"So who do we blame?" one of the executives asks, eventually. "Schumacher? What was he doing with that direction? I mean, he made a movie for rubber fetishists!"
The senior executive thinks for a moment, then says: "We blame Harry Knowles."
That name would raise blank looks in the population at large, but everyone in the room knew who he was - a chronically overweight, softly spoken film fan and memorabilia dealer from a nondescript suburb of Austin, Texas. Certainly not someone you would expect to be censured for the collapse of a global corporation's multi-million-dollar marketing strategy. But Knowles, 26, is one of a growing band of iconoclasts who are bringing about the revenge of the nerd.
From his bedroom, claustrophobically packed to the brim with movie merchandise, he runs a website of undue influence - so much power, in fact, that Hollywood insiders have charged him with the ability to make or break a film. His "Ain't It Cool News" site features a welter of production details, insider information and movie industry minutiae. But, more important, it has reviews from scores of people around the US who sneak into the test screenings before the films are released. Written in colloquial language, those reviews pull no punches ("It sucks, big time!"), nor are they afraid to shower praise. Because Knowles's Joe Public army consists of outsiders, they're immune to the movie company spin regularly directed at established critics.
The reviews wouldn't matter so much if Knowles' site weren't so popular; it has more than 100,000 "hits" and 1,200 e-mails every day from around the world. That's a lot of clout when it comes to influencing Saturday night movie trips.
Apart from Batman & Robin, and the possibly apocryphal tale above, Knowles has also been blamed for the failure of Speed2 and praised for boosting Face/Off and Men in Black. You can't fault his taste.
"I love movies, pure and simple. That was the only motivation for Ain't It Cool News," Knowles says. "But there was always so much hype flying around. My site was a place for honesty and plain speaking."
Of course, the film industry hates Knowles because it can't control him. Executives have tried to tighten the security at test screenings, but somehow his spies still manage to get in. They've even offered him jobs to silence him, but Knowles has rebuffed all attempts to get him on board. He has no ambitions; he simply loves films.
Knowles's success is symptomatic of a rising tide across the Web as it finally starts to meet its promise as a powerful anti-establishment tool. Around the world, big businesses are growing increasingly irritated that in the, to them, unfamiliar medium, sole voices can shout louder. Corporate methodology relies on control, but in the chaotic jumble of the Web it is passion that makes waves. And passion is the currency of the nerds, the true fans who are using the Web to strike back.
Knowles's site is said to have reduced Batman & Robin's director, Joel Schumacher, to tears. In the music industry, the same is said of Julie Gordon's site, The Velvet Rope, while the computer games world is at the mercy of Happy Puppy's crew.
"Regular participants on my site include record company executives, agents, promoters, music journalists, recording artists, producers, managers - virtually every stratum of the industry," says Gordon. She set up the site in 1995 after being involved in a discussion forum on AOL, and her views soon became vital reading for record company bosses. She now has 7,000 regular subscribers.
It's said that The Velvet Rope has persuaded some labels to drop bands and others to pump more cash into struggling but critically acclaimed artists. The Velvet Rope was also the first to reveal that the chairman of Warner UK, Rob Dickins, would be leaving the company at the end of the year.
The five teen and early-20s gamesters of Happy Puppy set up their site on 14 February 1995 as "a clearing-house of all demos, freeware, shareware, levels, any and all game-related downloads". They now get a staggering 120,000 hits a day.
"The Happy Puppy team soon gained such influence that they had the power to alter the strategy of even the biggest company," says the director of one games company. "Now it's de rigueur for all executives to check out their site regularly."
Most of us would rather listen to our friends' views than an establishment figure with a company line, which is causing the power shift through the Web, just as the anarcho-hippie Net gods always claimed. At the moment, it's confined to the entertainment industry, but when it seeps through to commerce or politics, we could really see some fun.
Ain't It Cool News
The Velvet Rope