THE MARGARET AND DAVID EFFECT
WHY THE FILM INDUSTRY IS BRACING FOR FALLOUT
IT’S called the Margaret and David effect. Troy Lum knows it. As a tyro film distributor acquiring the art-house films slipping through the cracks of the major studios, he has made a career banking primarily on his own taste and the imprimatur of strong reviews from Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton on ABC’s At the Movies. “If we released an art-house film like A Sep
aration [five stars each] and walked in on a Thursday morning, and they’d given it a bad review, we know we’re dead,” says the former Hopscotch Films boss who now runs the expanded eOne Films in Australia.
“If they gave a great review, not only are we alive but we’ve got something to build upon. A bad review in the Saturday [ Sydney Morning]
Herald? You can survive that. But Margaret and David giving a bad review? Forget about it.”
The hosts of ABC’s At the Movies, and before that SBS’s The Movie Show, will receive a welldeserved flood of accolades before their final cut to black on television on December 9.
That is a given for anyone who has remained a constant screen presence for 28 years; only a few newsreaders or personalities have managed that. But the pair of critics have been more than a mere presence in Australian culture.
They have been widely adored and respected during stints reviewing cinema across the two public broadcasters. For many, their commentaries and on-screen sparring are compulsory viewing, a comforting constant on the weekly schedule.
But while fans will no doubt be sorry to see them go, the local film industry will perhaps feel the loss more keenly. For film distributors, exhibitors and local filmmakers, the Margaret and David effect is quantifiable in commercial, credibility or career terms.
“During all this so-called ‘Australian cinema in crisis’ discussion, the biggest short-term impact to our business that nobody is mentioning is the loss of At the Movies and David and Margaret,” says distributor Andrew Mackie of Transmission Films. “For a small indie movie (Australian or international) a four or five-star review was sometimes the biggest feature of our campaign. The attention they can bring to smaller films will be greatly missed. They were champions of quality cinema and I fear the void their departure will create.”
Independent distributor John Maynard says he “absolutely knows” the duo had a tangible effect on cinematic performance. He distributed indigenous film Samson &
Delilah and was unable to get a booking to screen in two prominent cinemas even though the film had won the Camera d’Or award at the Cannes film festival. That was until Stratton and Pomeranz gave Warwick Thornton’s film five-star reviews on At The Movies.
“It really helped a lot,” Maynard recalls. “It actually changed the minds of exhibitors, and certainly for exhibitors that have an independent audience, particularly an older independent audience, they definitely rely on that.”
Lum has a long list of films that have benefited from the pair’s positive critical gaze including A Separation, Bowling for Columbine, The Lives of Others, Somersault, Incendies and Pan’s Labyrinth, but he cites another indigenous film to illustrate the critics’ impact.
Earlier this year, Charlie’s Country won an acting prize at Cannes for its star David Gulpilil, and Lum knew Pomeranz and Stratton loved the movie. Unwittingly, eOne released the film while the two critics were on holidays, and comedian Judith Lucy and Radio National film critic Jason Di Rosso were filling in on At the
The show’s ratings dropped markedly during the star pair’s break, and their replacements failed to carry critical weight with the industry. “We thought it would do $1 million at the box office and it did $750,000,” Lum says, sighing. The ABC has confirmed it will retire the At
the Movies format, itself a transplant from the duo’s 18 years at SBS that has them sitting in two simple lounge chairs in front of a scrim curtain. The ABC refuses to confirm whether it will develop a new film review format for TV.
Consequently, the film sector is saddened and concerned. Pomeranz and Stratton’s resonance was clear for independent, art-house and Australian cinema. Most worryingly, their departure comes at a moment when those subsets of cinema can least afford it. The independent film sector is at a tipping point.
“Smaller cinema is struggling,” says Lum. “There’s a real shift now, more than ever before, around scale. You have to spend so much on P&A [prints and advertising] just to get attention these days, and the attention a great review on their show gave you is going to be sadly lacking now.”
Natalie Miller, co-owner of Melbourne’s Cinema Nova and Sharmill distributor, concurs.
“They have been such great supporters of independent films, European films, and are so respected in what they say, [their departure] is going to have a huge effect,” she says, recalling the speed with which she would display four or five-star reviews from the show outside Nova’s Carlton box office.
“The only shining light from this is David’s still writing for The Australian. It will have an effect on the marketplace.” The big end of town will be fine. Guardians of
the Galaxy — (four stars Pomeranz; three stars Stratton) and similar Hollywood studio films spend their way to commercial success.
But At the Movies’ championing of all cinema, without prejudice, will be missed.
“No one could set up (an art-house distributor like) Hopscotch these days because we don’t have the same propensity as an audience to celebrate that kind of cinema,” Lum says. “So the audience will see more of the same.”
And the debate about the commercial impact of critics, at least in Australia, is largely moot. Pomeranz and Stratton are the only critics with a sustained commercial effect here.
“Certainly for those films that played festivals or that we managed to discover internationally, to have those guys give it the stamp of approval made a huge difference because they had such a huge following,” says Richard Payten of distributor Transmission. “And importantly, they had a big following nationally.”
It was a following large and consistent enough to suggest the ABC walking away from 400,000-ish viewers late on a Tuesday night is folly, despite that format having worked up its rapport and respect across 28 years.
At the Movies has averaged a capital city audience in the low 300,000s to mid-400,000s for the past few years (more than 500,000 nationally); that is a consistent number as TV audiences have fragmented, and one that is particularly strong in the non-prime time slot of 9.30pm. Lum goes so far as to suggest the program contributed to art-house and independent films overperforming in Australia compared with other major cinema territories.
“I don’t think it’s any wonder that traditionally specialised cinema in this country has been much stronger than in the UK and US on a prorata basis, which bucks what you might think,” he says “I think a lot of that had to do with Margaret and David.”
In Australia, art-house films regularly outperform the “10 per cent rule”, wherein a film’s local box office equates to one-tenth of its US total; the studio art-house film Gone Girl is a current example at the top end, earning $19 million here and $US124m ($140m) in the US; at the other end, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation Two Faces of January earned $1m here but only $US350,000 in North America.
Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton on SBS’s The Movie Show in 1994