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Mario Zucca

Scooper Hero

Umberto Gonzalez, a.k.a. El Mayimbe, has the dirt on Marvel, DC, and ‘Star Wars’ movies before anyone else. But he’s no dork — he’s a smooth-talking, palm-greasing man about town. Meet Hollywood’s Alpha Geek.

The text comes late Thursday night, while El Mayimbe’s walking up 6th Street in San Diego. Let’s call the sender “Lobot,” which is not his name. Lobot tells El Mayimbe he’s tight with some people who worked on Star Wars: Episode VII.1 Lobot says he knows “for absolutely sure” who’s directing Episode IX, due out in 2019. Lobot says he’ll give El Mayimbe the name if El Mayimbe can get Lobot and Lobot’s girlfriend into some events here at Comic-Con, including the big Entertainment Weekly party at the Hard Rock on Friday night. Lobot wants what everybody on the scene wants in exchange for a scoop — a guest-list slot, maybe some bottle service, the chance to show this girl “that he’s a big swinging dick.” El Mayimbe’s walk turns into a strut. He makes a living trading favors for geek-world information nobody else has, but this is major. This is Star Wars. Fanatics worldwide will be glued to the Internet waiting on news from the official Lucasfilm panel in Hall H tomorrow afternoon; if El Mayimbe can get a story up tonight and announce the Episode IX director’s name before the studio does, he’ll own the news cycle instead. “When I read [his] scoops, I’m both amazed and horrified,” says Adrian Askarieh, producer of next month’s Hitman: Agent 47. “I always fear that my movie’s going to be one of the movies he’s going to scoop on, but at the same time I hope that my movie’s at the level where he wants to scoop it.”

El Mayimbe’s real name is Umberto Gonzalez, born 41 years ago in Queens, New York, of Dominican and Colombian descent, and as a self-proclaimed “fanboy journalist” and “ace scooper,” he lives for moments like these. If a studio’s measuring an actor for an iconic leotard or cowl or enchanted helm or loincloth, if a director signs up to reboot a trilogy based on an action figure, Gonzalez wants to be the first to know, and the first to trumpet that information on the Internet, via a fistful of social-media accounts and a new website called Heroic Hollywood, which went live in June. In an era when the movie business sometimes appears to be rebooting itself as a machine that cranks out nothing but superhero movies, Gonzalez is far from the only reporter whose beat includes stories like these, but no one follows it as closely or as aggressively. Gonzalez broke that Brandon Routh would play Superman, that Heath Ledger would play the Joker. He knew that Bradley Cooper would be supplying the voice of Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy, he says, before Cooper’s own publicist did.

Plenty of reporters have loyal readers, but Gonzalez has fans; they recognize him on the street and line up in his Twitter mentions to virtually high-five him after every scoop, like grateful villagers cheering on the Robin Hood of the geek-infosphere.

“I have the biggest [Twitter] follower count in the trades, and my follower count is half the size of Mayimbe’s,” says Jeff Sneider, who covers breaking news for The Wrap. “I think people like the way he delivers these things. He likes to call himself Mayimbe McCauley, after the De Niro character in Heat. Every little piece of information is like a mini-heist for him.”

Gonzalez doesn’t review movies or interview famous people, but his scoops tap into the basic human yearning to locate and shake one’s Christmas presents pre–December 25. He may be the emblematic film journalist of a moment in which the only movies that seem to move the needle culturally are movies that have yet to be released, or cast, or even scripted.

If the phrase “fanboy journalist” conjures a picture for you, chances are it looks like Harry Knowles, the writer and film nut who founded Ain’t It Cool News in his Austin, Texas, bedroom in 1996. Knowles and his network of pseudonymous spies pioneered the trade of geek-movie gossipmongering back in the dial-up Internet days, when cape-and-ray-gun stuff was still considered down-market product. Gonzalez, who is tall and handsome in an unpretty Bobby Cannavale kind of way, got his start funneling tips to Ain’t It Cool News, and by super-serving a base of super-nerds with information the studios don’t want people to have, he’s working in the Knowles tradition. But, presentation-wise, he aims to replace that geek-journo archetype with something sleeker, manlier, more Tony Starkish.

“I know some geeky guys,” he says. “They’re all alpha males. They dress well. They make a good income. They’re normal guys that like sports. They’re well groomed. They don’t fit the stereotype. That’s part of the reason I started Heroic Hollywood — to appeal to alpha geeks. Guys who like the geek stuff, but also like clothes, fine living.”

He has recently dropped 60 pounds — “all the weight my last two long-term relationships left me with” — because he wants to look good when he promotes his scoops on Periscope and video podcasts. The fact that he dresses like a prosperous film producer on the way to power-breakfast with George Clooney means people will say things in front of him that they might not say in front of a blogger in Tevas and a wash-faded Punisher T-shirt.

.@kchavez007 & I at last night's HitFix party. Was cool to run into everyone.

A post shared by Umberto Gonzalez (@umbertogonzalez) on

Before he started Heroic Hollywood, Gonzalez worked the same beat for Latino Review, where his scoops on Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man 3 prompted emails from Marvel security consultants, threatening legal action. Nothing ever came of it, although you get the feeling that Gonzalez — a self-taught expert on New York and California’s journalistic shield laws — might have relished the fight. His father, a commercial landlord who still owns property in Queens and Brooklyn, used to drag him into court to watch eviction proceedings. “He taught me how to scrap in courtrooms,” Gonzalez says. He thought about pursuing a law degree; instead, he got into the movie business as a development executive. But in between, he worked for a while as a club doorman in Queens and Manhattan, and this, in comic-book terms, may be his origin story. The boring answer to the question of how Gonzalez comes by his information is that — like any journalist — he approaches people in a position to know things and asks them questions. The more complicated answer, and the reason his hospitality-industry experience matters, is that he’s part reporter and part concierge. He takes care of people who need things facilitated and they take care of him. You want a guest-list slot, a table, some bottle service? He’s got you. Maybe if your paths cross again, he’ll ask you what you hear about this or that.

He says that leaks tend to come disproportionately from companies that work people hard and pay them poorly. “If employee morale is low, there’s always a vulnerability.” On occasion, he says, some exec will slip him a “revenge scoop” to kneecap another. But many of his long-term sources, he says, “just get a kick out of the information being out there, spreading like wildfire.” Some men just want to watch the world burn, although lately even the world-burners are getting skittish.

After the Sony hack, Gonzalez says, “everybody just tightened up. People are paranoid.” More often than not these days, what might once have been a 60-second conversation over email “turns into a 7:30 a.m. breakfast meeting on the other side of the hill.” Lately he’s been getting more into private-messaging apps like Snapchat and Cyber Dust. He’s thinking about buying an Iridium satellite phone, allegedly the preferred encrypted-communication device of the Navy SEAL team that killed Osama Bin Laden.

He has a few rules.

“I don’t do coke or pussy,” he says. “I don’t facilitate cocaine because I’m half-Colombian and my father had a restaurant in the late ’80s — smack in the middle of the drug war — in Jackson Heights, Queens.” Gonzalez says “TNT cops” — tactical narcotics investigators tasked with street-level drug enforcement — used to harass Colombian business owners “just for the hell of it. So I wouldn’t dare break my father’s heart. Don’t ask me to score you blow, and don’t ask me to get you prostitutes. I’ll kill that relationship, and I think [my sources] know that.”

And while working everybody in town for information invariably yields a wealth of “nasty TMZ stuff” about who’s got a high-priced-hooker habit and who’s sleeping with their assistant and who did blow in which bathroom, he keeps all of it to himself. None of it has anything to do with who’s going to play Spider-Man next and therefore it’s none of his business. “That’s personal,” he says, “and that’s where you get into danger.”

All he’ll say on the record about his sources is that they’re “people in all walks of life who service the movie business.” This means agents and executives, but it also means caterers. Or bathroom attendants. Or doormen. Or messengers. Somebody delivering a gift basket hears something. Or somebody makes the mistake of cursing somebody out on the phone in front of a parking attendant. Or somebody’s talking in a men’s room and it turns out a busboy’s listening. Or bartenders. “Bartenders are the best out here,” he says. “Some of my best sources. You’d be surprised what people spill out over a couple of drinks — that’s why I don’t drink, so I don’t slip. Coat check girls. Coat check girls are the best. Because they’ve got guys trying to nail them, trying to impress them. I’m doing such and such with so-and-so. Hey — you want to know something cool? They’re telling the coat check girls, and they’ll tell me.”

Gonzalez says the life cycle of a scoop is about 72 hours. If he gets something up on Monday morning, the traffic peaks by the afternoon. Chances are the Monday story will still be driving traffic on Tuesday. But by Thursday morning you’d better have something else, or else. It’s a grind (especially for a site with only one full-time employee), and an oddly thankless one. Gonzalez puts something out there, and the rest of the Internet gets busy hot-taking and think-piecing based on the news he’s broken, like a flock of seagulls all taking off in the same direction. But after a certain point, nobody remembers who had these stories first. Attribution decay is the law of the Internet. The fact that Actor X will play Superhero Y becomes a known fact, and Gonzalez’s name disappears in a snowdrift of search results. Part of it is that while he’s got a knack for ballyhooing his scoops, he’s not really a prose stylist or a contextualizer or a synthesist. So when he puts up a scoop, he knows someone else will write the think piece about Actor X’s career or the cultural history of Superhero Y and get all the glory.

“I break it exclusively,” he says. “You go write it up for Grantland, aggregate it, guess what happens to me? Because your site has higher rank authority than mine, I get kicked to the curb. And I go back and I’ll be lucky if I’m on page five.”

He will be 42 one week from tonight. He talks about wanting out of this game before he turns 45 — about building the site into something he can sell, maybe training an apprentice to take over the beat. “My ego’s already been satisfied in a hundred ways,” he says. “Getting mentioned in the trades never gets old. I feel like a real-life spy in some ways. It’s romantic, it’s exotic.” But fanboys, he says, like to get their news from other fanboys, and there’s a point at which he knows they’ll stop seeing him as one of their own. If 13 years of following superhero-movie casting has taught him anything, it’s taught him that every run ends.

“You can’t be Batman forever,” he says. “You can’t be Spider-Man forever. You can’t play Superman forever. And you can’t write about superhero movies forever.”

el-mayimbe-illustration-2Mario Zucca

Gonzalez has arranged to meet Lobot at a Fox party on the roof of the Andaz Hotel. Lobot’s running late. Gonzalez takes out his phone. “My favorite seduction technique,” he says, and texts GET OVER HERE. PARTY POPPIN’ to Lobot’s phone. It’s already 11:30, but if all goes as planned, Gonzalez can still throw together a post and get it on Heroic Hollywood by the time readers over in London are waking up. He seems a little tense — this party happens to be crawling with reporters who might take an interest in the Episode IX story, including Borys Kit from The Hollywood Reporter’s Heat Vision blog and Gonzalez’s old Latino Review compatriot Kellvin Chavez, and part of tonight’s mission will involve getting the story without tipping any of those guys off. But he’s also excited, and can’t resist dropping a few hints about what he’s about to pull off. He runs into Josh Dickey, the entertainment editor from Mashable, and asks Dickey if he’d jump online and post something if Gonzalez were to drop a scoop tonight.

“Something big?” Dickey asks.

“You know me, bro,” Gonzalez says.

Dickey sighs. “I’ll stay up, watch the wires.”

Finally Lobot texts and says he’s on his way up. Gonzalez goes to meet him at the elevator bank. The whole conversation takes two minutes. Later, Gonzalez explains that Lobot has the same concerns everybody does. He wanted to know the scoop wouldn’t be traceable. He wanted to know if Gonzalez would wait to publish the story until the morning, but Gonzalez talked him out of it, told him it was best for it to drop right now, and for Lobot to be seen hanging out at a party minding his own business when it does. They walk back in to the party together, but split up right away when they hit the door, as if they just happened to walk in at the same time. Lobot looks nervous, as you’d expect somebody to look when they’ve just Daniel Ellsberg-ed the Galactic Empire. And just like that, Gonzalez knows who’s directing Episode IX.

“It’s an uninspired choice,” he says — but all that matters is the scoop. “The big-game hunters do bag the elephants.”

Gonzalez heads back to the hotel to get a post together, and just before midnight he tweets a link to a story announcing that Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow will direct Episode IX. Lucasfilm doesn’t confirm or deny it right away (and as of this writing, it still hasn’t), but that almost feels like a moot point, because as of Friday morning, the shot is being heard ’round the world.

There are 470,000 Google hits for “Trevorrow Star Wars” as of ten o’clock on June 10. There are stories on Collider and Slashfilm and Hitfix and Screenrant and Ain’t It Cool News and Comic Book Resources and Birth.Movies.Death and Dark Horizons and ComicBookMovie.com and Indiewire and News.com.au and Uproxx and Makingstarwars.net and Comicbook.com and Fansided and Latino Review and GeekTyrant and ScreenCrush and Dork Side of the Force and Blastr and Las Horas Perdidas and Badtaste.it (“Colin Trevorrow a dirigere il nono episodio!”) and Journal du Geek and Gamezone and Movieweb and Tracking-board.com and Nerdbastards and Film School Rejects and The Hollywood News and iDigitaltimes and Rama’s Screen and Reddit and TheCelebrityCafe.com and Geekcrusade and The Movie Network and Outer Places and Geeks of Doom and Furious Fanboys and Celeb Cartel and Starwarsreport.com and Rope of Silicon and Grog’s Movie Blogs and Legion of Leia and Star Wars Underworld. A few of them even mention Umberto by name. 

Filed Under: Movies, Comic-Con, El Mayimbe, Umberto Gonzalez, Heroic Hollywood, Latino Review, Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Movie News

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ PAPPADEMAS