What's in a Decade?

January 26, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Time is a strange thing, as many have remarked. Days (especially those spent on trans-Pacific flights) can seem to take forever, while ten years can pass in the blink of an eye. These days, the average American may have about eight decades of life. A person's period of time on this planet doesn't seem all that long when it's put that way.

I have owned my current house for a little over five years. I have known my wife for about the same amount of time. My youngest nephews are two and six. I have been in my current job for seven years. I have been attending the Toronto Film Festival for nine years. And today ReelViews turns ten.

In "human years," that's not very long. But in "Internet years," it's an eternity. In an 18 month period between February 2005 and July 2006, many of the big sites - those that have become daily on-line visiting spots - are celebrating ten years of existence. At least where longevity is concerned, ReelViews is right up there with them. Today, there are tens of thousands of sites devoted to movies. When I started ReelViews, there were about a hundred, and what would become the biggest of them all, IMDb, was less than a year old.

The idea of starting my own website had its genesis in late 1995, when I was trying to figure out the best way to provide a repository of my previous reviews. At the time, I had written about 700 of them, and the time seemed right to carve out my own niche in cyberspace. So I took a crash course in web design and began hand-converting all 700-plus reviews from text to html. At three minutes per review (which is about what it took), the math indicates I put more than 35 hours of effort into establishing the archives. By early January 1996, I had an pilot version of the site on-line. Then, on January 26, I began publicizing its existence. That was the date when someone other than myself visited.

At the time, it was saddled with the unimaginative name of "James Berardinelli's Movie Review Page." During the first week of its existence, there were only five reviews(I couldn't for the life of me tell you what they were), but I got 80 visitors. At the time, that seemed like a lot. Then the site started growing. By late February, I was ready to add all 700 archived reviews, then I started to work on supplementary features (like commentaries). A year after the site came into existence, traffic was up to 300 visitors per day, and I decided to re-name the site from "James Berardinelli's Movie Review Page" to "ReelViews." My best friend at the time said it was the most inept name I could possibly come up with, but it stuck.

In late 1997, I moved to Colossus. They offered me a deal too good to refuse: in exchange for using their designated URL (movie-reviews.colossus.net, which remains the site's official address), they provided me with unlimited web space and unlimited bandwidth. ReelViews moved, and, with bandwidth concerns no longer an issue, I started promoting the site in earnest. It was also around this time that I received an e-mail from Roger Ebert congratulating me on the site and saying how much he enjoyed my writing. Without pay or prodding, he began low-key promotion of my reviews (a mention here, a mention there...), and people who might not otherwise have ever found ReelViews became loyal readers.

The site continued to expand at a rate that, in retrospect, was astounding. By mid-1998, ReelViews was visited by 40,000 individuals per week. A year later, it was 10,000 more. By June 2000, the weekly total had jumped to 70,000. Today, it's about 250,000 per week. The tag line of "The Largest Non-Commercial Movie Site on the 'Net" isn't hyperbole. Of course, the key words are "non-commercial." Almost every other movie site I'm familar with, whether bigger or smaller, generates some advertising revenue. Eventually, I expect that ReelViews will cross over to the dark side. That's the day when the tag line will vanish. ReelViews hasn't always been non-commercial. There was a three-month period in 1998 when I toyed with banner ads. But I was not satisfied with the impact, and never got paid, so I vowed that unless an advertising company could offer me substantial revenue, I would stay away.

Ten years, 3000 reviews, two books, and a countless number of words later, ReelViews continues to chug along. A part of me would love to make it look like a first-class site, but that would require an expenditure of money that I'm not willing to put out. (With zero revenue coming in, that means I would be digging into my own pockets.) And I'm aware that people come for the reviews and generously ignore the "quaint," graphically-impaired look of things. On balance, I'd rather have a site that is rich in content and poor in appearance, than the other way around.

So that's the story of the site - a brief indulgence for its tenth birthday. I hope I haven't put too many readers asleep with this journey down memory lane. Now it's time to come back to the present and post the review of Tristram Shandy