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Critical mass

Steve Prokopy-better known as the film writer "Capone"-is the Chicago king of film nerds. And it's the movie studios that crowned him.

Photograph by Aaron Corey ; Model City Courtesy of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 224 S Michigan Ave; Retouching, Paradigm Studio
Steve Prokopy, Ain’t It Cool News

Steve Prokopy is a film writer who for the first half of his career was known only as “Capone.” He claims to have put almost no thought into the name—while traveling abroad, people would often meet the news of his hometown with a mob reference—but the pseudonym wasn’t without subtext. Like Al Capone, Prokopy had a reputation for operating against the system. He relished writing and publishing reviews of movies on the fanboy website Ain’t It Cool News before they were released, something old-school film journalists would seldom dare to do. And like Capone in his heyday, Prokopy was untouchable. He had a knack for knowing when movies were going to get early screenings, for getting passes or getting on the list. The studio publicists tried to keep him out of screenings, but though they knew of him, they didn’t know him. And so they couldn’t stop him.

“They hated me,” Prokopy says. “Not just locally, but nationally. They couldn’t control me.”

One day in 2005, after an early screening of a film at the Landmark, Prokopy was on the Broadway bus heading home. He noticed a film publicist sitting nearby. Prokopy had been writing anonymously for six years at this point, and his reviews had garnered fans internationally. Even the studios had become fans—when he had nice things to say. (When he had bad things to say, he would get angry feedback, sometimes from the filmmakers themselves.) But he was tiring of just writing reviews. He wanted access to actors and directors. So he approached the publicist and revealed his identity.

“I said: Look, this is who I am. Who do I contact in your organization to get invited to press screenings and to get to these interviews?”

The publicist put him in touch with his boss. “[The boss] said, ‘We can do this for you. No studio is going to say no. But you cannot write these reviews early,’” Prokopy recounts. “She was offering me the key to the kingdom for one concession, which I was happy to give.”

The story of Prokopy is the victorious tale of the Internet: The no-name author gets so influential the powers-that-be can’t ignore him. But on the day Prokopy struck a deal with the publicists, both parties felt they had triumphed. Prokopy saw the access to celebrities as his victory. (He’s quick to point out he was the only writer for AICN who agreed to stop posting early reviews.) But the publicists and studios thought they had eliminated Prokopy’s potential to spread bad buzz about a film before it was released, and replaced it with the likelihood of good buzz.

The trade-off for studios and filmmakers has been worthwhile. Since operating openly with publicists, Prokopy has started a film series in Chicago based on the events his AICN boss, Harry Knowles, throws in Austin, Texas, with collaborator Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse chain. Prokopy asks studios to show a movie pre-release, and they usually comply, setting up a public screening and giving most (if not all) of the passes to Prokopy to distribute. He does this via contests on AICN, which he sets up to weed out people who are simply looking for a free movie. “I want to drive the right kind of people,” he says.

He calls that kind of person a “geek.” In his world, this translates to a moviegoer who’ll go to a movie again and again, and then blog, chat and tweet about it. Movie studios couldn’t ask for a better audience, in much the same way a restaurant couldn’t ask for a better crowd than one made up of LTHForum.com food geeks.

But while Prokopy admits he has good relationships with publicists (none of them wanted to go on the record about Prokopy, perhaps because they don’t want to cop to the special treatment they give him), he says his main motivation is to make Chicago a better film town. Via his movie series, Prokopy claims to have single-handedly brought many advance public screenings to a city that would never otherwise have been given them—for releases ranging from thrillers like My Bloody Valentine 3D to the Peter Jackson–produced District 9.

He also credits himself with fostering a local film culture that actors and directors want to participate in. For example, he often does a Q&A after a film screens, and “now we’ve got actors who make a point of coming through Chicago, because they know there’s someone here who’s going to pull together a great group for their film and who’s going to do a great Q&A.”

“In a city that put film criticism on the map with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert more than 25 years ago—and continues to this day—it’s ludicrous for anyone to suggest we haven’t been on Hollywood’s radar screen all along,” says Robert Feder, the long-time Chicago media reporter who now writes at Vocalo.org.

Dann Gire, film critic at the Daily Herald and president of the Chicago Film Critics Association, does confirm that Prokopy, now a bylaw-abiding CFCA member, has secured advance screenings of genre films for Chicago audiences. “When Prokopy first popped up on the local radar, he…was all about getting reviews up quick and dirty,” Gire says. “The Chicago Film Critics Association…abides by the embargo rules set forth by the movie studios. …Most onliners, especially those who work for AICN, would not make such a concession.”

Prokopy’s influence on the scene—even if he tends to overstate it—can help a film break out. After seeing Humpday at the South by Southwest film fest last March, Prokopy approached director Lynn Shelton. “Humpday didn’t even have a distributor when I approached her,” Prokopy remembers. (Magnolia Pictures, however, confirms it aquired the film out of Sundance, well before it went to SXSW.) “When we eventually did screen it, it did have a distributor, but my enthusiasm for the film convinced Magnolia to pay for Lynn to go on a press tour.”

As usual, the screening was packed. Not that anybody knew why they were there, to hear Prokopy tell it. “That audience had never heard of that movie,” he contends. “They were only there because I said [they] were going to love it.”