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Channel 4 and Film

How a television company became a major film industry player

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The 1970s saw a series of crises in the British film industry caused largely by the withdrawal of support from both Hollywood majors and their domestic equivalents. This led to a sea-change in the structure of the industry, with dinosaurs like Rank and EMI replaced by smaller independent production companies like Palace, HandMade and Goldcrest. Thanks to declining cinema audiences (which hit an all-time low in 1984), British films were increasingly reliant on secondary markets such as video and television, and Channel 4 became a crucial part of the funding equation. By the end of the 1980s, it was arguably the single most important player in the British film industry, not only providing valuable support of various kinds but also making a major contribution to a full-scale cultural revival.

However, Channel 4's involvement in feature films was not planned from the outset. Although it began transmission with a regular slot entitled 'Film on Four', the original idea was that this would be filled by low-budget TV films, with commissioning editor David Rose generally able to offer £300,000 per project. Accordingly, highlights of the first year included Walter and P'Tang Yang Kipperbang (both 1982) which, though critically acclaimed, were better suited to the small screen - the latter title had been specifically developed by David Puttnam as a television project in between higher-profile projects like Chariots of Fire (d. Hugh Hudson, 1981) and Local Hero (d. Bill Forsyth, 1983).

During this period, Channel 4 embarked on negotiations with the Cinema Exhibitors Association with the aim of modifying the traditional "holdback" arrangement, whereby there would be a gap of at least three years between a film's cinema and television premieres. This was designed to protect the interests of cinema operators, but it acted as a strong disincentive to television companies to invest in film projects, since they would have to wait too long before they saw any return on their investment. Though the CEA was reluctant to scrap the original agreement outright, a compromise was reached that allowed Channel 4 to screen films shortly after the end of their theatrical run, provided their production budget was no greater than £1.25 million.

The immediate upshot of this deal was that the second season of Film on Four included such substantial arthouse hits as Angel (d. Neil Jordan, 1982) and The Draughtsman's Contract (d. Peter Greenaway, 1982), broadcast just months after their original release at a time when their critical acclaim was still fresh in the memory. In the longer term, Channel 4 substantially increased its investment in British feature film production, striking deals with the BFI Production Board, Goldcrest, Merchant Ivory and many others. Though Channel 4 continued funding low-budget TV movies, some were so outstanding that they garnered an initial cinema release - the most famous example being My Beautiful Laundrette (d. Stephen Frears, 1985). Channel 4 had already started investing in foreign productions, notably Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (West Germany, 1984) and Jan Svankmajer's part-animated Alice (Neco z Alenky, Czechoslovakia, 1987), but this arrangement was formalised by the creation of Film Four International. This was formed to invest in foreign productions, distinguished examples including Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (Offret, Sweden, 1986).

However, Channel Four Films' fundamental policy was to support British talent, with particular attention paid to promising projects that had had difficulty securing funding elsewhere. Good examples include a slate of collaborations with the BFI Production Board (Derek Jarman's The Angelic Conversation, 1985, and Caravaggio, 1986; Terence Davies' Distant Voices Still Lives, 1988; Margaret Tait's Blue Black Permanent, 1992) while the fiercely independent Amber Films collective was able to move into feature production with Seacoal (1985). Mindful of one of the channel's core remits, Channel Four Films also significantly increased the funding available to female, black and Asian filmmakers, as demonstrated by The Gold Diggers (d. Sally Potter, 1983), the surprise hit Bhaji on the Beach (d. Gurinder Chadha, 1992), Playing Away (d. Horace Ové, 1986), Ping Pong (d. Po Chih Leong, 1986) and Young Soul Rebels (d. Isaac Julien, 1991). There were also numerous initiatives designed to develop short films by newcomers, examples including 10x10 (1989-2000), BFI collaboration New Directors (1989-97), and the Mike Leigh-backed Short & Curlies (1996-98).

Channel 4's film production policy continued into the 1990s, a period buoyed by enormous hits including Four Weddings and a Funeral (d. Mike Newell, 1994), Secrets and Lies (d. Mike Leigh, 1996) and Trainspotting (d. Danny Boyle, 1996) - all three by directors whose previous films had also received Channel 4 backing. However, things soured towards the end of the decade, with increasing budgets leading to more collaborations with American production companies, a greater tendency towards populism, and a more marked separation between the commercial interests of Film Four (as it was renamed in 1998) and its parent company. None of these productions was successful enough to offset the overall financial risk, and after the failure of the expensive Charlotte Gray (d. Gillian Armstrong, 2001), Film Four was wound up in 2002, with Channel 4 itself resuming responsibility for film production - though in a sharply different commercial landscape (the international market for British films shrank alarmingly in the early 2000s) this inevitably led to cutbacks. These were arguably unavoidable, especially given a significant reduction in TV advertising revenue that affected the channel's activities as a whole, but it also raised questions about whether it was appropriate for a television channel to get so heavily involved in feature films in general and international co-productions in particular, a question that has yet to be fully answered.

Aside from production, Channel 4 also made significant contributions to film culture through its policy of regular screenings of minority-interest films. Though Britain was quick to adopt video as a genuine mass medium in the 1980s, relatively few independent and foreign language films were made available on British labels, forcing discerning cinephiles to rely on Channel 4, BBC2 and the small but active repertory cinema circuit. By the mid-1990s, though video labels had become noticeably more adventurous, repertory cinema had all but died out. Unwilling to devote more airtime on the main channel to redressing the balance (if anything, its film programming had taken far fewer risks than it had in the 1980s), Channel 4 compromised by launching its first spin-off digital channel on 1 November 1998.

Also called Film Four, it was dedicated to screening the kind of arthouse/independent programming that had sustained the repertory sector since the late 1960s, ideally (though not always) in uncut versions, at the correct aspect ratio, and unbroken by TV commercials. Initially a paid-for subscription channel, it was relaunched as Film 4 on 23 July 2006 as a freely-accessible digital channel on Freeview. However, this was accompanied by a less welcome change: in order to cover the loss of subscription revenue, films were now broadcast with commercial breaks, and the programming became more populist, with challenging arthouse fare restricted to the early hours of the morning. In the early 2000s, Channel 4 also launched the specialist digital channels FilmFour World and FilmFour Extreme and the catch-up channel FilmFour Weekly, but all had been discontinued before the switch to Freeview.

Michael Brooke

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