heart, so part of me will always love the site, but the internet's become very different in 2016, and so have I.

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