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!