At this year’s Tacoma Film Festival, the most famous person in attendance won’t be a filmmaker, or an actor. It’ll be the person who throws the filmmakers into the spotlight: a critic.
Leonard Maltin — who’s been critiquing film since 1967 and whose “Movie Guide” is probably the most respected tome in the industry — flies into town Friday to watch and talk movies with Tacoma. With a pre-film reception and post-film discussion for Friday night’s screening of the political thriller “The Two Faces of January,” plus a meet-and-greet book signing before Saturday’s screening of Frank Capra classic “State of the Union” (Maltin’s own choice), there will be plenty of chances for Maltin fans to meet the man who was “Entertainment Tonight’s” first film critic.
Born in New York City in 1950, Maltin began as a film writer for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 while he was still in high school. He also published a film fanzine – and when an editor at Signet Books met him through a mutual friend, the idea to publish a definitive TV movie guide was born. Maltin watched countless films at the Metropolitan Museum and revival theaters, later earning a journalism degree at New York University – and the “Leonard Maltin Movie and Video Guide” (annual since 1969) became the go-to reference for film buffs.
Though the book has just been released in its final edition, Maltin is staying busy. He’s currently working on a new edition of the “Classic Movie Guide,” teaches film courses at University of Southern California, and keeps up his own website, leonardmaltin.com, which is syndicated through Indiewire, as well as does freelance work.
So why is he coming to the Tacoma Film Festival? Over the phone from his Los Angeles home, Maltin spoke with The News Tribune about that, how the Internet has changed film writing and just what ingredients make a good film.
Q: Tacoma’s not exactly a huge film town. Why are you coming to the TFF?
A: Because they asked me.
Q: What do you think of “The Two Faces of January,” which you’re attending Friday?
A: I actually haven’t seen it yet. Between my teaching and my website, I don’t get a lot of time. That’s one of the great things about festivals: You see so many new things.
And they give people not only the opportunity to see films they might not see otherwise, but also an imperative to see them. You have a great art theater here in The Grand Cinema, but even with that, it’s hard to get people off their butts and out to see movies. When you underscore films as part of a festival, you give them an importance that says, “You need to see this.” Making a film is a lot of work, but the hardest part is getting people to see it. A festival does that. They serve a really important function: to develop film audiences.
Q: You’ve reviewed a lot of movies in your time, including the famously short review for the 1948 “Isn’t it Romantic?”: “No.” What’s your criteria for judging a film?
A: I don’t have a checklist. I try to judge each movie on its own terms, that it’s good for what it is. So if you’re going to make a silly ghost movie, make a good silly ghost movie. I can only give my personal response. I put a lot of stock in originality – something I haven’t seen six times before in the last year. That said, I see some formula movies that work because they revitalize the formula. Some people put comic book super-hero movies into a pigeonhole, but Marvel turned “Captain America” into a very scary political thriller with a point of view about geoprivacy and what’s happening in the world. … It’s a film that satisfied super-hero fans but managed to bring a new perspective to (the genre).
Q: How are you feeling about the end of the “Movie Guide”?
A: I went through my mourning process a couple of years ago, when I saw this coming due to dropping sales and the influence of the Internet. People are accustomed to getting everything for free on a mobile device – the double-whammy that they couldn’t combat. Plus, we had an office of 12 people that had to get paid for labor-intensive work. You can’t do that for free.
But my consolation prize is the new edition of the “Classic Movie Guide.” It’s a smaller project and less costly.
Q: How else has the Internet changed the job of a film critic?
A: It changed my job completely, because now many people think my job is irrelevant. In the blogosphere, everyone has an opinion and wants to say it. And, of course, they can. But as Stephen Colbert once said, opinions are like mix-tapes: I don’t want to listen to yours. Entertainment Weekly fired all their film critics, so did People Magazine. I feel incredibly lucky that I’m still employed, and that I established a reputation when I did. I don’t know how you’d do this today.
Q: How would you justify your job now?
A: I don’t think that’s changed since the beginning of journalism. As a film-goer, I don’t need critics for their opinions. I look for insight, for illumination of something I didn’t see myself, whether good or bad. I’m looking for good writing. That’s what makes a good critic, and I know that’s what other people look for too.