Leaks, surveillance photos, camera phones, spoiler sites: The battle is on between fans who want to know every tidbit they can and fans who believe ignorance is bliss. How America's appetite for secrets is changing the way movies and TV shows get made.

Warning! Secrets about secrets revealed!

On the morning of May 15, 2007, Lost executive producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof were putting the last touches on the finale of season 3, a two-hour extravaganza with a top secret ending. At least, it was supposed to be a secret. Taking a break from a scoring session, the producers checked their e-mails and found their inboxes filling with urgent news: someone using the handle ”Lostfan108” had just posted a complete synopsis of the finale on the Web. ”It felt like I had been planning a surprise party for a year for my wife,” says Lindelof, ”and then one of her friends called the night before and ruined it.”

ABC persuaded the offending site to remove the scoop, though by that time, the plot points had already spread across a large network of fansites. Lindelof and Cuse never did figure out how the leak happened, but in the months that followed they took measures to better secure the production. Yet on May 19, 2008, just two days after they wrapped their season 4 finale, ”Lostfan108” struck again. A rundown of the whole episode, beginning to end. ”It’s awful,” says Cuse, clearly bummed. ”I’m just trying to let it go.”

For the dwindling few for whom the word spoiler still means a strip of metal on the back of a sports car, well (SPOILER ALERT!) times have changed. The word has become such a familiar piece of information-age slangfficerankster posted blurry photographed pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows four days before publication. But the real spoilsports were The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun, which smoked out copies and ran early, revealing reviews.

As readers of this magazine often remind us, many people steer clear of spoilersisters or what manner of mystery Mulder and Scully will be investigating in the X-Files movie, the spoilers are out there, mostly on the Internet, stored on a growing proliferation of so-called ”fansites.” ”Spoiler sites are for people who can’t read a book without skipping ahead to the final page,” says Isabelle Roy, webmaster of the appropriately named SpoilerFix.com, a popular clearinghouse for TV scoop that logged 25 million hits last May. ”We live in a world where everything is instantaneous. We want answers now.”

Welcome to Spoiler Nation, an irritating minority whose noisy, nosy engagement with Hollywood has deeply aggravated many of its most powerful playersred by gabby disgruntled contestants and localslittle moment, that person with information has power. I’m 100 percent certain spoilers are as simple as that.”

And yet, many leak consumers think they are driven by a more high-minded purpose. Some see spoiler sites as a pop culture version of Consumer Reports. For those who felt burned by M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and The Lady in the Water, looking for advance info about his next cryptopus, The Happening, doesn’t seem totally unreasonable. Moreover, spoiler culture has exploded at a moment when cult pop has become blockbuster business. Many geeks feel downright entitled to know what Hollywood is doing with sacred cows like Star Wars and X-Men. Explains Mirko Parlevliet, whose superherohype.com is a hub for comics-to-film scoop: ”Fans want to make sure studios are being faithful to the property” they fell in love with.

Naturally, few people in Hollywood agree with this rationale. For J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and director of Mission: Impossible III, the growth of spoiler culture has become so alarming, he made a movie in response to it: Cloverfield. Abrams saw his monster flicks convinced they are better off waiting until May 8, 2009. ”Learning raw detail and experiencing that detail as it was intended are two totally different things,” he says. ”I would argue that not knowing those details in advance is a more refreshing way to live when it comes to entertainment.”

It might also keep you out of jail. Spoilerazzi have been known to get criminal in their attempts to unearth info. The producers of Transformers tallied over 7,000 attempts to hack their computers to swipe design concepts for their metamorphic robots during preproduction. And no film in recent years has been more doggedly stalked for plot details than Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Last year, a thief broke into the film’s production office, stole a computer and files, and tried to sell the intel to a website operator. ”Steven was pretty upset,” says producer Frank Marshall. ”There were story points we’d rather have people discover in a theater with 500 people while eating popcorn.”

Ironically, many spoiler sites have become more discreetlight and heavy spoiler sections, hangman-esque guessing games, and multiple ”Are you sure?” warnings, all intended to appease time-shifting DVR viewers and those who want to be spoiled a little, not a lot.

Yet amid this potentially perilous mediascape, the entertainment industry has also found opportunity. Indeed, Hollywood has come a long way since the late ’90s, when Harry Knowles was public enemy No. 1 for posting reviews of test screenings on aintitcool.com. Now, studio marketers are discovering how to play the spoiler game to their advantage, previewing chunks of film on sites like YouTube, all in the name of manufacturing buzz. Simultaneously, Web-savvy filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Peter Jackson have cultivated fan bases by pulling back the curtain on the moviemaking process. Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro plans on being pretty transparent as he embarks on The Hobbit. ”It’s easier to protect the 20 percent of a project that’s really sensitive if you’re open about the other 80 percent,” he says. ”I think that’s the way to go, especially with a project like The Hobbit, which is a holy book for so many people. People should know the path you’re walking.”

Nowhere is this trend toward engagement and disclosure more evident than television. From the beginning, the creators of Smallville established links with key websites and fed them casting news, episode titles, and ”teasers”: cryptic nuggets of info that suggest possibilities without technically giving anything away. This symbiotic relationship proved particularly beneficial when two Smallville fansites learned of a massive spoiler, the season 5 death of Superboy’s pop, Jonathan Kent. When executive producer Al Gough learned of their discovery, he asked them to refrain from posting. They agreed. ”Movies are a party; TV is a marriage, and it can work both ways if the relationship is good,” says Gough. ”You need to nurture a rapport with your core fan base, because these people stick with you through thick, thin, and getting long in the tooth at season 6 and 7.”

The producers of Lost have expanded on Smallville’s brand of spoiler management by producing weekly podcasts, posting meaty sneak-peek clips from upcoming episodes, and making themselves remarkably accessible to the press. ”It might look like Carlton and I are media whores,” jokes Lindelof. ”But we feel the more we’re out there answering questions and dropping teases, the less appetite there is for spoilers.”

But as any flirt can tell you, being a tease can lead to trouble. The Lost producers learned never again to tub-thump the impending death of a major character when spoiler hunters smoked out the shooting of Shannon in season 2. ”It was like we had thrown down a challenge to go find this outg alternative scenessappointing second season, NBC plans on spilling much beanage over the summer to convince fans that the show is back on track. ”We have to show our wares,” says exec producer Tim Kring, who hopes to screen the Sept. 22 season premiere at Comic-Con in July. ”If getting buzz means spoiling some things, I’ll take buzz any day.”

Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica, currently in its final season, is holding on to one of the most hotly pursued spoilers out there, the identity of its mysterious 12th and final Cylon. Executive producer David Eick is resigned to the likelihood that fans will ferret out the truth. But if that draws the attention of mainstream media, which then write about the fracas without revealing the secretd that a fraction of a fraction of the audience is combing through the Internet looking for answers? ” says Eick. ”No. Any publicity is good publicity.” Spoiler chasers, start your engines.

I SPOIL IF I MUSTher I’m writing a review or reading one, I don’t want any held-back information to prevent that review from being the most interesting, thought-provoking one possible.

If that means a movie critic reveals a crucial plot point in order to lay out an argument for a film’s greatness or its hideousness, so be it.

As a TV critic, I am going to tell you who got killed on, say, last night’s 24, because an event like that immediately becomes part of the pop culture conversationpinion off mine, critic and reader relishing the opportunity to speculate together on what this means for a show we care about.

Sure, gratuitous spoiling is an immature drag. And sometimes a network will send out a TV episode with a request that the final plot development not be revealed; I’ll abide by that if keeping mum doesn’t prevent me from doing my job, which is providing the most engaging argument I can to you readers. Still, the very fact that a plot twist becomes the most sacred bit of information, the key to enjoyment, doesn’t speak well for audiences’ appreciation of the performances, the direction, and other elements that make a show worth pondering.

I admit that if someone tells me who won The Amazing Race before I’ve seen it, I may gnash my teeth a little. But chances are, it will make me want to see how those people scored their victories and how the producers edited the game even more.

Knowing the way something turns out shouldn’t ruin anyone’s pleasure. Hey, it’s a 24/7 media world. The best way to kill spoiler culture, if you don’t like it, is to say one thing to both spoilers and spoiler ”victims”: Grow up.

”The more we answer questions,” says Lost’s Lindelof, ”the less appetite there is for spoilers.”