What Does a Product “Deserve”?: Film Reviewer Blames Local Reviewers for Australian Films’ Lack of Success at the Box Office

Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton have been on Australian television together reviewing films since 1986, and will retire soon in late-2014.

As far I know, their show (currently At the Movies; they were previously on The Movie Show) is the only film review programme on free-to-air Australian television. And it will be gone.

Advertising, publicity, and “infotainment” won’t die, thus films will still get promotional segments on TV. But that’s all they will be: promo…as in, “This starts in cinemas on Thursday, and you should totally buy a ticket to it.” And interviews with anyone involved with a film may fail to address a movie’s possible problems: off pacing, weak characterisation, plot holes, unfunny “comedy,” and contrived “drama.”

In other words, these promo segments will be “all positivity, all the time.” Opinions will be welcome, but only if they’re “favourable.”

I’m not big on films, but I watch At the Movies regularly. Margaret and David are genuine lovers of film in all its variations. If films were books, Margaret’s tastes may skew to genre and David’s may skew to literary, but they watch and review all movies released: Blockbusters and art-house, English-language and foreign, Hollywood and Australian, adult and children’s. They also review films you’ve likely never heard of because advertising and publicity generally focuses on money-spinners.

When opinion is absent from mainstream coverage of a book or film, only promo is left – and that only benefits the money-spinners, NOT the average consumer.

Thus I was surprised to read this article from Margaret Pomeranz: “Australian films deserve more than cruel critics killing their chance at the box office” (11th October 2014, The Sydney Morning Herald). Key quote: “But what about those lesser home-grown products that live or die on local reviews and audiences?”

Déjà vu, y’all. If you’re in book blogging circles, Ms. Pomeranz’s view is definitely familiar. Not necessarily involving “home-grown” products but the book biz, often authors in particular, constantly insist on the importance of reviews to help a book “succeed,” or even “keep a career going.” And whenever I see that, I sense the finger of blame: The insinuation that it’s never the author/publisher’s fault if a book doesn’t “succeed” – it’s the PUBLIC’s fault:

-If you didn’t buy the book, it’s your fault.
-If you bought the book, but didn’t read and review it in a timely manner, it’s your fault.
-If you reviewed the book, but pointed out its flaws, it’s your fault.
-If you bought the book, read and reviewed it positively in a timely manner, and spread word on your blog and social media…it’s still your fault.

And to all that, I say…I DISAGREE!

(Meme from imgarcade.)

As a book reviewer, I’m not egotistical enough to believe that my opinion could persuade anyone to try a book or not simply because I did/didn’t enjoy it. And I doubt film reviewers seriously believe their opinions influence box office takings – otherwise the films they rated so poorly wouldn’t sell as many tickets.

And as a reader/filmgoer, it’s insulting that I’m viewed as so stupid that I must rely on other people to think for me and blindly agree with them. In actuality, potential filmgoers check out a summary to see if they might like it, and may then research a variety of viewpoints to decide if they should see the film in the cinema, wait for the DVD, or forget about it altogether. (The book equivalent would be buying the book, borrowing it from the library, or foregoing it completely.)

Filmgoers and book-buyers are constantly criticised for our choices, namely that we’re not buying the “right” books or tickets to the “right” films. If you do buy that book or that film ticket, and unfortunately find the object of your purchase wasn’t 100% perfect and awesome, and dare to say as such on the Internet…then apparently you’re somehow single-handed responsible for destroying the local film industry and the careers of however many authors.

When will the blame stop?

Threats and abuse should always be reported to the relevant authorities, but it’s come to the stage when some individuals see mere criticisms of the STORY – not even the author – as “bullying.”

If people acquire something legally, and DON’T threaten or abuse anyone, it’s unfair to blame them for the downfall of entire industries.

It’s NO ONE’s fault.

People make the films they want to make, and/or those they think will sell. People write the books they want to write, and/or those they think will sell.

Filmgoers and book buyers buy what they hope will have the most value for their money spent, though these purchases may not meet the expectations of another product’s creators.

The market is ever-changing, thus it’s difficult for producers to predict in advance what people will spend their money on at a certain time in the future. But blaming reviewers and audiences for the “failure” or “less-than-expected success” of a product is unlikely to change the minds of audiences and reviewers, or make them look upon you and your work more favourably.

Margaret Pomeranz writes, “A disclaimer is in order here. I was unable to review the film [The Little Death] because my elder son was one of the executive producers. But that connection means I can see up-close the anguish of putting a film out there only to have it so dumped on locally.”

First of all, I commend her integrity in NOT reviewing the film due to her filial connection. I have read so many “The author’s my friend, but that has nothing to do with me loving the book” reviews that it was so refreshing to see her NOT review the film. When I saw her announce that on television, I wanted to stand and applaud. Integrity is underrated, but I certainly welcome more of it.

But the loaded wording of “anguish” and “dumped on” in her written piece just make me head-desk. Yes, international reviewers seemed to enjoy the film more than Australian reviewers. But different audiences enjoy different things. Recently, I read literary agent Kristin Nelson’s report of her meeting with Asian Territory co-agents – in short, different audiences prefer different things.

I resent when people use the “I’m a human being, I have feelings, I worked really hard” argument as an example of why their work should be treated better than everyone else’s. Because it’s so obvious that what they’re really calling for is their work NOT to be treated “fairly” or “equally”…but BETTER than everyone else’s – as if their opponents aren’t also “human beings” with “feelings”, who “worked really hard.”

That’s what Ms. Pomeranz is asking for from Australian reviewers and audiences – for smaller-budget local films to receive preferential treatment. To be treated “more positively.” To NOT have their “undeniable flaws” (that’s a real quote) pointed out.

Maybe film-goers are “origin-blind” and simply choose films they want to watch, whether these movies are “home-grown” or otherwise. Sometimes the films they’re most attracted to are highly-publicised blockbusters, but sometimes they’re not.

Ms. Pomeranz claims she’s “certainly not arguing for endorsement of outright crap”. But “effort” and “talent” are often subjective, and it would be dishonest to pretend that “undeniable flaws” in a product do not exist, or aren’t as obvious and numerous. Potential consumers have the right to know of a product’s pros and cons if they choose to read a review of it. Just because something is “made in Australia” it should NOT be only talked about in a positive manner.

Maybe if a product wasn’t so flawed, people would be more likely to remark on the things the product does well. But until that happens, requesting “positivity” or “less negativity” is unlikely to change anyone’s mind – reviewer or consumer. And it’s naïve and insulting to believe that silencing critics will benefit the product.

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3 responses to “What Does a Product “Deserve”?: Film Reviewer Blames Local Reviewers for Australian Films’ Lack of Success at the Box Office

  1. I agree with you 100%, Tez! When I spend my time reading a book, and then later to review it in a way that I think is fair, I have already done a lot. I could just read books and let that be it – like I did before I started blogging.
    And I think that pointing out flaws in a story is really important – also, things that I don’t like may very well be things that other readers do like, I’ve had people tell me on my negative reviews that they are going to pick up that book because of my review, and that’s great.
    I don’t see how it’s my responsibility to push any authors’ books at anyone, and I would feel really bad if I pretended a book was flawless, but it wasn’t. Especially if fellow book-lovers bought that book based on my review – I would essentially be a scam-artist then!
    Nobody ever appeals to everybody – and I think that that’s what makes book-blogging and reviewing so interesting.

    • Basically I think we should review books/films for what they ARE – ie the story, the characters, the plotting, the pacing, etc. It doesn’t seem ethical to give extra credit for its ORIGIN: ie traditional/self-published, Australian/foreign author, bestseller/award-winning, etc.

      And I think that article annoyed me so much because Margaret was speaking as a MOTHER, rather than just a REVIEWER. The integrity she showed by NOT reviewing the film…she kind of undid that integrity with this article, which is disappointing.

  2. I never think about the author of the book when I read it – I just want to feel like the story an make me feel things, that it makes sense, that the characters could actually be real people etc. And most of the time, I have no idea if the author has won any awards, I don’t pick books based on that.
    And really, if books or movies are supposed to be compared to children, that’s a pretty scary thought! Books and movies are not people.

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