Happy birthday to us: The Shiznit is ten years old today

Ali Gray

12th September 2014

Ten years ago today – back when we were all going mad for space hoppers and rocket lollies – I posted the first article on this very website. I bet a decade ago no one would have predicted that the site would still be going strong or that kids would still be using the popular slang word 'shiznit' in their everyday vocabulary.

Ten years, eh? That's a long time. Apart from education and existence, I don't think I've ever done anything for ten years. It's quite hard to believe, but I've been running TheShiznit.co.uk for a whole decade. The movie landscape looked pretty different back in 2004 – and so did the site: a sickly shade of sky blue with yellow text – and I had no idea what I was doing whatsoever. I still don't. But we're still here. Somehow. Ten years later.

The site was created when the job I worked for – a videogames mail order company in Essex – started paying employees extra (five whole pounds!) if they wrote full DVD reviews for the company website. Conveniently, with the promise of money on the table, this was around the time I started to get genuinely interested in film, widening my cultural cache to include more than just Tekken sequels and Super Monkey Ball.

Pretty soon, I had built up a rad DVD collection and a genuine appreciation for movies both good and bad. I realised I'd actually quite like to pursue writing about movies as a career, so set about trying to figure out how to do that. Sadly, in Essex, there were not many positions that offered me the luxury of writing 1,000 words on the latest Steven Seagal DTV title. Through a stroke of luck, a work colleague of mine knew somebody who knew a chap called Danny Graydon, who wrote for Empire Magazine. So in an early example of what I would later learn is called 'networking', I sent him off a sample review – I believe it was for Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines – and eagerly awaited his awestruck response and subsequent job offer.

As it happens, Danny Graydon didn't sugarcoat his reply. Though I can't possibly remember the content of my review – I'm sure it was pretty average – I was told in no uncertain terms that if I wanted to work in the industry I would need to get a lot better. I can still remember the sting of reading his email. I'm paraphrasing here, because I no longer have the email to reference, but he asked me things like "Do you understand the history of film?" and "Do you know who William Friese-Greene was?" (Turns out he was the 'inventor' of cinematography, although I don't think he was credited for Terminator 3). It's fair to say he didn't think much of me or my review.

The blunt point of the response was this: if you want to write about movies, you need to be educated about film. I can remember thinking at the time: that's absolute bollocks. I still feel that way.

Danny did give me a good piece of advice, though; he suggested I wrote a review of every film I saw at the cinema, and for a man in his early 20s who lived at home with his parents and had a disposable income, I went to the cinema a lot. So I decided to do just that: every film I saw at the Cineworld in Harlow would get the review treatment – long, sprawling, aimless 1,000+ word reviews encapsulating every single opinion I had. I would write the reviews in my head, line by line, on the walk home; by the time I'd sat in front of my computer, they'd basically be written. Once I started enforcing a little discipline on myself, I started to enjoy the process. I would read and rewrite reviews once finished, chopping and changing the structure, improving gags, widening my vocabulary. All for my own satisfaction.

After a while, I figured it was rather pointless to write these reviews and then leave them on my hard drive. So, as was the style at the time, I decided to start a blog to publish them (yes, I really am only just getting to that bit, shut up – TEN YEARS). I didn't much fancy Blogger or WordPress or whatever was the done thing in 2004 because I wanted to design the look of the site myself. I didn't want it to look like a blog: I wanted it to look like a proper website. For some unknown reason, possibly related to the popularity of Tenacious D at the time, I landed on the name 'TheShiznit.co.uk'. Not a day goes by that I don't regret it. Every time I have to introduce people to the concept of my website, I utter its name while staring at the floor. Idiot.

TheShiznit.co.uk, I decided, would cover movies, music and videogames, offering news, reviews, features and more. I mocked up designs and everything. A multimedia hub for the new millennium! Then I realised, actually, I knew nothing about music and that videogames were bloody expensive. A movies hub for the new millennium! With the help of my work colleague (thanks, Andrew Hunt!), who built me a back end for the princely sum of £50, I finally got TheShiznit.co.uk online. It looked dreadful. Blue and yellow with orange trim. What was I thinking? It was the HTML equivalent of an Adidas tracksuit that only an absolute wanker would wear. But it was mine. I was that absolute wanker.

With dozens of reviews already written, I had plenty of content ready to go live. The first article I posted, ten years ago today on 12th September 2004, was a review of Dodgeball. You can read it here. The first words I ever self-published were a quote from the movie: "I find it's best not to have a goal – aim low, and that way you're never disappointed." Words I would quickly come to live by. I never much liked the idea of 'doing' serious film criticism. It was much more fun, I thought, to be irreverent, and though the appeal of 'snark' soon wore off, I figured if I couldn't make an article interesting AND entertaining then I wouldn't bother writing it.

Things started slowly. One review a week. An equal number of pageviews. These were the days before Twitter, so self promotion was difficult. Occasionally, I would see a film that received a UK release before it came out in the US and I would write a 'spy review' for Ain't It Cool News, hoping they'd link back to me. Occasionally they did – I can still remember the first time I received 500 pageviews in one day. I did a barrel roll. I told my Dad. I don't think he really understood what I was doing, but still.

Features I wrote started to get noticed. I would submit them to sites like Digg.com and Fark.com. Articles like 'Top 20 Movie Fat Guys' and 'Top 10 Movie Drug Dealers' – real highbrow stuff. Okay, they sound like your standard Buzzfeed list-type features, but they consisted of thousands of words, videos and pictures and took forever to create. When they started getting actual traffic, it was vindication – all the motivation I needed to keep going. I would supplement these features with slightly more cerebral fare; the 'Cinemassholes' and 'Heroes' series, though clearly ripped off from Hotdog Magazine (who I would later end up writing for), allowed me to discuss in detail my favourite characters in film. By this point, I'd moved to London to study Journalism at university, perhaps to subconsciously make Danny Graydon happy.

The site, however, was limited. There was no room for me to build. I didn't understand a single character of code in the admin system, and if something broke, that £50 dowry to its creator didn't cover long-term repairs. That's where my white knight stepped in: all hail Luke Whiston. Luke, who I've been friends with since I was about 15, came on board and completely rebuilt the admin system and PHP back-end. Finally, someone who would listen to my complaints! It is no exaggeration to say that you wouldn’t be reading this now if it wasn't for Luke. Without him, I would probably still be writing reviews for an audience of one. Thanks mate. I promise I'll get off your back about Snackipedia.

Over time, and as the number of comments decrying the site's disgusting colour scheme increased, we decided to redesign. Ditch the blue. Free things up. Make it a bit more bloggy. No point in pretending to be something we're not, we decided – masquerading as an actual website could only get us so far, like two kids standing on each other's shoulders dressed in an overcoat trying to mix it with the big boys. It's worth noting that TheShiznit.co.uk has only ever been run in our spare time – everyone involved in keeping it going has always had a day job. I remember first meeting Dave and Jon from HeyUGuys and being amazed that running the site was their full-time job.

While it's fair to say there would probably be no website without Luke, I can't overemphasise Matt Looker's contribution. I met Matt in 2009 after my then-girlfriend/now-wife hooked me up with the boyfriend of his then-girlfriend/now-wife. It was a man-date. "He really likes films!" said my wife, as if that was excuse enough to stick us in a room together while they went off talking about cupcakes or whatever. As it happened, Matt really did like films – like, properly: he had the biggest and most dangerously shelved DVD collection I have ever seen – and after a few minutes, I knew we were on the same wavelength. I had been looking to share the brunt of running a film blog with someone and Matt had been looking to get into film writing. It was like a romcom meet-cute, but with two awkward men talking about Kevin Smith.

His first review was for G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, which he gave two stars. I still maintain he was wrong for doing so (it's a three star film!), but with every new review he writes, I gain more respect for him. I have watched him improve as a writer over the last five years; Matt now writes professionally for several outlets, including Total Film, and in a weird, possibly patronising way, I remain very proud of him; proud to have played even a small part in his development as a writer. Thanks mate. I promise I'll get off your back about the podcast.

Matt became the "Third Shizniteer" – a phrase that, until now, I have been too mortally embarrassed to ever share with anyone else. When my wife fell pregnant (totally on purpose, nailed it), Matt and Luke ran the site for a couple of months, so for the first time, I got to enjoy TheShiznit.co.uk as a reader. Other writers have chipped in and contributed to the site's continued existence, most notably Rob Young and Ed Williamson (who runs our TV sister site, LittleBigPicture.co.uk), but not discounting the efforts of: Neil Alcock (the one year wonder), Chris Olsen, Becky Mather, Ben Langley, Anna Lord, Andy Mason, Christopher Ratcliff (who runs our sister music site, Popdin.co.uk), Nathan Ditum, Wil Jones, Dave Lee, Phyllis, Zach somebody (I forget) and my wife, Vicky, who I let write a review of a Mandy Moore romcom because I am a total walkover. Thank you to all of you for your help, from the bottom of my heart. I swear the cheques are in the post. I'm writing them right now!

While I'm in a thanking mood, I could never have kept the site going without the generous assistance of the London film PR industry. Every time I see a privileged little shit complain about not getting an invite to a screening on Twitter, I count my stars how lucky I have been to be a part of this world. I am grateful for every single screening invite I have ever received, even for the bad movies; for every single pre-screening finger roll I have scarfed; for every single poster quote I have received as a result of a review. Getting to see films for free in a well-ventilated screening room with respectful journalists is truly a blessing, and I will never, ever overlook the generosity of the lovely PRs who made this possible. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You know who you are.

Most of all, however, thank you (*X Factor winner face*). Because although I've never written this site for critical acclaim or financial gain (which is just as well), the one thing I genuinely thrive on is seeing people enjoy it. I have never been more proud than when the 'If Movie Posters Told The Truth' feature went viral – that is a feeling I have never experienced in any other walk of life. I made a point a long time ago to write for myself and in my own voice, which makes the fact that people still seem to like the site all the sweeter. Forgive the self-congratulatory tone. TEN YEARS. I am not crying. You're crying.

The site exists in a strange limbo at the moment. After we stopped trying to be a proper website, we kind of became one by accident. Viral features led to heightened traffic led to ad partners; screening invites led to poster quotes led to live Shiznit events. It still blows my mind that Pixar know of our existence; ditto Nicolas Cage. I still can't wrap my head around the fact I was interviewed in an issue of Entertainment Weekly, or that my crappy Photoshops featured in The Guardian's Weekend supplement. But we couldn't keep up that pace.

By the end of the year, all three "Shizniteers" (*shudder*) will be fathers. We don't have the time to update the site as often as we'd like, and all three of us have careers, houses and families to consider. The temptation was there for a while to close the site because I couldn't devote as much care and attention to it as I'd like to it. But then I decided I'd rather keep on flogging a dead horse than just leave the dead horse in the corner, stinking up the joint with its dead horse smell. At least flogging it is fun. It's not going anywhere for a while.

In fact, starting from Monday next week, we'll be counting down the Top 10 Films Of Our Lifetime, one per weekday, until the #1 reveal on Friday 26th September. Shortly after that we'll be publishing our very first podcast, which we recorded earlier this year. So we do still have a few new ideas in the chamber. Not many, mind. TEN YEARS. ALSO BABIES EVERYWHERE.

I guess what I'm trying to say is this: thank you for not thinking we're rubbish. Thank you for entertaining our stupid shit. Thank you for the follows, the shares, the RTs and the Likes. And thank you for reading this all the way to the end. You win a prize. See you in another ten years. Or probably not, actually.

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