A handful of industry regulars went head-to-head over modern film criticism at a recent Sydney Writers' Festival forum.
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25 May 2011 - 11:28 AM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 4:30 AM

Held in the rarefied surrounds of Sydney's Walsh Bay theatre district, the 2011 Sydney Writers' Festival offered moments of unusually high (unwritten) drama for attendees: off-the-tree conspiracy theorists dominating the Q&A of an ultra left-wing 9/11 retrospective; ex-PM John Howard reacting to a protester's hijacking of his talk with dry nonchalance.

For the packed auditorium of film-savvy types who had ventured out late this Saturday evening to catch the panel-discussion 'Is Digital Killing the Print Critic?', it may have been Heather Ogilvie, producer of the duck drama Hildegarde, who ruffled the most feathers.

Ogilvie was captaining the affirmative team in a mock-debate designed to kick-start the gabfest. Her team included ex-SBS employee and Urban Cinefile founder Andrew Urban, who stated provocatively “Is digital killing the print critic? Hell, yes! This is its wake. Film criticism in print has left the building.” The duo faced-off against the likes of music journo John Shand and black-ink stalwart Matthew Westwood. A coin toss bestowed first-speaker rites to Ogilvie, who played her producer card upfront by suggesting online critics have the advantage of visual interactivity to help bolster the worthiness of their reviews.

“As a producer, I want to see them incorporate sound and images into their reviews,” said Ogilvie. “Digital technology demands that they present a more detailed examination of our visual culture.” Such a comment could be interpreted as showing disregard for the power of the written word and its own strengths in conveying detail; one assumes Ogilvie doesn't talk to her screenwriters like that.

But her boldest move came when she decided to go off-topic. “There are film critics-slash-reviewers in Australia that you dread. It doesn't matter how good your film is, it's hard not to feel like they've got an axe to grind and that axe is that the Australian film industry sucks,” she said. “There are reviewers in this country whose ambit seems to be to knock the locally-made films.” (For the record, Ogilvie is coming off two high-profile underperformers – Accidents Happen and Hey Hey It's Esther Bluberger – both of which garnered mixed critical support and little audience favour.)

Ogilvie maneuvered back to the point of the discussion by lauding the far more receptive and, apparently, perceptive collective mind of the blogosphere. “The only refuge you can seek when you are subject to one of these reviews, or when one of these reviewers actually takes it upon themselves to review the industry as a whole, is in what I call the 'home-grown critic',” she offered. “Critical pieces about a film which the audience may not necessarily agree with invariably spawn a huge home-grown response. It is heartening to see the support you're getting from the community.”

That is true, as most of the SBS review team will attest to; the counter-views against this site's less-than-glowing notices for The Wedding Party, Wasted on the Young, Tomorrow, When The War Began and Red Hill were passionate, to say the least. But Ogilvie's comments fail to draw any comparison between web-denizen support and the dire box office earnings for domestic product; rarely do those typing “Give Aussie films a go!” put money down in support of their views.

When pressed by this correspondent, Ogilvie went further into her dissection of the darkside of the Australian film critics psyche. “There is no doubt that Australian audiences have a mixed appetite for Australian film and there are a number of Australian critics who seem very keen to jump on the bandwagon of saying 'Therefore, the Australian film industry is in a state of chaos',” she responded. Her implication was that some critics were writing just to get in good with popular opinion; that they were feathering their own nests at the expense of serious consideration of the industry's output by bowing to trite generalisations made by the masses. Urban and his fellow critics remained staunchly silent in the face of such an accusation.

Ogilvie then reminisced about that time, 15 years ago, when releasing the Claudia Karvan/Guy Pearce comedy Dating the Enemy (pictured) into a far more welcoming marketplace allowed for word-of-mouth and audience awareness to grow over weeks, not a weekend. One school of thought suggests that if well-written, star-driven comedies like Dating the Enemy were produced in 2011, the Australian industry would be a lot better off and critics, be they in print or online, would provide friendlier copy.

And the irony seemed lost on Ogilvie that the very reason she was given a platform on this evening to air her views – i.e., 'The Internet' – played no role in that film's success.