Interview: Leonard Maltin Discusses 45 Years Of His Movie Guide

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 17, 2013 4:10PM

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Leonard Maltin: (Photo credit: Angela Weiss/Getty Images)

When I was 12 or 13, some insightful adult (whose identity I've unfortunately forgotten) gave me Leonard Maltin's movie guide as a birthday gift. I've rabidly devoured it ever since, eagerly awaiting the new edition each fall. Over the years it's clued me to hundreds of wonderful movies I might not have heard about otherwise, everything from I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang to Koyaanisqatsi.

"I thought it was a one time thing," Leonard Maltin said. "And then five years later I got a call from my publisher, my editor, saying, 'I think we should do it again.' So we did it again, and then four years later they called and said, 'I think we should do it again.' And then they said, 'Why don’t we do this every other year?' And we did it every other year until the 80’s, when home video exploded. And the landscape changed. And also I got on Entertainment Tonight, and that made my name a little more salable, made the book a bit more salable. So my publisher said, 'I think we should do this every year.'" The 2014 edition, which has just been released, marks the 45th year of the movie guide.

Though Maltin's name and picture are front and center on the cover, he's the first to admit that the guide is a collaboration with his hand-picked team of editors. "It was never just me. From the very, very start. In fact, the wonderful man who hired me when I was 17 years old to do it for the first time said, 'You’re going to need to hire people, and just try to make sure that you don’t give away all your money.' And he was a very smart man," Maltin chuckled.

So it was a genuine thrill to speak with him about the new edition, how it's changed over the years, and the possible future of movie viewing.

"The convenience that home video and streaming offer is not only undeniable but irresistible."
CHICAGOIST: Are there still a lot of those original writeups in the book?

LEONARD MALTIN: Relatively few, because I think we’ve improved upon them. Let’s put it that way.

C: It seems like you usually add about 300 new films a year.

L.M.: That’s about the average, uh huh.

C: And how many of those reviews are yours, would you say?

L.M.: I would say half.

C: I have noticed that lately, maybe within the past five or so years, you have gone back and reconsidered a few movies. I’m thinking in particular of your review of Alien, which for the longest time had a negative review but now it’s three and a half stars.

L.M.: That happened on its 25th anniversary, when Ridley Scott retooled it every so slightly and reissued it to theaters. And so there was actually a major theatrical reissue. I went to see it and I realized I’d been wrong.

C: How frequently do you revise those old reviews?

L.M.: Not often, for a couple of reasons. One is, I don’t have time to go back and revisit; I’m so busy, since my day job keeps me watching new movies, there’s not a lot of time on a regular basis to go back and reassess older ones, whether they’re recent or very old. It happens more by accident, or by chance I should say, than anything else. But also because I don’t want to give the impression that I flip flop on my reviews on a regular basis. I take it seriously, I don’t take it lightly. The truth is, in a utopian world, in which we do not live, but in a utopian world I’d reassess every film every year. Nothing stands still in this world. Styles change, current events affect the way we watch films, the pace of movies changes. And every now and then there are real game changers among films that make you look differently at a whole genre when you look backwards. It would be wonderful to be able to say, “This is my 2013 assessment of every single one of these movies.” But it’s just not practical.

C: Imagine a weekend in which you have absolutely nothing planned. Could you name some movies that you wish you had the time to go back and rewatch?

L.M.: Oh, well, let’s see. I don’t have a readymade wishlist. I’m trying to think. Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II. I’d like to revisit them. I’d like to revisit Five Easy Pieces. I haven’t seen that in too long.

2013_9_17leonardmaltinguide.jpg C: Often I feel, like with Karen Black passing away, it makes you want to go back and rewatch some of those old performances.

L.M.: As you see, I’m naming 70’s movies, because—it’s not an original thought, but many people cherish American films of the early 70’s. It was just an extraordinary period. And many young filmmakers that I interview tell me that they take their inspiration from films of that time. Which shows good taste, it seems to me.

C: Can you talk a little bit about the Leonard Maltin app?

L.M.: Yeah, I can talk a little bit about it. I have no connection with its formulation, but I think the folks who did it did a really good job. The people at MobileAge. I like what they’ve done. I like the ease of use. I like the fact that every time they revise it, they seem to come up with new functions, new functionality. Making it even more appealing to people. It’s what I think an electronic version of a book like this ought to do. It lets you search and cross-reference and all those things you can’t do with a physical book.

C: Is the content greatly different from the print guide?

L.M.: It’s exactly the same as the printed guide, although they haven’t yet revised it in alignment with the printed book.

C: David Lynch has often said that he feels sorry for people who watch a movie on their iPhone because they haven’t really seen the movie at all. Do you agree with that?

L.M.: Yeah. I mean, most movies are meant to be seen on a big screen. Some of course suffer more than others in the transition to a small or tiny screen. But I think if you asked almost any filmmaker, he or she would tell you that they prefer you see their work on a screen preferably larger than life and with a simpatico audience. The convenience that home video and streaming offer is not only undeniable but irresistible. We all watch films through some form of home device, even if it’s a large-screen TV. But to me they’re all adjuncts or substitutes for the real thing. Not a replacement for.

C: As a critic, I imagine you are seeing movies a lot differently than you were 10 or 20 years ago. Do you see most of the movies that you review on DVD or computer?

L.M.: No, no, I see most of them on a screen. I’m lucky that I live in L.A., where they have press screenings of most new releases. Not all, but most. And if I watch a film on DVD or through a link it’s a last resort. And so sometimes I do, there’s no alternative, but it’s the last resort.

C: Do you think that will change?

L.M.: We’re already in a transition time, where some of the distributors don’t want to go to the bother of burning a DVD and sending it through the mail. They just want to send a link, which is not my preferred methodology. I’m kind of a low-tech person so I’ve stumbled my way through all of this.

C: I see that your daughter insisted that you start a Twitter account. Have you enjoyed having one?

L.M.: I use it mostly to promote my website, to try to draw people to my website, which is where I like to interact. That’s my forum, that’s my soapbox for writing about whatever moves me at the moment. So I don’t use Twitter to say that I’m getting my teeth cleaned or heading to the supermarket.

C: Is there going to be a new edition of your classic movie guide?

L.M.: I hope so. We don’t have a definite plan in place, but it’s something I very much want to do.

C: What changes or updates are you looking to make?

L.M.: We have corrections to make and amendments to make. And films to add, because they keep digging up movies. Some of the smaller distributors, the specialized distributors continue to find oddities and rarities for DVD and Blu-ray. So I’ve got a lot of revisions ready to go.

C: Yeah, to me that seems to be one of the most exciting, optimistic developments. The studios kind of digging into their vaults and finally releasing some of these films again on home video.

L.M.: Absolutely.

C: Has it been difficult deciding which movies to prune out of the main guide, to make room for all the new movies every year?

L.M.: Yeah. It’s painful to lose anything. My consolation is knowing that all those titles exist in the classic guide. The problem is that a lot of people, judging from my correspondence and the emails and even the snail mail notes I get, a lot of people still don’t know the classic guide exists. It’s why I keep trying to find new ways to tell them. [laughs]