A Modest First-Anniversary Spectacular

Feature article by Matt Heffernan
July 1, 2000

So why write an article for the first anniversary of FilmHead.com? All along, I have maintained a history page, like many corporate sites. However, that was more or less a collection of chronological milestones. What I want to do here is share my thoughts on how it was spending a year as both a film critic and a webmaster for an increasingly large website.

First off, why would one even think of starting such a site? Certainly, this is a field with many players, and most of them fall well outside the radar. Just getting noticed, much less validated, is a nearly impossible task when there are hundreds of similar would-be amateur critics out there. My education was of a purely technical nature, so I don't have any credentials in the fields of journalism or film theory. Mainstream media critics generally have one of those to back them up, or some kind of experience that would qualify them for such work. However, most of us on the internet (at least until recently) are computer geeks that may have interests lying elsewhere.

For me, dramatics have always been a great source of enjoyment. Whether it's on the silver screen, the stage, or even on that little cathode-ray tube, a good story told through action and dialogue is a wonderful thing. Whenever I wasn't spending time learning the ins and outs of digital computing, my college days were enriched by my favorite source of entertainment: the movies. I was already quite the film expert in my teens, but my horizons further expanded in college, as I became more familiar with the work of great directors, and the cinema of the world.

By the time I left school, I already had a great job lined up, and my financial security was well in place. However, I found that my artistic side was malnourished. The time that I spent in my youth drawing, painting, writing, singing, playing music, and especially acting were now distant memories. My main artistic outlet by now was web publishing.

I had been well-acquainted with the internet since my first year in college. In those days (which we could now consider the dark ages), there was no "World-Wide Web", just a bunch of newsgroups, chatrooms, gopher sites (remember those?), file servers, and email between all the major colleges and government facilities. When I first saw Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, I knew that something big was going to happen. Soon enough, I was making my own webpages with pure HTML. There was no FrontPage for the masses then. Consequently, only geeks like me had homepages, shrines, and the like.

My first page to really take off was a dedication to the animated TV show "South Park". I've always loved satire and dark humor, and this show offered up plenty of both, so it inspired me to go beyond just maintaining a homepage and résumé. Thus was born the creatively-titled Matt Heffernan's "South Park" Page. Eventually, it expanded beyond a single page (even if the title never changed) to include an episode guide. This section became even more popular, and became one of the few episode guides listed on Yahoo!, and the only one that was constantly updated (as it remains to this day).

At a time when my life needed some direction, an epiphany occurred. The upcoming release of the film South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was the biggest "South Park" event to date, and should have warranted something special. Of course, a full critical review! But where to post it? It would be too cumbersome in the episode guide. In an astonishingly short moment, I decided to start an entire site dedicated to film criticism.

It was an idea I had toyed with before. While searching for a domain for my homepage in the spring of 1999, I tried looking up several domains with "film" or "movie" or "hollywood" in the title, but couldn't find anything satisfactory. Instead, I settled upon borrowing a nonsense word from Lewis Carroll, and slithy.com was born.

On June 28, with two days to go before the film would come out, I was desperately thinking of a creative domain. Then it struck me: FilmHead.com. Too good, I thought -- certainly already taken. I checked just to be sure, and behold, it was available! I jumped on that faster than a jackrabbit in heat. Directly after that, I bought hosting, and was soon able to upload to my own, private IP address (please excuse the geek-speak, but that was an important milestone).

The next day, I designed the logo which remains at the top of every page. I rendered it on my computer, and I would soon have something to put under it. I designed the stars, settling on a scale used by many top critics, including Roger Ebert, which was what made the most sense to me. Everything was now falling into place.

Finally, the day arrived: June 30, 1999. A day that will live in infamy. OK, maybe not infamy, but it was pretty important for me. I wrote my review for South Park, then the first video picks: A Simple Plan and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. With that, the site was born. At that moment, I became a film critic, even if few people knew about it.

Since then, I have seen every major release, and a great deal of independent and foreign films. I quickly found that I really enjoyed the work, the art. I was back to writing, which was one thing that I always loved, and now I had constant inspiration. Spending years writing technical papers can get quite boring, and left little room for satire, or irony, or even clever wordplay. Now I can write about my favorite subject, and I even get people I don't know to read my work.

Aye, there's the rub! If a site is posted, and no one visits it, does it exist? Getting hits proved difficult at first. My only public outlet was through a link on my "South Park" page. Traffic trickled in from there, bringing regular visitors to that site over to FilmHead.com. Initially, of course, most people couldn't just type http://www.filmhead.com into their browser and get the page. It took a few days before the domain could be recognized across the internet, so the first visitors used the link containing the fully-resolved IP address (alright, I'll quit the geek-speak now).

Once the site was fully available to the internet at large, the first thing to do was to link all reviews to the Internet Movie Database, my favorite site on the internet. That brought a lot more traffic. Then came Yahoo!, which kindly linked FilmHead.com as a "new" site for several days, bringing huge amounts of traffic.

Now, I felt somewhat validated. Traffic was outpacing the "South Park" pages, and eventually I would see even more. Apparently, other people were "getting" the site. No flash, just substance -- a true content-based site. I started getting unsolicited links, even quotes on some sites. It seemed that people were not only reading the articles, but possibly even respecting them.

* * *

Since most of my reference points are based in film and television, I can only compare my outlook to publishing in terms of Citizen Kane. I made myself an unwritten declaration of principles. Far too many small-time critics are quote-whores, giving false praise to a film just to get their name in the advertisement (albeit in very small, unreadable print). I also just thought it would be fun to run a website, and that means running it my way.

Honesty is very important to me, much more so than vanity or pride. I don't want to bandwagon for or against a film, which has led me to have rather unique opinions. Some people may be incapable of understanding how I couldn't just love The Cider House Rules or Boys Don't Cry. More so, how I could so enjoy films like Outside Providence and still be a "serious" film critic. I don't take any moral or political imperative when I review a film. Either I loved it, found it totally irredeemable, or somewhere in between.

What is also interesting is that some people don't understand the scope of a film critic's job. I see virtually everything that comes out to theaters. Only another critic can understand that kind of perspective, and how maddening it can become to see the same conventions over and over again. One can also see the state of the industry, not just the art. To have a firm idea of what each studio is up to is quite incredible, and makes the whole experience like a game.

It's like having box seats at the derby, and watching each studio trot out their horses for a new race every weekend. I know what films are most successful with audiences, but it somehow rarely translates to ticket sales. Word-of-mouth is only so good, leaving people to be slaves of Hollywood marketing. They go to what they think should be the hit, based on an assessment of the marketing climate. Removing that discrimination makes the film-going experience quite different.

However, I am still one of the people, not the press. I only attend public screenings. I do go to every sneak preview I can, and my proximity to Manhattan allows me to see some films before the rest of the country can. Still, I only see the films with real audiences: the people for whom the films are intended. How can one properly assess The Tigger Movie in a theater filled with middle-aged critics? I think that my approach is what keeps me honest, above all else.

A side effect of this is that often I am the only one, or one of very few people actually watching a film. Either because of a lack of advertisent or an odd screening time, some shows are barely attended. Many of those that are seen, however, are plagued with problems. I've seen every possible way that a screening can go wrong, including the mysterious last reel of The Astronaut's Wife, which was dubbed in French.

With my passion for films, it often boggles me that projectionists can display such incompetence and apathy in their work. Not all, of course, but far too many make watching films quite difficult. At times, I want to run my own theater, so that I can have complete control over how the films are shown. Alas, my penchant for control has to be limited to this site.

* * *

The best part of this experience was to have other people come to my aid in creating this site. After months of working alone, I finally started getting additional contributors. It's wonderful to have new opinions and perspectives, not to mention styles. I still do the bulk of the work, but having that little bit of variety makes it so much better.

I'm still amazed at how this has all happened over the course of just one year. Being a writer, and a critic, and an editor, and a webmaster, and whatever else I have to be is a major part of my life. In fact, it has really defined who I am. I couldn't imagine not doing this, but I know that someday it will have to end. FilmHead.com is my baby now, but if I were to have actual children, the time I devote to this site would have to drastically diminish, or disappear altogether.

For now, I will keep on with this venture, or adventure, as it often is. I really love this work, and I hope that if you are reading this (even after all that has been written above), that you appreciate it (which, I would have to imagine, would be the case, or I would have lost you a long time ago). So, here's to one glorious year, and to many more in the future.

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