Ever since I was younger than I remember, I loved the four words ‘Once Upon A Time’.

Don’t worry. I”m not going Disney on you.

But those words are magic. They contain more power than any spell cast at Hogwarts, they’re more enchanted than that beautiful (but unspellable, for me) Welsh charm that Nicol Williamson wished above a young King Arthur in John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ and it doesn’t matter how old you are, or if you’re so old and jaded you won’t dare admit it, but none of us ever forget the excitement promised by that simple phrase as it introduces (if we’re really lucky) a story we’ll never forget.

The movie theatre has always been my ‘Once Upon A Time’. I don’t truly remember what the first film I ever saw was – it’s either ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ which I know followed behind a Children’s Film Foundation short (whatever happened to the CFF?) I only vaguely remember… something about jewel thieves? …it didn’t matter, the spell of ‘Once Upon A Time’ was already cast… or it was ‘Pinocchio’ (not the original release)… or it might have been ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’ (that was a revival too, before you ask…)

I loved all of them equally. Those early years, sitting with one or other of my parents in the darkened Lewisham Odeon or Catford ABC (because the three of us never seemed to go together, at least not as I remember it) are among the most precious moments of my life. I remember the lobby cards we sadly don’t see anymore advertising the upcoming ‘The People That Time Forgot’’ and how I spent the intervening days, counting down until it was released. And I remember being absolutely certain that ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’ was the greatest film ever made and knowing deep in the pit of me that what I wanted to do with my life was try and tell stories even half that good and give people the thrill that Ray Harryhausen’s fabulous stop-motion creations and Brian Clemens wonderful screenplay, had given me.

To be honest – just between us – I had a small crush on Brian Clemens. I ran home after school every afternoon to catch reruns of ‘The Avengers’ (I had an even bigger crush on Linda Thorson (Tara King)) and when I saw Clemens’ written and directed ‘Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter’ on a friends dodgy videotape… well… that might have been where my love of horror began.

Apparently, Brian Clemens had a whole plan in mind for ‘Kronos’. I don’t know if that’s true, but Kronos was and remains a very cool idea and it has a lot to answer for, at least where my imagination is concerned. 

And when I was 12 years old and my 72 year old father took me to see ‘Star Wars’ and actually left the theatre as excited about what we’d just seen as I was… ?! 

Wow. 

I’ll never forget our bus journey back from ‘Star Wars’, as we chattered about the Cantina Band and how we would have saved Princess Leia if Han Solo hadn’t been around, and how cool it would be if there was really a Force… I don’t think we’d ever been that enthusiastic together ever before.

He died a year later.

But for the remaining months we had, the annoying little kid with the geeky haircut and the father who really didn’t expect to have another child at his age and we really didn’t understand each other apart from a mutual love of ‘Tom and Jerry’ that always played in a ten minute slot after the football results on a Saturday evening…

…’Star Wars’ was our connection.

George Lucas, as unbelievable as it might sound, brought my father and I together.

I’m writing this because, when my wife and I went to an advance screening of ‘ParaNorman’ last weekend and we sat among the parents and children in the Odeon West End waiting for the movie to begin, I was suddenly reminded – after a long time of forgetting (because between scriptwriting and reviewing, I’m a bit jaded about how movies work, as if one day I caught The Wizard of Oz turning levers behind the curtain and from that moment movies somehow became a business, and their stories an engine I had to break down like a mechanic to try and understand) – how magical just sitting in that darkened space, waiting for the screen to come to life, all of us waiting and hoping to be connected and transfixed by a shared human journey…

…’Once Upon A Time’…

I know I could make a case for why cinema is, and always will remain, the greatest of art forms. It’s the place where dreams are formed, from childhood to adulthood, where our imagination is inspired, where our cares are forgotten. It’s where, for a hundred or so minutes, our potential is unlimited.

Forget CGI and 3D or Smell-o-Rama or the latest innovation conjured up by studios to attract us to their wares.

The power has always been in the story. The magic has always been in the ‘Once Upon A Time’.

We need to treat that ‘Once Upon A Time’ with respect. And so should film makers. All our dreams deserve an IMAX screen to play on. It’s a shame so many directors, producers and writers have forgotten the magic that inspired them and, instead, send our – and their – imagination straight to DVD.

We deserve more than that.

Before the advent of video and DVD, films were made to be shown in cinemas in front of audiences. No film maker would ever approach his work believing that the ambition of his story would be reduced to the size of a television screen.

But they do now. They’re kicked in by restrictive budgets, they have to contortion themselves through an industry that isn’t about creativity, it’s about finance. They have to tell writers to rein in their ideas. They have to sell out ‘Once Upon A Time’ because who cares? Unless it’s a huge event movie – in which case the studio will be indisputably behind it, and looking for the big opening weekend – their film will get a reduced run and then quickly spewed out to every format available, because the sell-through afterlife of a film is more important than the film itself.

Considering that, it’s hardly surprising there are a very limited number of film makers who are still allowed to have scope and remain true to their vision, who are still producing movies destined for a big screen.

I don’t know how we separate the good product from the bad. I just know that, when ‘Once Upon A Time’ works because the aim of the film makers is genuinely to create and share a story they believe in, everybody in the audience knows it. And it’s the film makers who understand ‘Once Upon A Time’ – Hitchcock, Spielberg, Ridley Scott, John Carpenter, Tarantino, Del Toro, Nolan… and so many others… who are always there because, in their various ways, they never forget it.

Story is everything. And, in our world today, the hope suggested by ‘Once Upon A Time’ is more important than ever.

About The Author

Ian White is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His book ‘Witchcraft and Black Magic in British Cult Cinema’ was recently published by Hemlock and he is a regular contributor to ‘Paranormal Underground’ and ‘Starburst’ magazines. He’s currently writing a new book and screenplay and his embarrassingly out-of-date website can be found at http://ianwhitelondon.wix.com/ian-white