Imagine, if you will, a typical morning for entertainment and gossip reporters around the U.S. Liz Smith is on camera at the Fox Studios on New York’s Upper East Side. Michael Fleming of Variety is grilling sources on the phone from his Long Island office. Claudia Cohen is on the Upper West Side prepping for her segment with Regis and Kathie Lee. Bernard Weinraub is checking in from L.A. with his editors at The New York Times. And Harry Knowles is propped up in bed at his parents’ house in Austin, Tex., squinting at his computer.
So which of these reporters might break the most talked-about entertainment story of the day?
If you guessed Harry Knowles, whose main source of income is selling vintage movie posters at collectibles shows two weekends a month, you could be right. Knowles, who started his movie-news site (www.aint-it-cool-news.com) in April 1996, is part of the fast-growing battalion of gonzo gossips on the Internet who — armed with modems and hard drives, but rarely a journalism degree or professional experience — are trying to rewrite the rules of entertainment news and gossip. And they’re sometimes riling stars and major studios along the way. ”It’s just me, my 700 sources — and whatever I decide to send over the Net,” Knowles says gleefully.
Knowles’ website is part of the legion of entertainment news and gossip sites in cyberspace. Much of the dish is transmitted by former Old Media scribes on established online entertainment areas like Mr. Showbiz, E! Online, Hollywood Online, and Zentertainment, which rely on wire reports and tired photos of cyberbabes like Pamela Anderson Lee, Teri Hatcher, and Gena Lee Nolin. But such sites are being eclipsed by those run by renegades — notably Knowles and the 30-year-old Matthew Drudge (a clerk in the CBS gift shop in L.A. until he decided two years ago to put all the gossip he heard out on the Net). Then there’s Jill ”The Diva” Stempel, as she bills herself. A 24-year-old Princeton grad, Stempel edits Cyber-Sleaze, a guilty pleasure of the Net, started by former MTV veejay Adam Curry. Its specialty is down-and-dirty items such as Rosie O’Donnell’s supposed recent breakup (as leaked to Stempel, reportedly by one of O’Donnell’s ex-colleagues).
What sets this young, new breed of cyberwags apart? They’ve been helped by the freedom and relative anonymity of the Internet, where unfounded rumors can run rampant and anyone with an ax to grind and access to the Net can let loose. Celeb dish, industry news, and even top secret movie scripts can be sent to a reporter’s E-mail in box with no traceable return address — which turns even low-ranking movie-production people into valued sources. ”The grips see everything that happens on a movie set. They’re dying to tell someone about it,” says Knowles. ”I’m that person.”
Over the past year, Knowles’ eclectic sources — from high-level studio execs to lowly gaffers — have leaked him such confidential info as the plot points to the Star Wars prequels and Superman, more than 100 scripts for unfinished movies, like Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, and even shots of the giant insectoids that will terrorize earth in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers this fall.