25 years with Empire

“I had it Marcus. I had it in my hands.”

Raiders Empire cover - yellow - web version

Fitting that a Raiders of the Lost Ark quote comes to mind when writing about Empire hitting its quarter century. Spielberg is their director of choice: he edited the 20th anniversary edition in June 2009, the magazine published a “Director’s Collection” one-shot dedicated to his work in 2001 and named him the greatest director of all time in 2005.

And 25 years ago, in Wakefield General Store in Raunds, Northamptonshire (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore), I held Empire issue #1. The one with Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder on the front. I had it in my hands. And I put it back.

The name of the cheaper film magazine I plumped for has long since evaporated from my pre-frontal cortex (Melanie Griffith in Working Girl graced the cover though), but the memory of having that premiere issue of Empire in my mitts has not.

My first Empire moment proper occurred in July 1989, laid up in Kettering Hospital recovering from an asthma attack. Mum was being splendid and buying me anything with Tim Burton’s Batman on the cover to cheer me up.Empire 25 feature - issue 2

This is how I came to have issue #2. An issue that featured a set-report on Burton’s Batman, a feature on Ghostbusters 2, a piece on a young upstart named Steven Soderbergh whose first film had just won the Palme D’Or, an interview with a 27 year old Jodie Foster, and a skewering of Meryl Streep in the late Tom Hibbert’s short-lived but amusing “glittering career” hatchet job series. Danny Baker may have even had a back-of-the-issue column.

And I realise it’s an indication of our infantalised, pop-culture obsessed era that one of my most committed, successful relationships is with a film magazine (albeit the world’s most popular one).

There were movie mags pre-Empire. The Monthly Film Bulletin, Sight and Sound (originally a quarterly that went monthly in 1991 after absorbing MFB) and Film Review are notable examples, but they rarely reached my sleepy commuter town.

Yet, like Facebook’s appeal to those indifferent to Bebo or MySpace, Empire’s tone, layout and focus struck a chord, just as its big sister music mag Q had done before it.

Despite being launched at Cannes it is ashamedly populist, but with quality writing and classy design the magazine has shaped opinion and created debate from the get-go. I remember a letter criticising the political nature of an early Heartbreak Ridge review. Apparently the two-star Silence of the Lambs video review (by that man Hibbert again) cooked up a banquet of hate mail.

And issue #2’s letter pages featured five angry missives about Hibbert’s evisceration of Mickey Rourke in the premiere issue. I’ve never read the piece; it sounds hilarious.

Empire 25 feature - Star Wars coversEmpire 25 feature - Lambs IssueEmpire helped shape geek culture by making the magazine as cool as the films it covered. And they also knew how to make an event an event (or a ploy to get more money out your wallet) by doing those multiple cover issues, beginning with the Star Wars Special Editions in 1997.

The trademark white cover, used religiously up to issue 100 (for the newsagent shelf magazine at least, if not subscriber issues), was distinctive and recognizable. Though not used as much anymore they flirt with it from time to time.

And is it me or is the masthead (and name) based on the Empire Diner glimpsed in the opening montage of Manhattan?

Like any relationship, the beginning is always the most exciting part and those early issues evoke fond memories still.

As a teen developing a love of cinema, it was thrilling to have a feature on cult movies in issue #8 when few were available on VHS and DVD (or ordering from America) was near sci-fi.

A weird and wonderful extended profile of David Lynch and his work in issue #15 was read and re-read.

The striking double page close up of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in a Silence of the Lambs piece entitled, “The doctor will see you now…” in issue #24 promised a horror film like no other.

And Empire has spotted talent early, awarding Reservoir Dogs, Shallow Grave and Memento five stars upon release and remaining good friends with their creators ever since. Handy when you need an exclusive.

There have been rough spells. Many of us will remember a less than purple patch in the mid-90s when the magazine devolved into endless lists. Imagine issue #301’s mammoth Greatest Movies of All-Time feature every other issue. Although at least the Empire staff would include 1968’s if…., the greatest movie of all-time.  I mean, Christ guys, The Fifth Element was on that 301 list, and voted above Suspiria, The Seventh Sign, My Neighbour Totoro, JFK, and M.

Empire feature - dinerLike every other incumbent, the internet has caused the magazine to rethink strategies. Wistfully I look back on the days when the cover story would involve a film out that month or next, rather than in a year’s time. Oddly, it seemed to make the mag seem more immediate and relevant.

But, the internet has created a culture of getting there first being as important as getting it right. Meaning last year an Empire interview with JJ Abrams had him assuring the mag (and its readers) he was all about Trekking the Stars, having no plans to War with them…

This drive for first position means wagons are hitched to a movie long before cameras roll. Optimism reigns supreme; what’s the point in covering a movie you think will be a dog?

Then, after months of features and teasers, it is fun to play the “veracity of the review” game. We knew the Farce would be strong with The Phantom Menace when Empire originally awarded it 4 out of 5 stars. There had been too much coverage, too much build up, too much excitement at the idea of another Star Wars movie (imagine that), for it to be a 4 star flick. It had to be 5; anything less meant there was something wrong with it.

The same goes for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Both those films’ follow-ups received the crimson celestial quintet. Smaug was generous but understandable, Attack of the Clones a sign of enthusiasm dulling the senses.

In some ways though, ‘twas ever thus. Empire’s cinema reviews have often had their critical edge blunted by the heat of publicity and anticipation.

An Empire video review of an over-praised movie back in 1994 nailed this dilemma with, “Are we allowed to say Philadelphia is not very good yet?”

But, the writing remains never less than enjoyable and often electric, forever putting clear blue water between it and the infinite monkeys flinging their thoughts into the cybersphere.The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug - Bilbo, Cumberbatch, Freeman

The monthly Masterpiece section provides fresh opinions on thoroughly dissected titles. A recent feature on The Master of Disaster Irwin Allen was an engaging, bouncy overview of a (semi)forgotten filmmaking legend.

And for anyone hurling brickbats that Empire’s mantra is “more pictures, fewer words” check out this snippet from Ian Nathan’s bizarre, irresistible psycho-critique of Matthew McConaughey in True Detective:

“(McConaughey) has got this whole post-rational prophet vibe going down, a man of deep and curdled thought riffing on Nietzsche, Poe, Lovecraft and oddball, deep-Google mystical brooders like Thomas Ligotti or neo-Darwinian, empathy-is-extinction shaman-anthropologist Carlos Castaneda.”

What would the reader moaning about Heartbreak Ridge’s write-up have made of that?

Empire 25 feature - issue 30018546I have held many issues of Empire in my hands since that almost-had #1. There were a few missed months during my years living in Japan. But, not The Last Samurai edition that had my Japanese colleagues giggling when I asked them to translate the spine quote – Tom Cruise’s “Respect the cock!” credo from Magnolia rendered in Japanese.

Still, it made me knuckle down with my studying to avoid repeat situations.

And, when you’re a reader of twenty five years, you’re committed until you give up on movies altogether.

It ain’t a perfect mag. There is still too little pre-1977. Not enough movie news from around the world. Kim Newman is not let off the leash to chew in detail over the weird shit he watches. And the inspirational 1995 Movie Heaven giveaway book is long overdue a follow-up.

Yet, here’s to Empire at 50 (and issue 600). I’ll be viewing on the iPad app, bemoaning the artificiality of whatever glitter-blip the yoof of 2039 are consuming movie news on.

And Star Wars Episode XXVII will be the greatest movie of all-time.

Rob Daniel

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