Film reviewing in Australia dates back to the first public viewings in October 1896, with reviews appearing in a number of mainstream daily newspapers. Both general and specialist media outlets reviewed films, including the Salvation Army’s the War Cry (1883– ). The Bulletin (1880–2008) was an early home of film coverage, with early reviews sometimes criticising a perceived ‘lower orders’ approach to the new medium. Many publications covered the release of the film The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), often referred to as the world’s first feature.
Journalist, editor and publisher Martin C. Brennan (1877–1937) made a profound contribution to Australian film reviewing through establishing and maintaining a number of important film publications that spanned most of the 20th century. Starting as a vaudeville columnist, he represented American Variety and a number of British film publications in Australia. He founded Australian Variety (1913–20), which merged with the generalist weekly Everyone’s (1920–37). He then founded the long-running Film Weekly (1926–73).
By the 1920s, a large number of film journals, magazines, fan newsletters and trade papers published film reviews. At Smith’s Weekly between 1927 and 1940, Kenneth Slessor’s reviews and essays on film culture and production often occupied two pages under the heading ‘Through Smith’s Private Projector’; reviews by the poet and editor of the paper (1935–40) were promoted as ‘The Most Reliable in Australia’. From its first issues, the Australian Women’s Weekly (1933– ) actively reviewed films; Beatrice Tildesley, secretary of the Good Film League of New South Wales, was the magazine’s first film critic. The Women’s Weekly paid particular attention to representations of women and, increasingly, to Hollywood.
Distributors and exhibitors published their own periodicals, including Paramount Punch (1921–24) and Hoyts (Screen News, 1927–65). Australia also has a long history of popular movie fan magazines, such as the Picture Show (1919–23) and Movie Life (1945–60).
In the inter-war years, American film interests set up clubs through Australian radio stations, including the MGM Radio Movie Club (2GB), the Fox Movietone Club (2UW) and the Fox Hoyts Radio Club (6ML). Meanwhile, organisations such as the Good Film and Radio Vigilance League of New South Wales (c. 1945–55) emerged to complain about suggestive lyrics, too much drinking and too many murders in serials.
In 2011, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) estimated that there were 120 film reviewers working in Australia. However, relatively few Australian reviewers can earn enough money from film reviewing and writing to support themselves fully. The major employers of film reviewers are Fairfax Media, News Corp Australia, and ABC Radio and Television. Most other major media outlets contract with film reviewers, including SBS, most major metropolitan radio networks and Networks Seven, Nine and Ten.
The coming of Nation in 1958, together with film festivals, provided an outlet and fodder for younger film critics such as Sylvia Lawson. A large number of smaller organisations and independent magazines have used professional film reviewers, including Meanjin, Overland, Quadrant and Crikey, and even religious media ranging from the Catholic Weekly to the Australian Jewish News. Media job cuts have also affected film reviewers; by 2010, many media organisations were reusing the same reviews in a number of different publications.
The NFSA’s estimate of reviewers also heavily under-states the number of Australians actually writing film reviews. With the growth of online blogging, many thousands of Australians write and post reviews, mostly for no pay. Unpaid reviews also appear on community radio and television channels. The differences between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ reviews have blurred.
A substantial number of film reviews, feature articles and other film commentary written by overseas critics and commentators regularly appear in Australian media outlets.
Australia has long had a strong and active cinema culture, resulting in numerous publications and organisations devoted to film. This trend has been especially marked since the 1970s. Many film reviewers helped to champion the new and successful films by Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong, George Miller, Bruce Beresford, Phillip Noyce and other directors. Australian film reviewers have also taken a public leader- ship role in opposing censorship of films.
Noted film publications include Filmviews (1955–88), Movie News (1965–82), Film Index (1966–2004), Filmnews (1971–95), Cantrill’s Filmnotes (1971–2000), Cinema Papers (1974– 2001), Metro (1974– ), the Australian Journal of Screen Theory (1976–84), Continuum (1987– ), FilmInk (1997– ), Urban Cinefile (online, 1997–) and Senses of Cinema (online, 1999– ).
Australia has two associations of film critics: the Sydney-based Film Critics Circle of Australia and the Melbourne-based Australian Film Critics Association, both of which run annual awards. A number of Australian film reviewers have also received significant Australian honours and awards for their work. The Order of Australia has gone to John Hinde, Bill Collins, Margaret Pomeranz and Evan Williams. Film reviewers who have won the Pascall Prize include Sandra Hall (Sydney Morning Herald and previously the Bulletin), Adrian Martin (the Age and ABC Radio National), Julie Rigg (Radio National) and Paul Byrnes (Sydney Morning Herald). David Stratton is the only film reviewer to have received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Australian Film Institute. Meaghan Morris, chief film critic for the Sydney Morning Herald (1979–81) and the Australian Financial Review (1981–85), is now a distinguished cultural studies professor.
Since the late 1990s, the two most influential Australian film reviewers have been David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz, hosts of The Movie Show on SBS Television (1986–2004), then At the Movies on ABC Television (2005– ). Their impact has been so substantial that economist Jordi McKenzie has identified a ‘Margaret and David effect’: positive reviews by them can add a statistically significant amount to a film’s box office takings in Australia.
Stratton believes that reviewers have no effect on the performance of Hollywood blockbusters, but can make a major difference to Australian films. Australian distributors, filmmakers and reviewers all generally believe that reviews can have an impact on a film’s box office success, and research shows that to be true. Distributors occasionally refuse to allow advance screenings of certain films so that negative reviews will not affect early box office takings.
There is a widespread belief that many Australian reviewers ‘go easy’ on Australian films. Stratton readily admits that he ‘tends to embrace a film which tells an Australian story in an Australian setting with Australian accents’. Sometimes reviewers feel pressure to say positive things about Australian films. McKenzie’s research shows that Australian film reviewers tend to give Australian films significantly more positive ratings than non-Australian films.
REFs: S. Hall, ‘Reviewing’, in The Oxford Companion to Australian Film (1999); N. King, C. Verevis and D. Williams, Australian Film Theory and Criticism (2013); B. Reis, Australian Film (1997).