Being An Empire Magazine Workie

Empire #301

Last year was the 25th anniversary of Empire magazine, which is an impressive achievement for a print magazine these days. I picked up issue 301 (not the 300th; that would have been too obvious) to take a stroll down memory lane, because I haven’t subscribed to the magazine in many years, despite the fact that I think that Empire is the greatest film magazine.

The item that stood out was The 301 Greatest Movies Of All Time (or, more accurately, The 301 Greatest Movies Up Until Now, unless Empire knows something about an impending apocalypse that’s not being shared), as voted for by Empire readers. Despite not being a regular reader of the magazine, I still share the same broad tastes as the voting readers. This is demonstrated by the fact that, of the top 25 films, I have 21 of them on DVD/Blu-ray.

You can see the list online but the relevant part:
25: Schindler’s List; 24: The Big Lebowski; 23: The Matrix; 22: 2001: A Space Odyssey; 21: Alien; 20: Apocalypse Now; 19: Aliens; 18: Jurassic Park; 17: Back To The Future; 16: The Avengers; 15: The Godfather Part II; 14: Fight Club; 13: Goodfellas; 12: The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King; 11: Blade Runner; 10: Inception; 9: Raiders of the Lost Ark; 8: Jaws; 7: The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring; 6: Star Wars; 5: Pulp Fiction; 4: The Shawshank Redemption; 3: The Dark Knight; 2: The Godfather; 1: The Empire Strikes Back

If ever there were an indicator of my Empire zombie status, you could point to this statistic. However, there is another piece of evidence to prove my love for Empire – the fact that I spent a week as an intern at Empire (or ‘workie’, as they like to call them) over 10 years ago, something I was reminded of when I read the magazine.

I had returned from the US after a postdoctoral position in a molecular biology lab at a university, which had confirmed my suspicion that I didn’t want to be a research scientist. Alas, I didn’t know exactly what it was I *wanted* to be. I had always had an inclination towards words and writing, but I didn’t know how this would be channelled into employment. When I saw the notice from Empire (I think it was the weekly email newsletter, but I’m not 100% sure) on the lookout for interns, I knew I HAD to apply. A chance to work at a magazine I’d admired as well as discover if I had the ability to do it? I heard opportunity knocking and I answered. The application involved writing two film news items in the style of Empire online. I duly wrote them up and sent off the items and the accompanying letter, happy that I had actually applied. I was amazed when I was offered the chance to be a workie – I didn’t really think that they’d want a thirtysomething with a PhD in biochemistry; I was also surprised that my placement wouldn’t be for several months because of the huge number of people who applied. Empire had a workie every week, and never needed to worry about applicants. Nowadays, I don’t think they even bother with them – the website directs you to Go Think Big to look for opportunities and a quick search couldn’t find anything for Empire – so I consider myself very fortunate.

Empire magazine logo

The Monday in October finally arrived, and I turned up in the offices on Winsley Street (Empire has since moved to Shaftesbury Avenue), just around the corner from where the HMV superstore used to be on Oxford Street. As I’m sure is typical everywhere, there was nobody to specifically tell me what to do or where to go; I was given a seat and the editorial assistant asked me to provide an interesting fact about myself (I went with the ‘meeting Margaret Thatcher’), so that she could send round an email announcing who the new person in the office was that week. Later on that day, she would say to me, ‘Why didn’t you say you had a PhD? That’s much more interesting than meeting Margaret Thatcher.’ Because of the Margaret Thatcher comment, Chris Hewitt would come over to ask why I hadn’t tried to kill her. Yes, Videoblogisode Man, him off the telly and the radio and the Empire magazine podcasts, came over to ask me why, as a 10-year-old boy, I hadn’t had conclusive evidence of future events and decided that the only option to prevent the misery was to commit murder … Chris was pretty much the same as he is now, being loud and silly and passionate about films; I remember him quoting bits from films, forcing people to watch trailers (this was back when it was still a novelty to watch movie trailers online) and quoting bits from Father Ted for no reason.

Helen O’Hara had become the most recent new employee at Empire (she was doing an internship with the prize of a full-time post, if I recall correctly), so it was she who had to deal with the workie (which doesn’t make a lot of sense – what does the newbie know about things for a workie to do?). She was very helpful with someone like me with no journalism experience, perhaps because she had trained as a barrister before deciding to pack it in and become a film journalist, and she was as nice in person as she is on the Empire podcast. The first task every morning was to pick a news item to write up in the Empire style for the website. My first piece was about John Woo doing a remake of Le Samurai, and I was happy with that (I was a big fan of Woo, and included a reference to Melville’s influence on The Killer); however, on another morning, I had to completely rewrite a piece about Madonna when Helen told me that I couldn’t call her the ‘gap-toothed one’ and other less flattering prose (I am not a fan of Madonna), giving me an insight to the synergy between the film industry and film media – don’t insult someone the magazine might want to interview in the future. Unfortunately, the Empire archives don’t go back to 2003, so there is no online proof of these articles.

Popcorn is film-related, right?

The week I was there was the London Film Festival, which unfortunately meant that it was the only week that workies couldn’t see a preview – you have to be an accredited journalist to get in. This is perhaps the only unhappy part of the week – I would have loved to go to a screening with the Empire people and then chat with them about the film afterwards and have an influence on the star rating; however, I had been a film reviewer at a student newspaper (Felix, the Imperial College student paper), so at least I had already enjoyed the luxury of going to London screening rooms to see films for free and before anyone else.

There was also a magazine awards thing happening, so everyone in the office left early on the Friday to go to the event. With nobody else around and no work to do, I ended up chatting with Sam Toy – he was a friendly, burly, bearded Australian who had come as a workie but then kept turning up at the office every day (I don’t know if he was independently wealthy but I don’t know how he survived otherwise) until they finally surrendered and gave him a junior online position just to stop him bothering them (I don’t think this is an approved method of getting a job with Empire). He told me to take two Empire t-shirts, which I still have, so there’s that.

In between, it’s pretty much a blur of being happy about the fact that I was legally in the Empire offices. I wrote the daily news item; towards the end of the week, I wrote the copy for the competitions in the newsletter; I had to go through the previous year or two of magazines (they had a cupboard where they kept them) and write a list of all the three-star films in the magazine, although I don’t know why (unless it was a stupid job to keep the workie busy); I remember transcribing an interview – one of the dullest things to do in the world – but I didn’t mind. I was just happy to be there: watching trailers on massive Apple screens on your desk was part of the job; talking about movies with people who were passionate about them was part of the job; watching films (if I’d got the chance) was part of the job.

Empire magazine

While I was there, I was given the opportunity to talk to other members of the magazine, to ask them advice and about the business. I chatted to online editor James Dyer (now Editor-in-Chief [Digital]) – who nicely said that I had the right voice of Empire (‘authoritative yet irreverent’) and that if I worked at it then he could see no reason why I couldn’t get a film journalism job (which was nice, even if it was a lie he probably said to all the workies). [In an email to Dyer afterwards to thank him for his time, I apologised for nearly destroying the office – I have no memory of what that refers to, unfortunately. It would make for a killer anecdote in this piece, wouldn’t it?] I chatted to Assistant Editor Ian Freer, a lovely chap who got his job on the magazine by writing in letters to the editor pointing out mistakes and giving a list of ideas for them to write about in future issues.

I suppose I should finish with a germane movie quote (‘I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook’), but I don’t really feel that way. I wasn’t qualified to work there, but I proved myself and got in and had a blast for a week, and I can always say that I did it. What more could I ask?

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