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August 26, 2008
Channel 4 Films
When Channel Four became the fourth terrestrial channel in 1982 (the only channels you could get then were BB1, BBC 2 & ITV) it had a brief for commissioning and showing a range of cutting edge materials which were very different to what was being shown on other channels. British film became a huge beneficiary of this policy and many films were made which appealed to quite different audiences. Many of these films became some of the best known and most financially successful films in British cinema since 1982. This shows what a powerful influence C4 has had over the long term as it has now been operating for over 25 years. By 1984 C4 had co-produced over 20 feature films for the special slot Film on Four.
Because there was a guaranteed TV premiere for these films they could afford to take more risks in terms of both their content and their treatment of this than mainstream films. Nevertheless few of the films were about contemporary Britain. Alexander Walker (2004) correctly identifies The Ploughman's Lunch (1983) as a film which was more critical of the trends within the Thatcher government of the time to which could be added Mike Leigh's Meantime (1983) which deals with a dysfunctional London based family with everybody in it on the Dole (Income support rather than gainfully employed). this had great resonance at the time given that unemployment in the UK was approaching the 3 million mark under the Thatcher government.
Channel Four Films and the Industrial Context
In terms of costs C4 films were typically £500k-£600k at the top end, this compared with conventionally funded feature films of the time which typically cost around £3-4 million. (Walker 2004). C4 films proved attractive to filmmakers and producers because until 1985 there was a generoius system of tax write offs against production costs in which costs could be written off against profits straight away whilst films not initially targetted at TV had their cost written off over several years. This meant that in terms of risks and returns for investors funding C4 films was much lower risk in a high risk business. The Nigel Lawson budget of 1985 was to reduce this tax shelter as the government sought to ensure it got its share form the film-making business.
Whilst film-makers enjoyed the tax write offs they wanted to have their cake and eat it by having the films given a theatrical release in the cinemas first of all. Many wanted an 18 month to two year window for cinema release however David Rose the commissioning editor for fiction at Channel 4 correctly felt that this wouldn't allow C4 to build up its audiences. The reality was that these films even when they did get theatrical release didn't enter into the mainstream anyway usually being released in a small number of cinemas which were identified with the Art House circuit. From the perspective of many in the audience this acted as an artificial ckoke on the market and represented greed from the investors by tryng to squeeze every last penny out of audiences. The problem for C4 was also that the freshness and sense of the contemporary would inevitably be watered down if audiences had to wait. They might even lose interest in the film. As a result few films had theatrical release and those that did had very limited ones. At this time there was still considerable friction between the film and TV industries. Cinema was very defensive about its major circuits of distribution and exhibition which is where the real money has been made in cinema. The distributors wanted to keeep films off TV for three years and only in the case of commercial flops were they prepared to allow them onto TV inunder three years.
Channel four was badly effected by this industry restriction on trade practices. An example cited by Walker (2004) concerns She'll be Wearing Pink Pajamas (1984) starring Julie Walters. Walters had starred in the very successful film Educating Rita (1983) only the previous year a film which she is still rembered for and consequently her fees had gone up considerably. C4 had put up all the funding for this film coming to £950k, whilst they had planned an initial theatrical release they had intended to release it on TV as soon as possible in order to recoup their very high overheads against tax. Sadly they were unable to follow this release strategy and the film didn't justify its costs. This is a good example of the British film industry cutting its own throat when it comes to investment in genuinely British films rather than what are effectively Hollywood ones.
During the mid 1980s the costs of video recorders was coming down considerably as was the cost of films on video and by 1990 most homes had a video-recorder. The rise of video rental shops was an important phenomena and this began to undermine the distribution industries stranglehold on film release. Piracy and fear of piracy within the industry meant films became generally available to audiences much more quickly at at more reasonable prices than before. When videos were first made of Hollywood films they cost around £50-00 each at 1980 prices.
Channel Four had been established with the aim of getting many programmes either by commisioning or buying in programmes from other companies rather than producing its programmes in house which was what both ITV and the BBC did. By 1987 24% of C4 programming was externally produced and films were a large part of this 24%. C4 had an ambitious target of co-producing 20 films per year which was beyond the resources of any other film making companies in the UK. According to Walker (2004) it had a budget of £6 million to spend on fully or part financing films. It typically invested between £250k - £300k per film buyijng in the TV rights. C4 also invested £750k per year in British Screen Finance and another £500k per year in the BFI Production Board. One of C4 first films The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) was a co-production with the BFI Production Board . In the case of the last two investments funds were matched by the government which provided extra stimulaus to the industry.
By the end of 1987 C4 was producing 17/28 films per year on a £9.5 million budget. Very few of the films directly recovered their costs and to all intents and ourposes C4 remained an 'art-house' producer as the films weren't reaching mass popular audiences they had on the other hand established a good rapport with more specific audiences and can be used as an example of how audiences were beginning to fragment as more media products became available. The breakthrough films for C4 were My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), Letter to Brehznev (1985) Mona Lisa (1986). A useful boost was that these films also found an alternative audience in the United States.
By 1989 the bonanza for the film industry through TV funded film was beginning to dry up. Channel reduced its financial committment to film making reducing its annual production target down to 16 films and capping its financial committment to any one film to one third of the overall costs. The head of film at Channel Four David Rose was about to retire. He had had a considerable influence on the success of C4 Film with about £50 million spent on around 160 films up until this point. Many in the British film industry were critical of the C4 approach arguing that the small scale cutting edge film that C4 had built its reputation around was dead. They further argued that C4 had not acted as the launchpad for British cinema which they had expected instead film makers still had to find a considerable amount of finance for themselves. In all honesty this sounded like the carping on of filmmakers eager to break into the Hollywood market and get themselves fame and fortune. Pure greed and overblown egos and the hubris which has seemingly beeen present in the British film industry for decades. In the first instance if the ideas for British films were so good why shouldn't they go out and sell it to find the financial backing? People in other types of business do this all the time. Rather than looking to the amazing effect that C4 had in stimulating a distincly British type of film which was representing aspects of British society greed was the driver of these criticisms.
Walker (2004) suggests that many in the British film industry including the likes of David Puttnam and Working Title (the production company which had grown dramatically on the back of Film Four) were impatient for the bigger budget more ambitious films. TV financed films were too small in their cope and their appeal so the argument went.
Despite this criticism one Film Four success of the time was Riff-Raff (1991). There was a huge debate about whether this film should receive a theatrical release at the time. Eventually the BFI arranged some limited screenings and then Palace Pictures screened it in a range of university / art house cinemas around the country. It reached around 200 screens out of the 3,000 available in the country at the time. Walker is keen to point out the problems that independent British films had in Britian compared to releases in continental Europe:
In Europe where a culture of exhibition existed and was valued, Loach's film was a popular success, ahcieved full-scale releases in several countries and won the new European Film Award in 1992 (Walker, 2004 p 122)
In 1991 C4 decided to back the Crying Game (1992) as a co-production with Palace Pictures (Stephen Woolley) along with Miramax run by the Weinstein's. it was also backed by British screen. Overall it had what Walker described as 'an anorexic budget of £2.3 million' (Walker, 2004 p 149).
Successes of the Early Years of C4 Films: Developing New Audiences
Films that were especially successful in the early years of C4 were Letter to Brehznev (1985) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). My Beautiful Laundrette was a seminal film of the mid 1980s for it brought the mischievous and iconoclastic scriptwriting of Hanif Kureishi into the public eye as well as proving successful for director Stephen Frears and actor Daniel Day Lewis.
These were films that touched contemporary critical audiences in the 20 something to 30 something age ranges especially. Kureishi had been brought up on the back of sixties hippiedom then the punk rebellion and then Ken Livingstone's first GLC which had promoted festivals, events and activities by the ANL, Rock Against Racism, feminist organisations and Gay Pride. The concept of cultural industries was also developed. London and young audiences especially in larger cities around the country were keen on seeing the representations and contradictions concerning hybridity and identity which people of a critical nature were keen on debating, discussing and acting out at the time. My Beautiful Laundrette was followed up by C4 and Kureishi a couple of years later with Sammie & Rosie Get Laid (1987). Again directed by Frears and scripted by Kureishi it failed to touch the cultural moment in the way that My Beautiful Laundrette had done but at least Asian identity was now recognised in British cinema. Before My Beautiful Laundrette a large percentage of the British population went largely unrepresented in the media. There can be little doubt that C4 Film made a significant contribution in this respect.
The 1990s under David Aukin
By 1992 the succession from David rose to David Aukin had been completed. Channel 4 had increased its average contribution to the financing of films to over 40% "but only because costs had risen, not due to optimism" asserted Alexander Walker (2004 p 154). The cost of a typical Channel Four film had risen from £400k in 1982 to £1.8 million. So much for Thatcher's stance against inflation or was it the greed of filmmakers and others in the industry which caused this 4.5 fold increase over a ten year period? Walker's explanation doesn't really add up here. However by this date C4 had part-funded nearly 250 films which is an excellent record.
It was still associated with more radical and alternative film-making for it co-produced Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein with the BFI Production Board. The film was produced by Tariq Ali and the script was written by Terry Eagleton. In 1994 C4 backed Shopping which was pitched to them as a film made with the stylishness of Luc Besson. 1994 also saw C4 become involved in part backing The Madness of King George. It starred Nigel Hawthorn and Helen Mirren and was an excellent history film which also benefitted from crossing over with costume drama thus fitting the heritage genre. However the film was dealing with an unusual and turbulent period of British history and didn't simply celebrate the successes of Britain in the past. It was a much more expensive film than was usual with its budget running in the region of £13 million. It gained good distribution in the USA and turned out to be a profitable film.
The sort of films that C4 was involved with through commissioning and / or co-production deals include
Trainspotting and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Both of these films were hugely successful although appealing to very different audiences. Trainspotting was a low budget film based upon the book of the same name which had carved itself a good niche audience. It was co-produced with Working Title and backed by the powerful Polygram filmed entertainment department. Polygram put some canny marketing into the film. Knowing it would appeal to ravers and clubbers they focused their marketing on this large niche audience which proved highly successful. As a result the film gained distribution in the USA as well although it did need sub-titles there. Four Weddings and a Funeral was a clever production which played upon aspects of national identity successfully including Scotland, however moving renderings of a W. H. Auden poem provided a double theme of national and gay identity, and the film played upon the 'naice' elements of Britishness rather than focusing upon the sort of aspects of British society apparent in Shopping and Trainspotting (ram-raiding and heroin addiction respectively). With a continuing well handled light-hearted romantic comedy audiences were won over on both sides of the Atlantic by its feel-good factor making all concerned large amounts of money and providing the breakthrough film for Hugh Grant as the quintessential 'English Gentleman'.
Channel Four Films and the Representation of Cultural Hybridity
Channel Four has had a very progressive policy when it comes to helping to fund films - and guaranteeing a scrrening of these films - representing relatively recently ethnic groupings in the UK. These films have been far more than just about separate communities which early multicultural ideas were concerned with. The films commisioned explored and developed ideas of cultural hybridity in which there was mixing and exchange of ideas and attitudes in a complex way. My Beautiful Laundrette launched this approach which was followed by Bahji on the Beach, The Wild West and perhaps most successfully East is East which was the first British film representing hybrid and ever changing cultural and social mix in Britain to make it into mainstream multiplex cinemas. Recently Film four produced the BAFTA prizewinning film Brick Lane (2007) directed by Sarah Gavron. In this respect Channel Four has played a groundbreaking role taking a lead in developing this theme for over twenty years. It also screened the film Yasmin when it failed to gain a cinema distribution deal in 2004. As well as extending the ways in which British society is represented Channel four has thus sought to develop and win over entirely new audiences who are foar mor hybrid and cosmopolitan in their world view. It is not unreasonable to suggests that out of all the film making institutions operating in Britain since 1982 -when the Channel Four film arm was initiated- Channel Four has been by far and away the best in this respect. In that sense its committment to the public service broadcasting ethos perhaps means that it has earned the right to gain some of TV licence fee payers money.
1999 Film Four Dominates at Cannes
The late 1990s saw many changes in the structure of the film section of Channel Four. FilmFour separated from Channel 4 to become a stand-alone company in 1998 (Guardian July 2002). By 1999 Film Four was at the top of its game with nine films were officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival that year although some of these were American. By the late 1990s Film Four was building on its successes but also responding to changes in the structure of TV in the UK which had seen the launch of Channel Five a few years previously and increasing numbers of digital satellite channels becoming available via Sky. This led on to more changes in 2001 & 2003:
In 1998 FilmFour, a specialist subscription film channel, was launched.... and in April 2001... FilmFour World and FilmFour Extreme, two further film channels, available to subscribers to FilmFour. These channels were available on ITV Digital but are not carried by Freeview, a wholly free-to-air proposition. In 2003 Film Four World and Extreme were replaced by Film Four Weekly... In May 2001 Channel 4 formally launched a new incorporated company, 4 Ventures Ltd, to manage all its film, learning and other new business activities. (ITC [now Ofcom] on C4 history)
Problems at Film Four
One of FilmFour's biggest problems has been competing for cinema space with multinational film companies, whose films account for more than two thirds of UK box office takings. FilmFour blames the poor box office results on its lack of clout in the distribution market rather than the quality of its films. (BBC on Film Four Partner Search)
2001 turned out to be rather a problematic year for Film Four. Charlotte Gray contributed to a £5.7 million loss as it was one of the most expensive films thay had made and it was a box office flop. Ever since it has become remembered for causing major financial problems at Film four however the problems were more deepseated than that.
In 2001, Film Four put out 14 films, but its releases accounted for just 0.7% of the UK box office market. (ibid)
By 2006 Film four was struggling. Its business model of pay TV on a subscription basis wasn't working, Andy Duncan C4's chief Executive announced:
The people who make money in terms of pay channels tend to be the platform owners or big rights holders. The subscriber levels that we have been getting [for FilmFour] have been very low. We believe we can make money from advertising," (Guardian report)
The actual relaunch came in July as the BBC reports:
In the process it will become the UK's largest free film channel, available to 18m homes, the broadcaster says.
Around one-quarter of the films shown on the channel will come from the UK, but they will be broken up with advertisements for the first time.
Film 4 currently appears to b doing well now it has migrated to Freeview and has taken to an advrtising model to pay for it.
Timeline of Channel Four / Film Four: Films & Events
|Year||Event||Director of Film Arm||Films Produced||Director|
Launch of Channel Four. A separate film arm Film on Four was established.
Angel (Danny Boy US title)
|1985||The Nigel Lawson buget removed the tax shelter for C4 Films.
|1988||Lawson economic boom underway
|1989||Beginning of downturn in TV financed film
|1990||Life is Sweet
|1991||Recession in UK
|1992||Britain forced out of the ERM
||David Aukin now head of Drama at C4
Madness of King George
|1997||David Aukin left C4 and went to Miramax||Welcome to Sarajevo
|1998||FilmFour separated from Channel 4 to become a stand-alone company in 1998||Paul Webster an ex-vice-president of Miramax was appointed in Aukin's palce in February
|1999||Film 4 "dominates Cannes" (Walker 2004 p300)
||East is East||Damien O'Donnell|
|2000||Sexy Beast||Johnathan Glazer|
|2001||FilmFour makes loss of £5.4 million||
|2002||UK distribution and international sales departments folded. Film production budget was slashed by two thirds to £10m. 50 staff axed||Paul Webster Chief Exec loses job||Once Upon a Time in the Midlands
|2006||February 8th Film Four leaves pay TV and goes onto Freeview
BBC: How Film Four lost the plot (Useful audio clips available here)
Guardian Story 10th July 2002: Executive goes as Channel 4 pulls plug on ailing FilmFour production arm
Film Four guarantee money back to audiences over Dancer in the Dark if not satisfied after half an hour