Four At The Movies 

1 January 2003

When Channel 4 was created, it was designed to be different to ITV, even though for years it was effectively part of the ITV family. But it had a remit to fulfil.

And one of the aspects of the remit was that the channel was to support British cinema, which had undergone something of a downturn since the heydays of the Ealing comedies and had almost vanished completely under the weight of the Hollywood blockbusters, such as Star Wars and Superman, which were high budget, high action, high octane films.

So it was in this situation that Channel 4 were thrust in, and told to make sure that British cinema got some much-needed exposure on the channel. Channel 4 created a strand called Film On Four, and where possible helped to provide finance. Sometimes, under the Film On Four brand, Channel 4 would get distribution for some of their better films, which helped further fund new films.

Whilst films like ET were breaking box office records, others like My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev almost invisible to the popcorn-chewing public. But Channel 4 succeeded in getting films like these released, and because they were produced so cheaply, they didn’t have to earn millions at the box office to get their money back. Those that did were regarded as major successes.

British producers seem to have a knack for producing good films and TV shows on a tight budget. Film on Four’s first twenty films were produced for a total of £9.6 million pounds, and out of those, eight got some kind of theatrical release. In Hollywood, that same amount of money was the average cost of a single movie.

From starting out with a total budget of just £6 million for the first year of the strand, Channel 4 managed to slowly build up a pedigree of good films from other production houses. Much like its TV operation was a publisher/broadcaster, so Film on Four acted as a financier and sometime co-producer, with the films they funded having a guaranteed chance for airplay on the channel.

Channel 4 also showed a lot of other films; Film on Four was not their only source of movies. They aired a lot of art house and world cinema. Japanese films, Bollywood, French cinema and many other European and international films would get aired alongside the Film on Four material.

Film on Four established an international subsidiary (FFI) as a way of getting finance in from overseas to provide additional support. They changed their strategy to co-produce films with production houses, rather than just finance them. It slowly began to work, despite the reluctance of the British cinema-going audience to embrace British cinema at the time. Over the past 20 years, 85-90% of British cinema audiences were watching films produced out of the Hollywood machine, rather than British films.

The style of films that Film on Four was supporting was often heavily criticised for not being suitable for an international audience, therefore not really able to make much money outside of Britain. There were also complaints that sights were being set too low for the films to be realistically termed ‘cinema’. However, Film on Four continued to support films that were themed around social realism.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, Channel 4 had, through Film on Four, funded or partially funded hundreds of films, all relatively cheaply. Whilst a lot of these films had garnered much critical acclaim, only a handful had made any serious money back for Film on Four – although a lot of money had gone to other distributors. But Film on Four had done its job. It had put some energy back into a production market that had virtually collapsed by the mid-1970s.

Film on Four had also been quietly doing another job, and that was promoting the UK to the big Hollywood machine. As a result of the groundwork done by Film on Four, these days we have a rising grassroots film industry. And we have the four main studios that we had in the initial golden age of British cinema back – Ealing, Pinewood, Shepperton and Elstree – and a new major studio facility being constructed in Cornwall. Hollywood now comes to the UK for more and more location filming and post-production.

Film on Four, nowadays known as FilmFour, will now never reach the dizzy heights of 20th Century Fox or other big Hollywood studios, but it has laid the groundwork for others to build on.

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