Another day, another redesign

Looks like Q isn’t the only EMAP title being “repositioned”: according to Media Guardian [free registration required], film magazine Empire is being redesigned to make it more of a “luxury lifestyle title”. Oh dear.

I’m a long-time Empire reader (since it launched – I’d hate to think how much I’ve spent on the magazine over the years) and of late I’ve found it more and more disappointing. Like its stablemate Q it’s started to run hideous advertising features over a few pages, and as a reader I find that insulting: it’s not that I dislike ads – as I’ve said earlier, without ads there would be no magazine – but the deliberate aping of the magazine layout and typography to make an ad look like an article is something that really, really irritates me. More worryingly, I don’t trust it any more. Almost without fail, it gives the latest hollywood bilge a fantastic review, only to slag the movie off when it comes out on DVD. I sincerely hope there isn’t some sort of trade-off going on here, such as “we’ll give you an exclusive interview with Mr Big Megastar if you’re nice about our movie”, but it often feels as if the reviewers’ critical faculties have been given a holiday when they’re sent to see some of the big-budget blockbusters. Matrix Reloaded, anyone?

There are, of course, other film magazines out there; the two I tend to buy are Hotdog and Total Film [vested interest alert: Total Film is a Future title, and I work for various Future mags – although I’ve only written for TF once and that was a few years ago]. I think TF does what Empire used to do: it’s fast, funny and irreverent, and I look forward to reading it every month. As for Hotdog, it tries hard and runs some interesting features, but it’s all a bit samey and not quite as funny as it thinks it is. In some cases music magazines do a better job: for example Uncut’s film reviews section (like its book section) strikes the balance between being informative, entertaining and infuriating. That’s a compliment.

Another problem that affects all the movie magazines is the growing reluctance of film studios to let them review movies before they hit your local multiplex. In some cases that’s because the computer graphics aren’t ready until the very last minute, but in lots of cases it looks suspiciously like the studios don’t want reviewers to slag off their latest turkey until the all-important opening weekend is over. Different magazines respond to this in different ways: Uncut goes for a simple “a print was not available when we went to press”, while Empire generally prints a favourable preview and promises an online review when the film actually comes out. As a result, I’m turning more and more to the Net for my movie reviews: Rotten Tomatoes has proved to be much more reliable than magazine reviews again and again, especially when you find a few reviewers (Roger Ebert springs to mind) whose opinions on movies are similar to your own.

Movie magazines have a tough time: studios (and stars) have become control freaks, micro-managing interviews and doling out press access in tiny amounts, often with strings attached (you can’t talk about this, you can’t ask about that, we’ll only give you the interview if you give us the cover) and restricting preview screenings for many movies; meanwhile Internet sites do a much better job of movie reviewing and movie gossip. However, where magazines still excel is in background, analysis and fun. Long features – whether it’s the making of a blockbuster or the 100 best movie villains – don’t work too well on the Web, and one thing movie journalists have over some of their Web-based equivalents (such as Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News) is that they can actually write.