I won’t lie to you, there are many nice things about being a film critic: the free advance screenings, the year-end screeners, the trips to festivals, the freedom to spend some mornings drinking tea in your pajamas while you duck out of seeing “New Year’s Eve.” But along with the money, an overriding sense of usefulness isn’t one of them. Some hands heal the sick, some hands build bridges and some hands warn people off spending money on seeing “W.E.” They’re all services, true, but the world wouldn’t exactly spin off its axis if the last group of hands remained idle.
The discussion about what purpose critics serve in an age when social media and the blogosphere increasingly blur the lines of “qualified” opinion — some of the most engaging film writers I currently read don’t practice professionally — while the notion of films being “critic-proof” dates back much, much further. Even before I became one myself, I found critics less useful for helping me decide what films to see than for feeding my post-viewing thoughts. I’m always delighted when someone tells me one of my reviews encouraged them to see a film, but somewhat surprised as well. There are enough critically adored films that approximately no one goes to see to support the idea that most critics have little audience to speak of.
Or perhaps they do. Last week, I saw and wrote about Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,” the tortuously delayed indie, shot in 2005, that I immediately identified as one of my favorite films of the year. Discussing it with an equally enthusiastic colleague afterwards, we both preemptively mourned the fact that no one was going to see the thorny moral drama, which was buried by upon its U.S. release by Fox Searchlight (unluckily for “Margaret,” an outfit well-stocked with critically beloved indies this year) in September. With the film set to open on a single screen in London — and one of the West End’s pokiest, at that — there was little reason to suspect it wouldn’t die an equally swift death in the UK.
But then a funny thing happened. Just as a small pocket of London critics attempted to spread the word about the film on Twitter, American critic Jaime Christley, troubled by the lack of any awards push for the film from Searchlight, formed an online petition imploring the company to boost its profile with screenings and/or screeners. (The goal was less to reach Academy types than fellow critics, many of whom hadn’t yet seen the film to consider for their own year-end honors and lists.) The timing was coincidental, but ideal: the #TeamMargaret hashtag took off on Twitter, TIME and the New Yorker, among other outlets, reported on the phenomenon and the original petition amassed the signatures of over 600 critics.
Which is all well and good, but on its own, suggests little more than a critical echo chamber with little real-world impact. Until, that is, “Margaret” began its humble single-screen run in London — and the effect of the critics’ efforts came into focus. Fuelled by spectacular notices in the UK broadsheets, including five-star reviews in both The Telegraph and The Guardian, the film grossed nearly $7,200 in its opening weekend — which, as The Guardian’s box-office expert Charles Gant reports, makes for comfortably the highest screen average of any film in the country. A friend reports that this afternoon’s matinee showing was still half-full: pretty impressive for a downbeat 150-minute film centered on themes of guilt and litigation.
That isn’t even the best news. It was confirmed yesterday that, from this coming Friday, “Margaret” will expand to at least seven screens in the capital — a stunning turnaround for a film that seemed destined to vanish from theaters after seven days. Meanwhile, extra screenings for London critics voting in year-end awards have been offered: with such gestures also being made in the US (indeed, it’s screening for L.A. press today), Christley’s petition is having precisely its desired effect.
Of course, any year-end awards attention for “Margaret” remains in the pigs-might-fly realm of possibility, but that’s hardly the point. The more important reward is that a film which scarcely anyone had seen, much less thought to talk about, is now not just the subject of active critical conversation, but a word-of-mouth success story among paying arthouse patrons on one side of the ocean. And for once, critics can actually claim some credit for lighting the fire.
In the past week, I’ve had a number of messages from readers and followers thanking me for drawing their attention to the film, with those in a position to do so stating their intention to see it: a bigger direct response than I’ve had for any of the more popular films I’ve reviewed over the past couple of years. And whatever number of people I’ve inadvertently managed to talk into buying a ticket must be a drop in the ocean compared to the crowds prompted by vastly more widely-read British critics like Peter Bradshaw or Tim Robey.
Hearteningly, this success comes only a month after another of my scrappy 2011 pets, Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend,” similarly managed to increase its UK screen count and build solid arthouse numbers after a united front of critics boosted its profile far beyond what might have been expected. (One cinema chain that initially decided against programming the film, believing it a less promising commercial bet than Miranda July’s “The Future,” changed its mind after seeing the early numbers.) I’m not being so self-righteous or deluded as to suggest that critics are important, but it’s nice to see they can help more than just the occasional loyal movie fan.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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