THE MAR­GARET AND DAVID EF­FECT

WHY THE FILM IN­DUS­TRY IS BRAC­ING FOR FALL­OUT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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

Movies.

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

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