To readers of a later vintage than I, the words Microsoft Cinemania may be somewhat baffling. A product that existed for a few years in the 1990s, it came about as PCs were finally being sold with CD-ROM drives, and as such, Microsoft put together a multimedia encyclopedia, just about films. Cinemania was thus born in 1992, and was published annually until the final version was released five years later. It was a short life in the scheme of things, but before the days of broadband internet, it felt like a new world.
That said, it wasn’t so much just the rise of the consumer world wide web that brought about the end for Microsoft Cinemania. Rather, the all-conquering movie website IMDb.com (Internet Movie Database, to give it its longer name) ended up doing its job better.
The last version of Cinemania that Microsoft released, Cinemania 97, was integrating web updates and working with internet technologies. But the Internet Movie Database could hold far more information than a CD-ROM, update it quicker, and work with volunteer contributors who could get the work done for less. Cinemania‘s days were doomed, and the CD-ROM encyclopaedia Encarta would follow it to the graveyard a few years’ later.
Still, I spent a long time on Cinemania before I could afford a dial-up internet connection, and even then, many hours after that. Thus, I dug out my old copy, and thanks to some technical bodging, managed to get it to load.
An Old Friend
Loading up Cinemania 97 on a modern PC now, the first impression remains as it was then: clearly a resource that’s straining at its technological fences. I always got the sense that there was a whole lot more the editors wanted to include but couldn’t, even though they have us plenty to feast on. By this final edition, content sources included reviews by Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and Pauline Kael for a start, and there was as much “multimedia” (remember when we called it that?) as one CD-ROM could handle.
As such, when most of us first got our hands on Cinemania – and it used to be bundled with delights as Golf, Microsoft Animals and such like with a new PC – it was the audio we first headed for. By Cinemania 97, we had long got movie clips too, albeit in resolution that now looks ropey, even in a window the size of a few postage stamps. It’s the kind of thing that’d have you sending a technical support ticket to YouTube today.
But back in the mid-90s? It was something of a revolution. It can’t just have been me that used to play these clips pretty much on a loop. Cinemania 97‘s treats include snippets from then-modern features such as Forrest Gump and The Silence Of The Lambs, through to 1922’s Nosferatu and 1935’s The 39 Steps. It wasn’t much, but it felt like gold dust.
There’s inevitably more audio (and even more portraits and stills), and the range here – given rights issues and space demands – is admirable. What’s more, one of the things that Cinemania gave you, that IMDb struggles with, is a clear path of recommendations.
The curated lists, for instance, allow you to follow genres of film and get appropriate recommendations. Furthermore, the ‘tours’ feature is still superb. As I write this, I’m listening to John Waters talk about showmanship, as the screen updates with the details of the films and people he’s talking about it. Next up, I’m going to listen to Haskell Wexler taking about cinematography. These features are brilliant: a hugely accessible, entertaining film school.
It’s a pity that the product was discontinued when it was, as the plan was to allow you to download more such tours over time. Granted, the IMDb has some features that touch on the same idea, but it’s hard sometimes to shake the feeling that it’s all going to lead to a link to buy things on Amazon at the end of it all.
Ironically, the more multimedia content that Cinemania tried to squeeze on, the more compromises needed to be made. The quality of clips tended to be scaled back a little, to accommodate the approximately 2000 pieces of media that made it onto the final release.
Which thus made Cinemania, ultimately, more of a database to most. One with a big advantage, and a big disadvantage.
The downside is obvious: it was out of date even as the master copy of the software was being pressed. Monthly updates – which ran through to August 1997 – were all well and good, but can you imagine it even trying to keep up with the films of today? Even with its focus primarily on English-language films, Cinemania struggled to keep on top of everything.
But heck, it had a valiant try, and its big advantage, especially using the software now, was its speed. In an era where we search websites and wait for them to deliver what we’re after, not always successfully, there’s something wonderfully direct about Cinemania.
A search for perennial Den Of Geek favorite Top Secret!, for instance, gave us three possibles in under a second. And what a pleasant surprise to click on the 1984 classic, and be greeted by a picture of Val Kilmer mid-song. Tiny, of course, but it’s the thought that counted.
What you then got was admirable detail, though, even if these was not always much of it. The general listing for each film gave you a cast list, credits, and basic facts (often with an American focus).
The reviews, though, especially Ebert and Kael’s lengthier dissections, are flat-out delights. Sure, they’re carried across from newspaper writing, and thus some are very small, and some are very long. But even today, wading through Cinemania is like curling up in bed with one of those old bumper books of movie reviews. It’s impossible not to spend an hour in its company and not add a film or two to your to-watch list.
And on the off-chance you’re struggling, there’s always the Cinemania Suggests, a wheel of fortune that invites you to pick a category, er “pull the handle,” listen to a sound effect and have a list of 25 movies presented to you. All of which you can browse, before putting the RoboCop Blu-ray on again.
It’s a pity that something like Cinemania doesn’t exist today, as the size of the IMDb, a resource without much competition, can make it flat-out unwieldly. Furthermore, downloading the IMDb entire to view it offline is both illegal and illogical. A more concentrated Cinemania, perhaps based around the “tour” feature, would be comfortably worth a few quid, and by cherry-picking the movies it covered, it could be a curated look at thousands of films, rather than a complete guide to hundreds of thousands of them.
For now, Cinemania 97, while often sparse, remains as interesting as it always was, warts and all. I’ll sign up for whoever crowdfunds Cinemania 2015 right now, though.