Since 1969, film historian Leonard Maltin has put out a guide to movies on TV. The cover has changed — you could watch Leonard’s hair get grayer and grayer in his cover photo — but the guts of the book have not changed: pithy capsule reviews of new and old movies, plus credits, format, and running time. Except for this year, when Leonard’s introduction starts with this horrible sentence: "This is the final edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide." Off-Ramp contributor R.H. Greene has this obituary for an old family friend.
"You know, I actually went through my mourning process when I saw this coming. That this book that has been a constant in my life since I was 17 years old (I'm now 63), that it might not be there anymore." — Leonard Maltin to R.H. Greene
Gather ’round, for the story of a birth and a death, a rise and a fall... of a time before everyone had a computer in their pocket. When data was something you had to look up by hand. And when those family arguments about whether Harvey Keitel is in "Taxi Driver" or who played Pippi Longstocking erupted at dinner time, nobody whipped out a phone or asked Siri.
They ran to the living room, grabbed the thickest paperback they were ever going to own from the top of a square TV, and said out loud, "Let's check with Leonard Maltin."
(A scan of the cover of Leonard Maltin's personal copy of the first edition of his guide, published in 1969.)
The book variously known as "TV Movies," "Movie and Video Guide," and "Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide," has been losing money the last few years, according to Maltin. But it was a yearly bestseller, taking off when Maltin started appearing on Entertainment Tonight.
"I got a call from my editor in New York," Maltin said. "He said, 'We want to put your name above the title, and your picture on the cover.' It was the most satisfying phone call that I've ever had, because it meant that my new, budding television career was having an impact on my longtime publishing career."
Its latest edition holds around 16,000 capsule film reviews, all of them edited by Maltin, many of them written by him. But reference books are buggy whips now, because they cost money to produce, you can't talk back to them, and they don't glow in your hand. The Encyclopedia Britannica itself — the gold standard of reference for over two centuries — ceased print publication in 2010, and not that many people noticed. It's no mean feat that Maltin's guide kept publishing for four more years with that kind of writing on the wall.
Still, the death of the guide wasn't unexpected. In 2011 he foretold its demise on Off-Ramp.
Rabe: How long can you keep doing a paper book guide to the movies when we’ve got apps that can do something like this same thing?
Maltin: We have an app, but I hope we can keep going for a while longer.
What Maltin didn’t expect was the outpouring of affection, and in some cases, real grief, that has followed his announcement.
Robert Abele reviews films for the L.A. Times. At the age of 12, he bought his first Maltin. That 1979 edition still occupies a place of honor in Abele's library. It’s worn but well-preserved, showing it’s been both used and loved. Today, Abele numbers Maltin among his professional acquaintances. For Abele, Maltin's congenial personality, coupled with his unaffected love of movies, makes the guide something special.
As a global guide to cinema in a time before Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, the Maltin Guide's influence on criticism was profound. As important was its impact on filmmakers, especially those who came of age in the 80s and 90s, when the guide was at its peak.
Will it matter that there was a Maltin Movie Guide? That it inspired dozens and maybe even hundreds of kids who went on to become actors, directors, costume designers, and film critics themselves? Sure. Especially if you believe in the idea of popular culture as an endless conversation between eras, ideas, and artifacts both tacky and profound.