Rise of an Empire: movie mag celebrates 25 years

To mark its silver jubilee, Empire magazine's current editor, Mark Dinning, invited its previous eight editors to discuss the stars and star ratings, the covers and cock-ups that have formed part of the magazine's history.

Empire editors from L-R: Andrew Collins, Ian Nathan, Emma Cochrane, Barry McIlheney, Mark Dinning, Colin Kennedy, Mark Salisbury, Mark Thomas
Empire editors from L-R: Andrew Collins, Ian Nathan, Emma Cochrane, Barry McIlheney, Mark Dinning, Colin Kennedy, Mark Salisbury, Mark Thomas
May 1989 A (still) unknown protester stands in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. Kylie (Hand On Your Heart) and Jason (Sealed With A Kiss) top the charts. Michael Thomas wins the ‘First Division’ for Arsenal at Anfield with practically the last kick of the game. And a new movie magazine is launched, a cinematic sister title to music bible Q

Formed on the back of the late ’80s flourishing of multiplexes in the UK, Empire (working title: Project Odeon) was concocted as an antidote to both the blandness of those mags sold in cinema foyers, and the staid academic journals laden with words like "inter-textuality" (aren’t they top of Serie A?) and "oeuvre". "Movies can be art. They should always be fun," ran the magazine manifesto (or, if you will, magafesto).

Twenty-five years and 299 issues later, Empire has cast its eyeballs over around 10,400 films (6,000 of which feature Steve Buscemi), seen the birth of new stars (J-Lo, J-Law), lamented the untimely passing of others (RIP River, Heath, Philip), and presided over new technologies (CGI, mo-cap), trends (heists gone wrong, torture porn, superheroes) formats (DVD, Blu-ray) and scandals (what were you thinking, Hugh?) that constitute the wonderful world of film. 

"Forrest Gump is probably my least favourite film of all time..." 

Aka what are the films that have defined Empire’s lifetime? 

Phil Thomas: Patch Adams. 

Andrew Collins: Well, Star Wars, as in the whole thing. As a franchise, as a phenomenon, as the access that the magazine has gained from being involved in that thing has grown. That’s surely what the magazine has been all about.

Emma Cochrane: But I think Lord Of The Rings stepped it up even more, because we got access from the beginning of Lord Of The Rings. We were on set right from the very start. I think that was a game-changer in terms of the access that Empire got. 

Barry McIlheney: For the first two, three years — maybe longer — we didn’t really get any access. Our big hope was, "One day, they will let us speak to Jack Nicholson." And actually, I think the lack of access really helped shape the magazine: "Well, I’m going to have to get Tom Hibbert to write 20 Things About Jack Nicholson, because we’re never going to get to interview him." That page is probably better than some Jack Nicholson phoner...

Ian Nathan: There’s a trap in access. If you’re not careful, you become their friends, you’re on the side of the studios: "You’re welcome, here is the hotel room..." When I first joined, Mark (Salisbury) said to me, "Is Empire a film magazine?" I sat there going, "What on Earth are you talking about? Of course it is!" He goes, "You’re wrong. It’s a magazine about filmgoing." And I really took that on board, because it wasn’t about living in Hollywood and hanging out with them. We weren’t part of that machine. We were going down the multiplexes and talking about it.

McIlheney: The other difference is you now have a generation of people making films who’ve grown up reading Empire.

Mark Dinning: Our last cover story was Godzilla, which has been made by Gareth Edwards, who grew up reading Empire. And Edgar Wright, those kinds of guys… 

Cochrane: (Getting things back on topic) Tarantino, definitely. 

Mark Salisbury: Trainspotting. It was the first British film on the cover.  

Colin Kennedy: I thought Trainspotting was the moment when Empire had arrived, because the British movie industry had arrived. At that point, we had the cover first, and it was such a strong, confident movie, and it was a five-star review, and it was just…

Thomas: But it’s an interesting comparison, because if you take something like Reservoir Dogs, it did define Empire in many ways, but actually at the time, if you remember, we had to say to the staff, "We’re not actually about Reservoir Dogs, we’re about Speed," because Speed was out at the same time. 

Dinning: Is that why you put Forrest Gump on the cover when you could’ve put Pulp Fiction? 

Thomas: We had this big internal debate: are we about these little, fantastically interesting films over here that actually don’t make much money, or are we about the big Hollywood blockbusters? And we decided, we are about Speed. What we didn’t know about Pulp Fiction was that it would cross right over. If we’d known that, in hindsight we probably would have put Pulp Fiction on the cover. As it happens, Forrest Gump is probably my least favourite film of all time. So why the fuck we put it on the cover, I’ll never know. 

Cochrane: When Colin and I joined Empire, what we found was basically what Colin called "The Christmas Eve Effect", that you want to talk about a film before it comes out…

Kennedy: … before you know how bad it is. That’s why we could sell loads of copies with Van Helsing on the cover.

Collins: That’s got to be the big turnaround. Going from, "It’s out now," to, "It’s out next year. We’re already on the case."

Kennedy: The change from doing movies as they come out to doing them much [more] in advance was based on the summer of 2001. Right, so, The Mummy Returns: two-star movie. Lara Croft: two--star movie. Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes: two-star movie. Pearl Harbor: four stars… Obviously. We were out the day Pearl Harbor came out, and it was nailed to the shelves, and it was the only time I’ve seen people reading Empire on the Tube where they folded it over so people couldn’t see the cover.

Dinning: The A. I. cover reflects how bad a four months it was, because the cover line says, "At last! Two movies to get excited about!" (Laughter

McIlheney: That’s amazing.

Kennedy: We got so much shit about that.

Thomas: Well, I bet you got shit about that because part of the whole ethos of Empire was anti the way that most films were written about. The way that films were mostly written about was summed up by Time Out in the year we launched. Time Out had a review of a film that they described as "difficult to dislike". (Laughter) In other words, "If only we could dislike this more than we do..."

McIlheney: That’s right. The default setting was, "We have to dislike this, to prove we’re really difficult," whereas ours was, "We want to like this, it has to be absolute shit for us not to in some way."

"There was a huge argument about Attack Of The Clones."

Aka what is your biggest star-rating clunker? 

Collins: I gave Die Hard With A Vengeance five stars. It was because it was the first time I’d seen a Die Hard film for free. I had to pay for the first two, and this one I didn’t have to pay for, and it was quite exciting to see it. Die Hard Free... 

Nathan: But you pulled Mark (Salisbury) and I aside to tell us. You knew there would be a rebellion.

Collins: It wasn’t done for nefarious reasons. I was really excited about it.

McIlheney: I think we gave Dick Tracy four stars, and it’s clearly not a four-star film. I think I gave a very enthusiastic review to Oliver Stone’s The Doors. I saw it recently and I thought, "God almighty..."

Salisbury: I remember giving The Crying Game two stars. But I have to say, nobody really liked it in the UK at that point. And my enjoyment was spoiled by two factors: one was that I went on set and asked Neil Jordan what the film was about, a one-line synopsis, and he said to me, "She’s got a dick." (Laughter

McIlheney: You’re kidding me!

Salisbury: And then I was watching the actual film and just before the reveal, Jaye Davidson walked into the screening room with a bottle of wine and realised he was in the wrong cinema. So I just didn’t like it. 

Thomas: The biggest argument I remember having was over Four Weddings. I sent a journalist out to do Four Weddings and he came back and gave it two. And it was quite an interesting moment: what do we actually stand for as a magazine? Because his view was that it was just fluffy shit. My view was, "I think a star is born in Hugh Grant, and I think people are going to like this film." So I rewrote it and gave it four stars, and he went absolutely spare, as you can imagine. But actually, I stand by that four-star rating. 

Nathan: The biggest one in my time was The Phantom Menace… 

Cochrane: There was a huge argument about Attack Of The Clones. Basically I said it was rubbish, and was accused of hating Star Wars. And I said, "No, I don’t hate Star Wars, I love the original Star Wars, I just hate all the new ones." And then there was a big thing of, "No, you are wrong, you are wrong." For three days! 

Kennedy: You had to go [on maternity leave] and Chris Hewitt filed a five-star review. We’d all settled on four, but Chris filed it as five, and you’d left the building. I thought, "Well, she’s not going to notice..."

Dinning: I egged Hewitt on... Yoda had a lightsaber! I loved it at the time but in hindsight, yeah… My fault.

Kennedy: But the interesting thing is, if you read most of those reviews, it’s a balanced review. If you read — in fact, you haven’t even asked me because it’s obvious — Pearl Harbor, we gave it four. We gave it four, it was Adam Smith, and he made the case. I think his review is a strong piece of writing. It’s just, all the angry letters didn’t engage with the points in the [review], they just said, "Four stars?!"

Nathan: I think there’s been a change in when people like to read reviews. Nowadays it is after they’ve seen a film. I think they come to us to see what we think, and to join in the debate.

Kennedy: Some of the key reviews run late anyway. And actually, they want their opinion expressed in a more articulate form. We gave Hannibal two stars, and our readers had already seen it and they’d decided it was a really good night out. And we did this really devastating critique saying, "If you liked this movie, you weren’t watching it properly." (Laughter) And they were way more offended than Pearl Harbor. Basically we called them stupid. And they’re not.

"I once interviewed Pamela Anderson on the bog…"

Aka what were your most memorable interviews? 

Thomas: I once interviewed Pamela Anderson while I was at home on a phoner, taken short, and did most of the interview sitting on the bog. Which I actually put into the piece. 

McIlheney: I did the Coen brothers. I loved — and still love — the Coen brothers and we had them photographed by the Douglas brothers. This is what passed for an editorial idea in those days. I remember the only moment when they appeared engaged at all was when I went, "Oh, I’ve got a brother." (Laughter) And the Coens were like, "Really? Is he older or younger than you?" 

Salisbury: I’ve got two. One, David Fincher for Seven, because he was fantastic and I got him talking about Alien 3, and he said he’s interested in movies that scar, and that’s the quote that’s been linked to him since then.

Nathan: I remember shortly after Phil had offered me the editor’s job and I’d said yes, so I was in a bit of a daze, I got back to my desk and the phone rang, and this voice went, "Hi, I’ve got Joel Schumacher on the line for you." I thought, "Hollywood knows already!"

Cochrane: I’d bought Empire since the second issue — I was a film fan — so for me it’d be going onto the set and doing those big set pieces. So I was the first on Harry Potter, I was first on the first X-Men, and seeing the way they’d built the set and created the world and who they’d cast, getting that insight into the movie, I mean, that’s your dream. That’s what you get from reading Empire

Salisbury: I had interviewed Steven Spielberg in his office and had to do a follow-up phoner the following week, and I remember being at home on the phone, and there being a tremor, and him just screaming, "Earthquake!" into my ear. And then him just going, "Okay, I’m going to take you into the doorframe." So I’m sitting at home, and Spielberg — the biggest director in the world — is going into a doorframe and going, "Okay, next question." And suddenly, the next question about Raiders Of The Lost Ark doesn’t really seem very good. 

Nathan: I also went onto Tomorrow Never Dies. I’d never been on a Bond set, and it was a dream come true. It had all gone very well and I’d got time with Brosnan, but I’d kept being the editor quiet, and then he got told, and from then on, he wouldn’t leave me alone. I was walking around on set, and Brosnan was at my side. Any time I interviewed anybody, fucking James Bond kept coming in: "He’s the editor, you know." 

Kennedy: So I obviously didn’t know that editors were meant to take all the best gigs. I did no interviews as editor. I did do some good director interviews, though. People like Sam Mendes and Steven Soderbergh. And I remember embarrassing myself by being drunk and accosting George Lucas on (Microsoft co-founder) Paul Allen’s yacht at Cannes. I can remember that much more clearly than any of the interviews. 

Thomas: I think also, when we started, Hollywood just wasn’t used to our way of doing things. And we launched this page called, How Much Is A Pint Of Milk? And the whole point of that was to try to puncture the wanky Hollywood bubble. 

I did Woody Harrelson, and halfway through the interview he said, "Can we just stop a minute. Are you the kind of guy that really pisses people off?" (Laughter) And we were trying to do something a little bit different...

Salisbury: But they were brilliant. I did Dennis Hopper for that, and one of the questions was, "Brown sauce or ketchup?" And Dennis Hopper didn’t know what brown sauce was, so I had to explain what brown sauce was to Dennis Hopper. 

Dinning: My favourite star was Angelina Jolie when she was in Tomb Raider. It was on the 007 Stage at Pinewood, which obviously was all dressed up like a tomb so you felt like Indiana Jones already. And they said, "Sit on the top of the steps, she’ll be over in a minute." And then she skips over to me in the whole Lara Croft outfit with everything bouncing around, and then lay with her head in my lap while I interviewed her for an hour. That was a good day.

"We’ll have Pirates Of The Caribbean 44 on the cover…"

Aka where will Empire be in 25 years’ time?

Kennedy: It’ll be projected onto your eyeballs.

Collins: Let’s be really optimistic and say there’ll still be a paper version. Because that’s the utopia that I want to live in. 

McIlheney: It will be, it will be. 

Dinning: We’ll have Pirates Of The Caribbean 44 on the cover. 

Kennedy: To be honest, all my future stuff is taken from Back To The Future, and next year, as I’m told, it’s the future-versary. And they have got a hell of a lot of work to do. There are no hoverboards. But as long as Empire’s still there.

Dinning: But also, the filmmakers keep coming, and we’ve been really lucky to get people like Christopher Nolan and J. J. Abrams. So long as the filmmakers are making the good films, there’s a reason for Empire to thrive. And that seems to be happening more and more. The new generation of filmmakers is coming, and they’re great. 

Collins: The important question to ask is how much a pint of milk will be in 25 years’ time…

An edited extract from a feature running in tomorrow's Empire magazine, celebrating its first 25 years.

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