This week the last issue of Empire Magazine came out. For anyone not obsessed with film during the 2000s, Empire was the best movie magazine going around, packed with insightful reviews, features on upcoming films and fascinating retrospectives on classics both revered and obscure.
I got my first issue of Empire when I was eleven and haven’t missed one since. That’s eighteen years I’ve been buying it.
As a kid fixated on film, the discovery of Empire was seminal for me. Through the magazine I discovered so much about not only the history of the medium, but what went into creating a film, the signature styles of different directors and of course, what made a good movie.
It also, almost certainly, introduced me to a few favourites that I was way, way too young for. I doubt I would have secretly watched The Silence of the Lambs, The Godfather, The Exorcist and so many more if Empire hadn’t regularly made the case that to have not seen them was to be missing out on some of the fundamental pillars of what made modern cinema.
For most of my early teenage years Empire was my bible. I would bore my friends with facts about the original King Kong or else announcements about what that Tarantino guy was doing next. I would devour every new issue and come out of it feeling a combination of informed and woefully uneducated – there was always some essential new classic that I would have to get my hands on and watch just so I could consider myself a real film buff.
Empire also taught me a lot about criticism. For the first couple of years I read the magazine, I took its reviews as gospel. I was shaken when Troy, a film I adored, got a withering review – was I wrong or was Empire? After a couple more similar cases the seeds were planted for my eventual realisation that there isn’t really such thing as right or wrong when it comes to your feelings on a movie, that different works appeal to different people for different reasons and that’s okay. That even the opinion of the most insightful, well-reasoned critic is still just an opinion.
Slowly the relationship changed. The time I was religiously reading Empire coincided with the growth of the internet as the most convenient place to access film news. By the end of high school Empire was no longer my first port of call to learn about upcoming releases, but I still clung to it for the massive behind-the-scenes features and of course, the reviews. Then came my early university discovery of websites like the once-great-now-grim A.V. Club, or Den of Geek; websites that provided reams of daily extensive analysis completely for free.
Soon I was writing my own criticism and analysis. I worked for Den of Geek and hosted a popular movie podcast. Now on the ‘inside’, my perspectives on the job of pop-culture writing changed. I still bought every issue of Empire, but its importance to me as a resource had slipped, as had my perception of its authority. Every now and then it would have a great feature or two, usually retrospectives of some sort, but for the most part the reviews seemed truncated compared to the in-depth essays available online, while the bulk of the pre-release coverage was given over to Marvel films and other blockbusters that already consumed so much oxygen. In a crowded market of film discussion, Empire no longer stood out.
I don’t make this point as a criticism of the magazine. Considering the type of content Empire provided was one of the first things to become popular online, it’s astounding that the magazine lasted as long as it did. But from the perspective of a long-time reader, it was increasingly clear that Empire was struggling to keep up and remain relevant. It felt at times like the magazine was veering wildly between identities; by turns trying to rebrand itself as a more niche exploration of cinematic obscurities or a loud, splashy celebration of all things Marvel, Star Wars and DC. The content became more political, adopting in parts the tiresome online mentality that a film should be judged more on what it had to say about Trump or whatever than whether it was actually any good.
All of this was understandable, given the nature of the magazine’s myriad online competitors. But it didn’t do a lot to make Empire’s case as being essential in a crowded market. Several times over the past few years, I found myself wondering why I still bought the magazine. I always did, but more often than not I’d give it a cursory skim then leave it on my desk, meaning to read it more thoroughly only to find that the next one was already out.
But even with all of that, the news of Empire’s end hit hard.
I think sometimes you need to lose something to realise what it meant to you. My relationship with the magazine might not have been what it once was, but the fact that it was still going and I was still buying it provided a direct link to not only my childhood, but to the time when I first understood that telling stories was what I wanted to do with my life.
Here, ultimately, is the part of this post that would be hyperbolic if it wasn’t true; I don’t think I would be the person I am today without Empire. So much of my identity as not only a film buff but as a writer and, at one point, a critic was shaped by reading that magazine in my formative years. Empire opened my mind and introduced me to countless films I never would have watched otherwise. It fostered in me a deep and abiding love for the history of cinema, a respect for the classics and an excitement for the new. It taught me that there are different kinds of greatness; that a gory zombie film can be just as brilliant as a worthy historical drama, that what a story is matters less than how it’s told.
At its best, Empire was a celebration and conversation about all of cinema, a publication that would give just as much adoring page space to A Nightmare on Elm St as Citizen Kane. And in guiding me towards so many of the stories that would inspire me, it directly helped me find what kind of storyteller I wanted to be.
For eighteen years, every month like clockwork, I would buy the new Empire. This marks the last time I’ll ever be able to.
That, along with everything the magazine meant to me, felt worth writing about.
Writing words about writing words.