Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Me, movies and movie books

So last week I signed a contract with McFarland Publishers for a book, due next year, on Alien Visitors (working title): ET invaders, alien/human romance, friendly aliens, alien superheroes, aliens as refugees, as portrayed in movies and TV And that got me thinking about how I started writing movie books, which got me thinking about when I really started loving movies: a PBS afternoon showing of Captain Blood.

Captain Blood (1935) is, of course a fantastic movie. Errol Flynn. Olivia deHaviland. Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill as villains. Unjustly accused man sold into slavery, becomes pirate, winds up redeeming himself and living happily ever after. That said, I’m not sure why that movie, in particular, got me hooked. I had, after all, watched Universal horror films and Abbott & Costello in syndication pretty much from when I arrived in the U.S., and those included some awesome films too. Was it just my age when I caught the swashbuckler? Or that Captain Blood aired without commercials? All I know is, if memory is accurate, watching made me conscious of and more interested in old movies than I’d ever been before.

A few years later I was in college and film series were everywhere. I saw Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Scaramouche and Captain Blood (the fencing team had a film series) and countless others. Ted Turner’s TBS cable network had kicked off and showed lots of old movies — back then it was a dry run for Turner Classic — which kept me going during summers. It was a cool time to like old movies.

I also liked movie books. Citadel’s line of filmographies (Films of Gene Kelly, Films of Cary Grant, Films of Errol Flynn, etc.) gave me information I couldn’t find anywhere else in those pre-Internet days. Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies provided capsule reviews and ratings for hundreds of films, though the selection in those early editions was erratic. Maltin specifically focused on movies available for TV viewing, which was a limited selection in the 1970s.

One thing I noticed didn’t get much coverage in any book: movies made for television. Everyone in those days looked down on them as a bastardized hybrid of TV and “real” film. Maltin only covered them grudgingly in the first few editions; filmography books condescended to provide cast lists but usually nothing more. While TV churned out plenty of speculative fiction films — Crowhaven Farm, The Love War, Bermuda Depths, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island (it involves a robot basketball team) — books on SF and horror film ignored them too. Eventually I started my own filmography to plug the gap.

Credit for that idea goes to my college (and since) friend Ross Bagby. When I met him, he’d already been compiling episode guides to shows he watched — something you had to do yourself in that era — and lists of SF TV movies as well. He got me hooked on doing the same, and I kept on doing it after college.

Fast-forward to the 1990s, by which time I’d done a variety of writing: articles for Dragon Magazine, occasional short stories, some newspaper stringing and three or four unpublished novels. Reflecting on how little information was out there on made-for-TV specfic films, it occurred to me that this was a niche in the film-book marketplace I could fill … so maybe I would some day.

Hey, why not now?

Having bought several film-reference books by the McFarland publishing house, I figured they’d be a good choice as publisher. I submitted a proposal, got a yes, with modifications — a lot of movies with marginal speculative elements went into an appendix to save space — and began work on what eventually became Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan. The title, if you can’t guess, reflected what I considered the typical subject matter of SF, fantasy and horror in made-for-TV films.

In hindsight, my timing was perfect. The Internet made it possible to contact people and trade tapes of various movies that otherwise I’d never have been able to see, and to gain information from a few movie experts. A few years earlier, I’d have been stuck. And if I’d done it much later I’d have been cursed with having to include Sci-Fi’s endless string of monster movies (Manticore, Mansquito, etc.).

Having done one, it was probably inevitable I did more, including one I self-published. I might have stopped there — these books are fun, but hardly a profit center for me — but a couple of years back a friend put me in touch with a freelance editor for an academic press. He proposed Space Invaders as a concept I could pitch to his press — this would work out well for him as well — helped me work on the proposal … and then the press dropped him. He gave me his blessing to use the idea elsewhere, and eventually, obviously I did.

Once again, the luck broke my way. I’d proposed an encyclopedic treatment but McFarland suggested a somewhat smaller book, focusing in detail on a few movies and only noting the others. This will probably be more manageable than letting the subject matter consume me for the next 15 months.

Wish me luck, though just in case.



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