B.O. flops put chill on FilmFour distrib’n

LONDON — Loss-making FilmFour Ltd. is considering the future of its U.K. theatrical distribution operation, after a run of box office failures which stretches back to “East Is East” in 1999. Options range from shutting it down (striking a joint venture or output deal with another distrib), to beefing it up with a much bigger acquisitions budget.

What’s clear is that the current system, where the distrib arm is largely reliant on FilmFour’s own productions, isn’t working. Its movies rarely seem targeted at any viable segment of the cinema-going audience. Latest flop is “Charlotte Gray,” although given the lukewarm reviews, its $1.8 million gross almost looks like a marketing triumph. “Monsoon Wedding,” a recent pick-up, proves what the distrib arm can do with something decent, heading for a boffo $2.6 million.

There’s nothing on the horizon to give much hope, either. “Crush,” “Miranda,” “Once Upon A Time In the Midlands,” “It’s All About Love,” Gus Van Sant’s experimental “Gerry,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Buffalo Soldiers” all promise to be tough sells.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much life there is left in FilmFour’s vaunted co-production alliance with Warner after “Charlotte Gray,” especially given that the studio never launched the U.S. classics arm which was originally intended to release FilmFour’s movies. And Rob Woodward, managing director of 4 Ventures, Channel 4’s commercial arm, has signaled his wish to bring a new equity partner into FilmFour itself.

Clearly there’s going to be some hard thinking going on in the coming months. FilmFour may look quite a different beast at the end of it.

It must have been galling for FilmFour to watch the hype build on “Ali G Indahouse,” the low-budget Working Title comedy which gets its world premiere in London this week. With the film tracking at 91% awareness a week ahead of its U.K. release, box office expectations are $20 million and northwards for this obscenely funny spin-off from Channel 4’s own “Da Ali G Show.” Performer Sacha Baron Cohen retained the film rights to his white homeboy Ali G character (who will make his U.S. TV debut Stateside on HBO this Fall), and chose Working Title over FilmFour to make it because, he reportedly said, “Channel 4 makes depressing movies.”

Hardcore controversy

London Underground has gone back on its decision to ban the poster for the hardcore Gallic art film “Baise-moi.” The original problem was not the discreet artwork, which carries no hint of the explicit sex featured in the movie, but the French title, which is being used for the U.K. release.

The Tube operator decided that the words “Baise-moi” (which translates as “Fuck me”) were “likely to cause offense to French tourists.” However, after consulting a French/English dictionary, it was deemed that “baiser” was also the Gallic word for “a kiss,” and therefore acceptable. Distrib Feature Film Co. is opening the movie May 3, and is awaiting word from the big multiplex chains whether they will be willing to book it.

Chalmers retires

After 40 years as one of London’s leading agents, Ginette Chalmers is retiring. She’s quitting Peters Fraser & Dunlop under doctor’s orders, to recuperate from the persistent ill-health she has suffered for the past couple of years.

Her decision has come as a shock to her clients, including actors Stephen Rea, Ian Hart, Catherine McCormack, Jane Horrocks and Sam West, many of whom have relied upon her maternal brand of guidance and protection for their entire careers.

Her PF&D colleagues, notably Lindy King and Dallas Smith, will take over most of her list. Only up-and-comer Emilia Fox, who recently starred in Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” and TV heartthrob Simon Shepherd are likely to go elsewhere.

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