A Dozen Years and Counting

January 26, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

Today, ReelViews turns twelve. Next year, it will be a teenager. Looking back at my own life, I turned twelve in September 1979. Not a remarkable month as I can remember. Carter was President and the economy stunk, but at my age, I didn't care much about either. The Cold War was in full swing and we still sometimes called the U.S.S.R. "Russia." I had just started Junior High School - probably the most unpleasant two years in my academic career. (I liked grade school and high school but not what came in between.) I was into Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Dungeons & Dragons (an early adopter - that's when you had to go to specialty hobby shops to get the dice and books). I did a lot of reading and writing, watched a little TV, and spent about 30 minutes a day playing on my Atari video console (usually before dinner unless it was warm outside). Homework rarely took more than an hour, and frequently much less, so I had plenty of time for other things. I went to the movies about four times in a year. And my (future) wife wasn't yet born.

ReelViews didn't start until 1996, but I embarked upon a hobby of movie reviewing in late 1991. I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in December 1990 with a Master's in Electrical Engineering and began working at the company that funded my graduate education. (I'm not sure that sort of thing happens any more, anywhere.) I moved into a dark, pokey three-room apartment that was actually a converted attic. There were squirrels in the walls. It was cold in the winter (the radiators didn't work well, so the landlady provided a space heater) and hot in the summer (with no insulation between my living space and the roof, it could get to 110 F on a hot day). I soon found that I had a lot of spare time on my hands after dinner. All the hours that had been devoted to solving partial differential equations and preparing for exams were open, and TV just wasn't good enough to while away the evenings. For more than a half year, I used my newfound free time to write a novel (The Price of the Crown, available on this site) but, by the end of the summer, I was looking for something else to do. Finally, in early September, I decided to embark upon a special "project."

At the time, I was still a Trekker (the preferred term for fans who don't dress up and otherwise go overboard). With Star Trek VI arriving in theaters in early December, I decided to watch one episode of the old series every day and write a few short paragraphs detailing my feelings about it. I added a numerical score. When I got to the movies, I did the same thing but the write-ups were longer. By mid-December 1991, I had finished the project but decided that I missed doing that sort of thing. So, I moved on to movies. During the latter half of 1991, I had been venturing to a local multiplex more often - once I got over the hurdle of going to theaters by myself. So, beginning in January 1992, I started writing capsule reviews (about 250 words each). None of these ever reached the general public arena (although I have edited and added a few to the website over the years - examples are Scent of a Woman and Enchanted April). My 1992 production was about 185 of these capsules. Beginning in January 1993, I "went public." I wrote longer reviews and began posting them to the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews, which is where I resided for the next three years. Of the "regulars" from back in those days, there may only be one other who's still active in on-line reviewing. (There weren't that many of us to begin with.) My reputation, to the extent that I have one, is derived as much from my longevity as from my actual writing. It's tough to find anyone with a consistent 15 year track record of on-line scribbling.

At the beginning of 1996, I decided I wanted my own space on the web. It was a much smaller community than it is now, but growing every day. Not many people had personal web pages but that was also changing. Netscape was replacing Mosaic as the browser of choice. IE didn't yet have much of a foothold, if it had any. I don't think I started paying attention to it until 1997 or thereabouts. I acquired my personal web space just after New Year's Day and started playing with it. Then came the Blizzard of 1996 - 30" of snow keeping me inside for a Saturday afternoon through the following Tuesday. During this time, the website went from nothing to a modest collection of about 100 reviews. By January 26, the day it went live via a Usenet announcement, the archives contained about 800 reviews. Now, they're up to more than 3500.

Over the years, the website has given me many wonderful things. My wife found me through it. (Without it, I would never have met her - there's no way our paths would have randomly crossed.) Roger Ebert contacted me as a result of it. I gained a certain amount of notoriety in critical circles. And I discovered how cripplingly expensive a hobby like this can be. So, in order to keep it going, I had to turn it into a business. That decision was difficult to make because it meant getting rid of my tagline: "The largest non-commercial movie site on the Internet." But economics trumps aesthetics. With a larger mortgage and a wife in grad school to support, the choice was clear: either make some money from the site or give it up. I elected the former. So ReelViews lives on, albeit with commercials. Hopefully, the content has only improved.

Where do things go from here? If I can make this work as a business venture, I may be forced by circumstances to move into it full time. (As far as my "day job" goes, the writing is on the wall - I may be able to stay another year but it would be a surprise if I was still employed there in 24 months. It's a shrinking business and an economic downturn isn't going to improve things.) When that point comes, I'll have to make a choice: go all ReelViews all the time or scale it down and look for another "day job" that will absorb more of my time. A lot of what I'm doing with the website now is geared toward closing the gap between the revenue it currently generates and what is needed to keep me from seeking other employment. That gap has narrowed from a chasm to a fissure but it's not yet closed. Pop-unders (arguably the least intrusive of the advertising methods I haven't yet tried) are probably on the horizon, but I have decreed certain options to be forbidden (crawling layered ads, five-second audio "screams", ads with adult content, and so forth). I'd rather shut the site down than go in that direction. If it's unreadable, what's the point?

So those are a few random thoughts on this 12th anniversary. Lest the view of the future sound too gloomy, I think it highly unlikely that ReelViews will have to undergo a major downsizing (assuming the Internet ad industry doesn't collapse and readers keep supporting the site by visiting the advertisers). On the bright side, if I can make this work, the content will escalate. ReelThoughts would go to six times a week (although, recently, it has almost been there) and there would be 2-3 DVD reviews per week.

Finally, thanks to everyone who has bookmarked the site and read the content over the years. It's your faithfulness that keeps me going. And, although I may come across as militant and intransigent in my writing (it's a style), I'm actually humbled by the success of the site and by the number of people who keep coming back.

I'll return to this space on Monday with some informed speculation about when some of the highest profile titles might reach Blu-Ray. And, if you haven't already, check out the new DVD review of He Was a Quiet Man, an overlooked title that deserves more attention than it has gotten.