Back in 2009 I surveyed the state of free-to-air television in New Zealand with a particular focus on the movies that the free-to-air networks screened, in the post How terrestrial TV sells movie lovers short. In that survey I discovered how mediocre much of the movie output really is, and how little variety there was on offer. Seeing as I've ended up buying the past two copies of the Listener and it's been a while since my last review, I thought I'd replicate the experiment to see if anything's changed.
The listings cover the two weeks just past: 14-27 July. Six channels are included in the survey - TV1-4 plus Maori and Prime. I've listed all the movies screened, whatever the hour. Like the last time round, the ratings come from the user surveys on IMDB, which isn't perfect but was the best I could do in 2009 and I want to be able to compare the two sets of results. This time I've also added the Metacritic movie scores where available, to give a better idea of the overall quality of the movie in cinematic terms. Where there's no Metacritic score - often but not always a mark of resounding crapness - I've taken the film's IMDB rating and multiplied by ten. (Interestingly, I've noted the IMDB ratings appear to have firmed up for some of the films I would otherwise expect to have relatively poor ratings. Either viewers' tastes have declined, or perhaps studios are gaming the ratings by voting up their own offerings...)
TV1 just screened one measly movie, down from five in 2009 - a late prime-time outing for Enemy of the State (1998) featuring Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Hardly groundbreaking material, but relatively solid. The other channels seem to have regular movie slots so their film lists below are in multiples of two, but this film appears on its own. Does TV1 not bother with movies now?
Average movie rating: 7.2 IMDB, 67 Metacritic
TV2 was the biggest conduit for free-to-air movies in this fortnight, showing 14 films, although this is considerably fewer than its 2009 total of 21. The films shown were all from 2000 to 2010, with seven screening in prime time, five screening in late slots after 10pm, and two screening during daytime. The channel's film selections are steadfastly mediocre both in terms of popularity and quality, with a bunch of strictly average films hovering near the 5/10 mark like Jackie Chan's The Spy Next Door (5.2), the D-list late-night pap of The Operator (5.3), and Bubble Boy and the 2010 remake of Death at a Funeral (both 5.4). TV2 avoided screening films that were too highly-regarded in this survey period - its highest-rating film with IMDB users was the sappy but watchable Will and son Jaden Smith vehicle The Pursuit of Happyness (7.8), with all the other 13 movies rating at fives or sixes in IMDB terms. TV2's material was the least popular with critics, scoring a bare average of 50 on Metacritic, where anything under 60 usually rings alarm bells. Particularly poor cinematic efforts screened by TV2 include the aforementioned The Spy Next Door (27), the feeble Rob Schneider / David Spade / Jon Heder 'comedy' The Benchwarmers (25) and the simply risible 88 Minutes (17!). (Sample review for the latter Pacino film from Manohla Dargis in the NYT: 'Although it's often laugh-out-loud laughably bad, 88 Minutes is mostly just a slog'). And finally, the acid test: would I record any of these 14 movies to watch? Well, probably the 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that's about it. My mate Craig did the bit with the squirrels, you know.
Average movie rating: 6.1 IMDB, 50 Metacritic
TV3 only played six movies in this fortnight, which is down on its 2009 total of eight. Four were in prime time and two were late night screenings. In terms of audience appeal, its material was almost identical to that shown on TV2 and Four, which is disappointing when in 2009 TV3's movies were cut from slightly finer cloth. Still, the ribald but genuinely amusing Knocked Up and the well-regarded drama My Summer of Love (Emily Blunt, Natalie Press), which won the Bafta for Best British Film in 2005, are both definitely watchable and score highly with the critics, and Get Him To The Greek and Fantastic Four might do in a pinch. Only the B-grade no-name actioner 12 Rounds dilutes the pool with its 38 score on Metacritic.
Average movie rating: 6.2 IMDB, 60 Metacritic
Four can play whatever it likes, because only young people watch it and clearly they have terrible taste. Who could possibly relish the prospect of spending 93 precious minutes watching Jean-Claude Van Damme and none other than Dennis Rodman go through the increasingly hackneyed motions in the action movie Double Team from 1997? Its only saving grace is presumably that it can be watched, you know, 'ironically', and that it presumably cost approximately fifty cents to broadcast. (The trailer is marvellous watching, pitting one Belgian martial arts expert against one basketballer-cum-'media sensation' in a death spiral towards the jaw-droppingly lowest standards of acting ever imaginable). And the less said about the Cosby-endorsed and co-written cinematic remake of Fat Albert the better. At least Four isn't afraid to play slightly older (and therefore, no doubt, cheaper) films - it screened the two oldest films broadcast this fortnight, 1990's The Hunt for Red October and 1988's Crocodile Dundee II. (Well, I might've watched the former if I was desperate). The former submarine-based thriller scores surprisingly well with IMDB users, netting a 7.6 on the back of Cold War nostalgia or simple derangement. But remember, the currency of excellence is rather diluted in IMDB user land - 2001: A Space Odyssey only scores 8.4.
Average movie rating: 6.0 IMDB, 52 Metacritic
Maori TV played only four movies, but they were all interesting choices and all of them looked both palatable and, refreshingly, they offered a point of difference amongst the mass-produced studio fare of the other channels. Brazilian crime story City of Men, heartbreaking Australian Aboriginal drama Samson & Delilah, French whimsy and multiple baby-name generator Amelie and Norwegian Resistance saga Max Manus: this shows Maori TV in its guise as New Zealand's own mini-version of Australia's world cinema-showing SBS network. Quite how this fits with the remit of a channel given Government funding to promote the use of the Maori language is beyond me, but when the other channels are so reluctant to offer quality films like these, who's complaining?
Average movie rating: 7.5 IMDB, 66 Metacritic
Prime didn't show any movies in the 2009 survey, but this time the network managed to fit one per week into its schedule. Both were B-grade offerings from the 1990s screened in the 8.30pm slot - the 1993 Jeff Bridges / Kiefer Sutherland drama The Vanishing and Prime's answer to Double Team, a Steven Seagal schlock-fest, 1997's Fire Down Below featuring co-stars Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton and, for some unknown reason, Levon Helm from The Band (!). Neither of Prime's movies features on Metacritic. Which is not, as you might imagine, a good sign.
Average movie rating: 5.3 IMDB,  Metacritic
Aside from the appealing offerings on Maori TV and one or two screened by TV3 the films on display in the fortnight surveyed were typically mediocre. Certainly, networks are operating under financial constraints and are attempting to maximise profits while minimising outlays. But the quality of the films they broadcast seems to be at odds with the dynamics of the cinema business. TV networks should be screening films that the audience wants to see, rather than - as appears to be the case - the cheapest possible filler they can lay their hands on. Where are the cinematic blockbusters from previous years? Where are the Oscar-winners that represent the highlights of the cinematic arts, and that often achieve great successes at the box-office? Missing in action, if this two weeks are anything to go by.
The 35 films screened free-to-air in New Zealand, 14-27 July 2012
(D = daytime, L = late night)
Enemy of the State 1998
Talladega Nights 2006
88 Minutes 2007 (L)
St Trinian's 2007 (D)
The Spy Next Door 2010
1408 2007 (L)
Disturbia 2007 (L)
Charlie & the Chocolate Factory 2005
Bubble Boy 2001
The Ramen Girl 2008 (L)
The Operator 2000 (L)
The Benchwarmers 2006 (D)
Death at a Funeral 2010
The Pursuit of Happyness 2006
My Summer of Love 2005 (L)
Get Him To The Greek 2010
Fantastic Four 2005
I Think I Love My Wife 2006 (L)
Knocked Up 2007
12 Rounds 2009
Fat Albert 2004
Crocodile Dundee II 1988
Double Team 1997
Peter Pan 2003
Cruel Intentions 1999
Road Trip 2000
The Hunt for Red October 1990
City of Men 2007
Samson & Delilah 2009
Max Manus 2008
The Vanishing 1993
Fire Down Below 1997