When Leonard Maltin was 17 years old, a teacher at his high school in Teaneck, N.J., set up a meeting between Maltin and Patrick O’Connor, an editor at Signet Books. O’Connor was looking to publish an almanac of capsule reviews to rival Steven Scheuer’s Movies on TV, and thought the young critic could get the job done. He signed Maltin up, not telling his bosses he was enlisting a teenager. “It’s fair to say I was somewhat dumbfounded,” said Maltin.
Maltin’s first compendium of capsule reviews, TV Movies, was released in 1969, when he was just 18, and included more than 8,000 write-ups. A second edition followed in 1974, a third in 1978, and succeeding editions were published every other year until 1986 when it became an annual, eventually swelling to more than 16,000 entries per book. In its 45-year lifetime, the volumes have become a staple on coffee tables and nightstands across the country, selling more than seven million copies worldwide. This year, Maltin will bid farewell to the series, as Signet prepares to release its final book, Leonard Maltin’s 2015 Movie Guide, on September 2.
“We at Penguin are proud to have published Leonard Maltin’s movie guides for 45 years,” said Kara Welsh, senior v-p and publisher at NAL. Welsh, who cited a decline in sales of the guides as the impetus for discontinuing the series, went on to say that Maltin’s “unbridled love for film will surely continue to inspire moviegoers for years to come.”
“[The series] got my foot in the door in so many ways,” said Maltin. “It launched my publishing career and became my identity.” Maltin’s exposure skyrocketed in 1982, when he was hired as Entertainment Tonight’s lead movie critic. “Then I discovered the difference between one level of success and another,” recalled Maltin.
Because of his increased visibility as a TV personality and the rise of home movie-viewing, the book took on its annual publication schedule, and started to feature Maltin’s photo on the front cover. “That’s the most satisfying part of having gone to television,” said Maltin, “that it changed the course of my publishing life.”
The reviews operate on a four-star rating system (the lowest rating is also called “BOMB”), and feature a quick look at running time, cast, and ratings. Maltin’s shortest movie review of all time, for his assessment of the 1948 musical Isn’t it Romantic?, consisted of just one word: “No.”
In 2003, Maltin launched a companion volume, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, to house reviews of films from the silent era through 1965, which made room for new write-ups in the annual guide. A second edition was published in 2010, and Maltin just got the green light to start work on a third.
Maltin and Penguin attempted to digitize the movie guide volumes, which are also published as e-books, with an iOS app, but the plan fell through earlier this year when, according to Maltin, the content licensor was unable to broker a new deal. He is “still hoping” another company will pick up those rights.
The books became not only a must-have for movie buffs, but also, said Maltin, a standard reference for industry insiders. In the age before the Internet, one of the challenges of compiling the books was retrieving accurate information about the films. Maltin developed sources at the different studios to help fill in the blanks, recalling one particularly memorable conversation with a contact at United Artists. “I asked, ‘Where do you go when you want to check the exact running time of the movie? She said, ‘Oh, we use your book!’”