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Movie Guide Memories

Movie Guide Memories

As some of you may know by now, the 2015 edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which comes
out today, will be the last, after an amazing 45-year run. (I hasten to add
that we are happily working on a new edition of our spinoff volume, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide,
for next year.) Since the news broke online I’ve received a tremendous
outpouring of affection for the book and the memories it spurs for people who
grew up with it. Many readers have said they can’t remember a time when there
wasn’t a copy on their coffee table, nightstand, or even in their bathroom!

You can only imagine what the book has meant to me. I was 17
years old when the job fell in my lap; little did I dream that it would occupy
my entire adult life. An English teacher at my high school insisted that I meet
her friend Patrick O’Connor, an editor at Signet Books. Because he liked my publication,
Film Fan Monthly, and took a shine to
me, he decided that I was the right person to carry out his goal: to produce a book
that would rival Stephen H. Scheuer’s paperback Movies on TV. At that time it was the only book of its kind, a fingertip
reference for people who watched old movies on television.

Patrick told me I would have to hire people to help me, and
he was right. The book has always been a team effort, and in those days before
the Internet, cable TV, or home video, we had our work cut out for us. Finding
accurate information about movies—new or old—was no easy task.

When the book came out, under the title TV Movies, in 1969, all I could see were its flaws and
shortcomings. It was five years before I was asked to update it, and I seized
the opportunity to improve on what we’d done the first time around. Readers
started sending corrections and additions, which I eagerly incorporated into
the expanded paperback.

This was long before personal computers came along, and we
did everything by hand. My wife and I cut out every one of the 8,000 reviews in
the first book and glued them onto individual sheets of paper. (I remember
Alice repeatedly running out to Woolworth’s on Broadway and 79th
Street to buy more glue sticks—we kept using them up.) Then I used a ball-point
pen to mark additions and changes in the margins, adding an actor’s name,
correcting a spelling, changing a running time, etc. Believe it or not, we
never completely abandoned this technique: it may seem primitive but it’s
simple and effective.

In those days before videocassettes and DVDs, I tried to
develop contacts at each of the studios who understood my need for detailed
information—not merely what was printed in the press handouts. I developed a
network of contacts, sometimes a publicist, other times a person in the print
traffic department. One time I asked a man at United Artists how he determined
the running time of the titles in their library and he said, “Uh…we use your
book.” It was flattering—but not useful.

Because the book was originally aimed at people who watched
movies on local TV (The Early Show, The
Late Show, Million Dollar Movie
, et al.) I never expected it to become an
industry resource. Programmers at repertory cinemas, TV syndicators (and their
buyers at local stations), and innumerable others told me they relied on the
Guide. Years later, it became a staple at video stores. Ordinary folks who
stopped me on the street would sometimes tell me they ignored our opinions and
only consulted the information; that was fine with me. Within the span of one
week, a guy told me he doubled our ratings to conform to his opinion—and
another person said he cut our ratings in half to determine if he’d like a
particular movie. To each his own.

One day, my publicist at Penguin returned from lunch to find
an urgent message from an unfamiliar person at The New York Times asking for two copies of the newest edition
right away. She couldn’t reach the person by phone but took no chances and had
a messenger deliver the books that afternoon. When she finally did get the
party on the phone it turned out to be someone in the newspaper’s fact-checking
department. He knew how hard we worked to make sure actors’ names were spelled
correctly and wanted to have our latest guide. When my publicist asked if he
could help get us a mention, if not a review, in the paper he said he had no
clout in that area. We had to settle for being flattered once again.

Back in 1968, when I was hired to do this job, I wanted to
provide more information than one could find in TV Guide or most newspaper listings of movies on TV. Over the
years, our short, telegraphic-style reviews got a bit chunkier along with our
cast lists, as we tried to pack as much information as we could into each
paragraph-sized writeup. One of the most enjoyable parts of updating the book
was noting who had become famous—or nominated for an Oscar—that year and adding
their names to cast listings of films they made five, ten, or even twenty years
ago. June Squibb, Octavia Spencer, and Melissa McCarthy are just a few recent
examples that come to mind. (Did you know that Squibb, who made such a splash
in Nebraska last year, was in Martin
Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence in
1993?)

This is what I’ve come to call “curated information.” It
takes time, effort, and a certain degree of expertise to assemble; it’s what
sets our Guide apart from the mass of data anyone can find online, for free.
But one can’t fight change and I certainly can’t complain about our
extraordinary long-term success.

I’m grateful to everyone who has expressed such warm
feelings toward the book. I share a sense of pride with my dedicated colleagues
who have contributed to it since its inception. And I’m delighted that we’ll
get to revise and expand the Classic
Movie Guide
. Onward and upward!

          

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