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Are Australian Critics Softer On Locally Made Films?


Imagine that you have a 20-year-old daughter who has landed a feature role in a university musical.  You go along to the opening night and you are stunned by just how bad it is. You can see your daughter is trying her hardest but she just can’t cut it.

When you see her backstage afterwards, what do you say?  Do you lie and say how much you loved the show and her performance?  Or do you be honest and find a polite way of expressing what you really think?

This was a question I posed in a review from last year.  If someone has the magic answer, I’d love to hear it.

It leads into what I want to talk about this week - are critics softer when it comes to reviewing locally made stuff?

I debated this with a friend last Friday night after having seen a theatrical production (Elizabeth, Almost By Chance A Woman) at the Powerhouse here in Brisbane.

I don’t have any direct evidence when it comes to theatre but so many plays and shows that come to Brisbane receive praise.  It’s not always glowing praise but I’d say reviews range from “excellent” to “pretty good”.

I have done a little more research when it comes to cinema.  Over the past 5 years, a total of 103 Australian movies have been eligible for best feature at the AACTA Awards (previously known as the AFI Awards).  Of these, 95 have been reviewed by Australia’s two most well-known critics, Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, on their ABC program At The Movies.

For those familiar with their program, the results shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  The following table shows the star ratings for the abovementioned films:

 

Margaret

David

5 stars

1

2

4.5 stars

4

7

4 stars

34

13

3.5 stars

30

36

3 stars

17

18

2.5 stars

3

9

2 stars

3

7

1.5 stars

0

3

1 star

0

0

Of the 187 reviews for Australian films, the statistics show:
  - 13% of reviews had a score of 2.5 stars or worse.
  - The average grade was 3.43 stars.

This is in comparison to the non-Australian films (between 2007 and 2011) where the statistics show:
  - 22% of reviews had a score of 2.5 stars or worse.
  - The average grade was 3.26 stars.

Some could make an argument that Australia makes better films than the rest of the world.  I personally don’t think that’s the case.  We’re not special.  We make great movies (Samson & Delilah, Animal Kingdom) but we also make some shockers (A Heartbeat Away, Big Mamma’s Boy).

The best explanations as to why critics are softer on local product always seem to revolve around the future of the industry in this country.  We are a small fish in a very big pond.  Even in a good year, you’d be lucky to see 20 Aussie films make their way into our cinemas.  Most of these only get a limited release in small theatres and they struggle to find an audience when up against the huge marketing budgets of Hollywood blockbusters.

Those with influence will therefore do whatever they can to protect the filmmaking industry in this country.  We need people to hand over their hard earned dollars and help boost the box-office for Australian films.  If we don’t, fewer films will get made and it’ll make it even harder for our budding actors, directors, writers, editors and cinematographers to forge a career.

But are forgiving film reviews helping or hurting?  If critics “talk up” an Aussie film and the public are subsequently disappointed, are we doing everyone a disservice?  It’s kind of like the boy who cried wolf.  Sooner or later, people will stop believing and they’ll look at every review of an Australian movie with a degree of scepticism.  I have friends who feel this way already.

It’s a fine line and I’m not purporting to have an easy answer.  I try to be independent and objective when writing a review but every now and again, I do show a slight bias towards an Australian movie.  That was the case a couple of weeks ago with the Brisbane-based documentary The Curse Of The Gothic Symphony.  It’s rough around the edges but I wanted it to succeed and so gave it a “slightly better than average” review.

To cut to the chase… how do you react to reviews of Australian movies and theatrical shows?  Do you treat them the same as all others?  Or do you read them with an element of doubt?  I’m curious to know.