By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
November 14, 2005 4:00 AM PT
Late on a Sunday evening last month, a caravan of mildly intoxicated moviegoers wound their way down a dark gravel road to a shooting range at the outskirts of Austin, Texas.
Most of the cars were coming from an advance screening of the film "Domino," which included an appearance by its screenwriter. The studio had supplied drinks at the theater and was sponsoring a shotgun-toting after-party at the insistence of Harry Knowles, whose "Ain't It Cool News" site of rumors, reviews and industry gossip has a wide following from "fanboy" circles to studio offices.
Hardly a typical release event--but well worth the price of a few liability lawyers to put Knowles in a good mood. For he and others like him are, in effect, defining America's tastes.
"I'm sure we made studio lawyers go into hissy fits," said the flame-haired, larger-than-life Knowles, 33, who called the movie "one hell of a film" in a subsequent review posted on the Web site he founded a decade ago. "But still, we actually got them to loosen up and have fun with their own movie, which is something that rarely happens in this industry."
If Knowles' ways seem unconventional to the Hollywood establishment, they are entirely appropriate for the maverick sphere he represents: an expanding universe of opinionated blogs, fervent fan networks and other communities, where the power to confer popularity--or at least the fragile aura of "buzz"--can appear virtually overnight.
Like the Web itself, the impact of such grassroots opinions has grown geometrically to change the way hits are made in movies, music and television. Their significance goes far beyond the realm of entertainment, fundamentally recasting the way opinions are shaped in a society whose sensibilities have been saturated by mass-media campaigns for generations.
The undeniable influence of these organic taste makers has been made possible by the rise of blogs, tags, collaborative bookmarks and other so-called social technologies that are fulfilling some of the utopian objectives espoused in the early days of the Internet, when it was hoped that the Web would empower the individual and dismantle communication barriers across the globe. Many of those altruistic goals were vastly overshadowed by mass commercialization. But, in the years since the dot-com meltdown, they've been resurrected with a new generation of digerati who are developing and exploiting the social aspects of the medium.
"Media has traditionally been pushed down, from the companies at the top. But in the 21st century, it is increasingly pushed up from online communities," said Eric Garland, chief executive officer of Big Champagne, a company that taps peer-to-peer networks for data on what's most popular on the networks. "The file-sharing community is a good reflection of the marketplace precisely because there is no push mechanism."
For media and entertainment companies seeking tomorrow's fans, this can be a bewildering frontier. In the last decade, average marketing costs for a Hollywood film have more than doubled to almost $35 million, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, but box-office attendance has continued to decline.
It's not that Rolling Stone, corporate radio stations and big-city movie critics no longer help sell tickets and records. But they're increasingly sharing their influence with a more democratic landscape of MP3 blogs and MySpace friends lists, in which a rave review or free download can reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of people.