Today, when information is instantly available at the push of a button or the swipe of a finger it is hard to imagine a world of research before the internet made everything so easy. But just thirty to forty years ago to find out stuff you had to go to the library or buy books on whatever subject you wanted to research. That involved time, expense and shoe leather. My passion is for films (or to the Americans…movies). Now, you can look up any film in a matter of seconds and get full cast, crew and technical data as well as expert and public opinion on any movie from a variety of online sources. These include the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), American Film Institute and British Film Institute databases, All Movie Guide, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and the Movie Review Query Engine. But back in the 1970s, the only way to research information and opinion on films was via physically published encyclopaedias and film/movie guides.
My own interest in films began in my early teens back in the early-mid 1970s and over the years I have collected nearly all the major printed film guides available and still have the latest editions of each in my personal library. My fascination with the guides confirmed the writers and editors had come up with a successful and easy to use format aimed at movie fans such as myself. But what was the catalyst?
The answer goes back to the late 1950s, when television was beginning to threaten cinema as the entertainment of choice. Households were increasingly being released from austerity post-WWII and the TV served to bring moving pictures into their homes, albeit on a very small screen. Old movies began to find their way into the TV schedules and viewers were having to make their own choices on what to watch. A movie would require one and a half or two hours of attention, so discerning consumers were becoming more selective. Was the movie scheduled worth two hours of their time? The need for an authoritative guide was becoming apparent. Step in Steven H. Scheuer. Scheuer developed his TV Key preview column to help guide viewers and sift out the wheat from the chaff. “In the middle of the night I woke up, and it was absolutely clear to me that the whole approach to TV criticism was backward. It was being covered the same way as books and plays and movies. You were told on Thursday by a newspaper critic that there had been an interesting program on Tuesday. It was live. So, you couldn’t see it if you missed it.” (Clavin 1992)
The column was distributed by the King Features Syndicate and covered everything from live drama and soap operas and included news programmes. Interest in his column grew to such an extent that he was published in 300 newspapers. The problem was the newspapers’ TV guide sections were limited to just one or two pages and Scheuer to just a column. Daily newspapers were not only short of space, but they also had bigger priorities with home and world events demanding pages of coverage. Old movies had also increasingly started to occupy the schedules. Scheuer decided to expand his column to include previews of the movies being aired.
The natural next step was to produce a book that included short summaries of all movies likely to be broadcast on TV. TV Movie Almanac and Ratings was published by Bantam in November 1958 and had a capsule review coverage of over 5,000 movies available for TV showings across 244 pages. The marketing stated: “This new, handy guide for television movie fans describes, carefully rates and helps you pick all the important movies you will want to see on your TV screens during the year.” The book immediately sold out. A second edition was published in 1961 and a third in 1966, re-titled TV Key Movie Reviews & Ratings. The third edition again immediately sold out and was republished as TV Key Movie Guide and then by its fourth printing in March 1968 as Movies on TV – a title (suffixed with and Videocassette from 1988) it would retain for the remainder of its seventeen-edition run through to 1992.
Whilst Scheuer had a monopoly of the market through the 1960s, rival publisher Signet was looking to produce an alternative. The publisher’s attention had been drawn to an 18-year-old student who was publishing and editing his own magazine, Film Fan Monthly. The student’s name was Leonard Maltin. Signet invited the young Maltin in and asked him how he would improve on Scheuer’s book. Maltin replied he would add more cast names, a director credit, a note of the film’s original run time, and whether it was in black and white. Signet took the risk and signed Maltin up. The result TV Movies was published in 1969. It was a huge endeavour for someone so young, although Maltin did have help with half of the 8,000 reviews the book included. At this stage, Scheuer was updating his own book every two or three years. Maltin would not produce a second edition for another five years. From 1980, both books would be updated every couple of years with Scheuer and Maltin alternating until each settled on an annual update from 1987 as the number of competitor books started to increase.
In the UK, the first accessible guide published was Angela and Elkan Allan’s The Sunday Times Guide to Movies on Television, which was published in 1973. Like Scheuer’s early editions, the book was skimpy on detail and had a lower coverage of around 5,000 films. With Scheuer’s book readily available in the UK as an import the Allans’ book failed to get a regular update. A second edition did not follow until 1980, and by then a major new player had entered the UK market.
Leslie Halliwell was a film buff with an extraordinary encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema. Halliwell had grown up in Bolton in Northern England and was a keen cinemagoer. He was involved in his school’s film society and undertook research to learn more about the industry. Through journalism, he found his way to becoming a researcher and buyer for Granada TV calling on his vast knowledge of the cinema for new purchasing deals. In 1965, Halliwell published his Filmgoer’s Companion, which listed many major stars, directors, producers, writers and technical crew as well as most of the classic films. The book proved immensely popular and would be updated on a regular basis. In 1977, Halliwell published his Halliwell’s Film Guide. The guide was at this point the most comprehensive on the market, the author noting: “When I pick it up, with something of an effort, I can scarcely believe that I typed every word with my two overworked and untrained index fingers. But I did.” (Binder n.d.) The first edition covered 8,000 English-language films, but the guide was quickly expanded via an update every two years to double that count of films (including foreign entries) by 1988. Halliwell passed away in 1989, but his Film Guide would be continued by other editors until its last edition in 2008.
The 1980s and 90s saw the demand for movie reference books grow considerably with the advent of home video. The public could now consume movies new in the cinema when scheduled on TV or by choice from video rental shops. Many guides in this period concentrated on the new home entertainment medium. Those emerging during this period that achieved some longevity included Consumer Guide’s Rating the Movies (from 1982), Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion (from 1985), Mick Martin & Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide (from 1985), Time Out Film Guide (from 1989), Variety Movie Guide (from 1990), Elliot’s Guide to Films on Video (from 1990), Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever (from 1990), Virgin Film Guide (from 1991), TLA Film & Video Guide (from 1991) and Blockbuster Entertainment Guide to Movies and Videos (from 1994). In the UK two major new titles emerged in Derek Winnert’s Radio Times Film & Video Guide (from 1993) and David Quinlan’s TV Times Film & Video Guide (also from 1993). The former title would be subject to a high court challenge from the Leslie Halliwell estate for alleged similarities to Halliwell’s own guide. The result was it being pulped following the publication of its second edition. It would be later superseded by the Radio Times Guide to Films from 2000. Arguably, the most important work to emerge during this period was Jay Robert Nash, Stanley Ralph Ross and Robert B. Connelly’s massive ten-volume The Motion Picture Guide. This monumental work was aimed primarily at the library market and was published between 1985 and 1987 with annual volumes following until 1999. The initial ten volumes covered more than 50,000 movies in more detail and with longer reviews than any other guide. Page count was not an issue due to the removal of single-volume restrictions.
With the advent of the internet and, more notably, in 1990 the creation of The Internet Movie Database, the interest in a physical guide to films started to wane. IMDb had taken on the mantle created by The Motion Picture Guide in its aim to be comprehensive. Printed movie guide titles began to drop away. Pioneer Steven H. Scheuer’s Movies on TV and Videocassette was the first major title to cease publication, following its 1993-4 edition published in 1992, seemingly having lost its battle with Leonard Maltin’s alternative. Others followed at a steady rate over the next couple of decades as IMDb and other online movie reference and aggregator sites became more comprehensive and accurate. By 2013 there were only three major print titles remaining: Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever and the Radio Times Guide to Films. The final 2015 edition of Maltin’s guide was published in 2014 and the Radio Times publication ceased in 2017 with its 2018 edition. That left just one guide, Videohound, surviving in print. However, when the 2022 edition failed to materialise at the end of 2021 the printed movie guide ceased to be.
Whilst the modern aggregator sites provide a consensus rating for all new movie releases based on the opinions of sometimes hundreds of critics (both professional and amateur), they provide scant coverage for pre-internet era films. At the time of writing, Rotten Tomatoes, for example, will give you a consensus view of 2018’s BLACK PANTHER based on the opinions of 525 critics; MRQE is more selective and will give you a consensus, based on 167 critics; Metacritic narrows it down further to 55 critics. IMDb meanwhile accepts ratings from the public, so rather than a critical consensus you get a public vote. For BLACK PANTHER that currently includes a weighted average rating based on 693,588 voters. The All Movie Guide offers just one uncalculated rating (presumably based on their editorial team’s decision) and a write-up review from a single critic.
Apply the same search to a pretty well-known film from Hollywood’s golden age, such as 1953’s Robert Mitchum/Jean Simmons vehicle ANGEL FACE and the picture is very different. Rotten Tomatoes has a rating view based on 12 critics but offers no consensus summary; MRQE offers no aggregated rating although it has four critics with a rating submission and links to twenty reviews; Metacritic has no coverage of the film at all; IMDb gives a rating based on votes from 7,564 members of the public; All Movie Guide also covers the film with a rating and review. Delve down into titles with a little more obscurity and the numbers from the aggregator sites diminish further to the point where no coverage is provided or there are just a handful of public votes on IMDb. Only the All Movie Guide retains coverage of older material offering ratings and reviews on most major titles and many minor ones.
For reasons of nostalgia and research, I have retained the latest editions of all my old print guides to ensure I can get broad coverage of opinion on both the old and the new. Whilst the online resources can be constantly updated and evolve, books are a permanent tangible archive. One day we will hopefully see the Movie Guide return to print, offering retrospective and literate reviews and opinions from movie experts that will provide hours of browsing fascination for movie fans.
PRINTED MOVIE GUIDES IN MY COLLECTION
Title (Latest Edition – No of Titles Reviewed)
Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever (2021 – 29,000)
Radio Times Guide to Films (2018 – 24,600) now online
Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide (silent – 1965) (2015 – 10,000)
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide (2015 – 16,000)
Time Out Film Guide (2011 – 19,000) now online
Halliwell’s Film Guide (2008 – 24,000)
Empire Film Guide (2007 – 3,000)
DVD & Video Guide (Mick Martin/Marsha Porter) (2007 – 20,000)
TV Guide Film & Video Companion (US)/Virgin Film Guide (UK) (2006 – 3,500) now online
TLA Video & DVD Guide (2005 – 10,000)
Variety Movie Guide (2001 – 8,600) now online
TV Times Film & Video Guide (1999 – 7,000)
Blockbuster Guide to Movies & Videos (1999 – 23,000)
AMC Classic Movie Companion (Robert Moses) (1999 – 5,000)
Essential Monster Movie Guide (Stephen Jones) (1999 – 3,500)
Roger Ebert’s Video Companion/Yearbook (1998 – 1,500)
Creature Features (John Stanley) (1997 – 3,400)
Elliott’s Guide to Home Entertainment (1997 – 10,500)
The Ultimate Movie Thesaurus (Christopher Case) (1996 – 8,000)
Mark Satern’s Illustrated Guide to Video’s Best (1995 – 3,660)
Radio Times Family Video Guide (Barry Norman/Emma Norman) (1995 – 1,500)
Radio Times Film & Video Guide (Derek Winnert) (1994 – 18,000)
The Critics Film Guide (Christopher Tookey) (1994 – 2,000)
Movies on TV and Videocassette (Stephen H Scheuer) (1993 – 20,000)
Consumer Guide – Rating the Movies (Jay A Brown) (1990 – 3,900)
The Good Film & Video Guide (David Shipman) (1986 – 6,500)
The Motion Picture Guide (Jay Robert Nash/Stanley Ralp Ross) (1985 – 50,000)
Best 1,000 Movies on Video (Peter Waymark) (1984 – 1,000)
The Sunday Times Guide to Movies on Television (1980 – 5,000)
Binder, Michael. n.d. LeslieHalliwell.com. Accessed March 2, 2021. http://lesliehalliwell.com/brief_history/index.html#.
Brennan, Patricia. 1987. “Leonard Maltin was a Young Movie Nut.” The Courier-News (from The Washington Post), July 10: B-13.
Clavin, Tom. 1992. “Long Island Q&A;: Steven H. Scheuer – Fast Forward Through 30 Years of TV.” The New York Times, April 19: Section 12LI page 2.
Ebert, Roger. 2014. RogerEbert.com. September 15. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/leonard-maltins-final-guide-marks-the-end-of-an-era.
Erstein, Hap. 1997. “The Man of a Thousand Reviews.” The Palm Beach Post, September 22: 1D.
Leopold, Todd. 2014. CNN.com. September 3. Accessed March 4, 2021. https://edition.cnn.com/2014/09/02/showbiz/movies/leonard-maltin-movie-guide-ending/index.html.
Meyer, Gary. 2015. EatDrinkFilms.com. September 25. Accessed February 26, 2021. https://eatdrinkfilms.com/2015/09/25/maltin-and-the-movies-an-interview-with-leonard-maltin/.