During the 1920s, films other than those made in Hollywood and British studios began to appear. The heady excitement created is difficult to imagine now, being of a kind not inspired by the marketing, media and merchandising hype that blockbusters generate today. It was an altogether quieter, more intellectual engagement with ideas in which directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, and their films, emanating from cultures profoundly different from ours, brought the realisation that film could be an art second to none. From this came a dedicated band of pioneers in cinema appreciation.
By the early 1960s distributors such as Contemporary, Connoisseur and Academy, and cinemas such as the Academy, Everyman, Cameo-Poly and Paris Pullman, dedicated to so-called arthouse films, had become a London feature. Mixtures of foreign-language and Hollywood classics were screened in repertory cinemas, ranging from the distinctly seedy Tolmer to the Starlight Club, a tiny cinema in the Mayfair Hotel.
Students, seduced by the possibilities of the moving image, wrote reviews for campus magazines, many, such as Lindsay Anderson, later becoming professional critics and/or film-makers. One such student was Peter Cowie in Cambridge (where the Arts Cinema is still running) who, after writing film criticism for the Varsity newspaper, established the first annual edition of the International Film Guide the day after he left university in 1962.
Forty years later it, and he, are still going strong. But during this time, has he been able to maintain his major objectives: to provide a publication "both for the film trade and for the film public", to compile it for "all those interested in serious cinema" and, in so doing, have any major influence?
The first thing one notices is how little the guide has changed. Inevitably it is fatter (the 2003 edition boasts a "sleek, full-colour redesign") and costs £17.99 for 432 pages compared with the original 1963 price of 7s.6d. for 288 pages. Early editions were unashamedly of their time and some elements have disappeared, such as texts translated into French and German. And as the emphasis in cinema moved from arthouses to festivals, the evangelical listing of specialist cinemas in the UK, Paris, Germany, Switzerland and the US, took second place to listing of festivals - from 20 festivals in 1964 to 86 festivals, plus more than 100 others "of note", in 2003.
The world production survey continues unabated - initially 13 countries, it now covers 72 countries and is a major part of the publication. Equally, associates around the world - initially from France, Germany and Italy - now number 70, reporting on national production, distribution and other issues to provide extraordinarily focused overviews. These, together with ongoing annual awards listings and the global directory incorporating the original listings of bookshops, magazines, film schools and archives, provide a thumbnail picture of world cinema that is probably unique.
Cowie's evangelical mission is still to be found in the annual choice of five directors. In 1964 he chose Hitchcock, Wajda, Truffaut, Visconti and Welles, followed in 1965 by Bu$uel, Fellini, Kubrick, Malle and Ray. Forty years later the choice - Paul Thomas Anderson, Jacques Audiard, Mira Nair, Gaspar Noe and Walter Salles - indicates no great change in emphasis, although maybe of quality. But, such comparisons aside, the important factor is the profiling of film-makers who plough an individual path outside the coordinates of commercial film-making. Cowie's belief, articulated in his first editorial, "that quality will triumph in the end", perhaps now seems naive. But one can only agree with him when he writes: "A five-a-side game pitting Bu$uel, Truffaut, Wajda, Bergman and Rosi against Kiarostami, Almod"var, Zhang Yimou, Jeunet and Moretti would be intriguing.
I suspect the latter-day saints would have to bring on some American reinforcements like Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen brothers at half-time - especially if the timeless Woody Allen were refereeing the match."
Cowie's aims, which must surely have seemed contradictory and unachievable at the time, now appear even more so with the ever-increasing predominance of formulaic films, the concomitant squeezing-out of mavericks from Hollywood and the decline of arthouse cinemas. But somehow the guide successfully walked that tightrope by both leading and following. One sees it on the shelves of professionals and private individuals alike. So it still plays a role, but what exactly? It is not simply an industry guide nor a film buff's handbook, but a combination of both. Its information is accurate and focused, but it involves a degree of evangelism. Companies give it to clients, individuals buy it and those referring to it find more than just information, so perhaps that is its strength - it still poses the questions. For film trade and public alike, may it do so for another 40 years.
Sheila Whitaker is co-editor of Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema and was director, London Film Festival.
Variety International Film Guide 2003: The Ultimate Annual Review of World Cinema
Editor - Peter Cowie
ISBN - 1 902049 99 3
Publisher - Button Publishing
Price - £17.99
Pages - 432