Channel 4 confirms FilmFour closure

Distrib'n, foreign sales shuttered; film prod'n merged

LONDON — It’s finally official: Channel 4 has confirmed its plan to shut down FilmFour Ltd, its film production and distribution company.

The U.K. theatrical distribution and foreign sales arm will be closed, and film production will be brought back into C4 itself, with an annual budget of £10 million ($15 million).

FilmFour chief exec Paul Webster has ruled himself out from the job of heading the new film unit.

Sources say that he is exploring plans to return to indie production, possibly in partnership with FilmFour’s deputy head of production Jim Wilson, taking a number of FilmFour development projects with them.

The new film division – which will retain the name FilmFour — will continue to back the experimental low-budget arm FilmFour Lab, as part of the web’s commitment to new talent.

C4 has stated that it will meet its existing production commitments to projects including “Motor Cycle Diaries,” to be directed by Walter Salles, and “Edgardo Mortara,” directed by Damien O’Donnell and co-produced with Miramax.

Some FilmFour production staff will be kept on to oversee these commitments. The closure of FilmFour Distributors and FilmFour Intl. will also be “tailored to allow for the run-off of their existing slate of projects.”

The new FilmFour will invest in British talent, and “adhere to Channel 4’s core values of innovation, diversity and creativity.” It will typically co-finance pics for U.K. TV rights, and will seek theatrical distribution for “the majority of its films.”

It is understood that the unit will be part of a new Fiction department, alongside but not under the existing drama department. The head of FilmFour will report directly to C4’s new chief exec Mark Thompson.

This whole plan, agreed at a C4 board meeting yesterday, is still formally a “proposal,” which must be put to FilmFour staff for a statutory 30-day consultation period.

Thompson commented: “For a British broadcaster like Channel 4, British performance and production talent must come first. We are moving away from our recent focus on larger-budget international projects, and towards producing the kind of cutting-edge British films that have been part of Channel 4’s cultural and creative success of the last 20 years.”

Rob Woodward, managing director of C4’s commercial arm 4Ventures, the parent of FilmFour Ltd, said, “Over the last four years, significant investment and hard work has gone into FilmFour Ltd to develop it as a meaningful player internationally. However, this has not been possible given the sheer scale of the major studios.”

“Despite the efforts of everyone at the company, we have concluded that Channel 4 does not have the scale to make a financial success of this model,” he added.

Webster commented: “My responsibility now is to the staff and the filmmakers we are working with to ensure a smooth and seamless transition.”

FilmFour Ltd was spun off from C4 as a stand-alone company four years ago. Previously, the web’s film-making was managed through the in-house division Channel 4 Films.

Last year, FilmFour Ltd invested $46 million in production and development. But only $24 million of this is estimated to have gone specifically into British movies, the rest on international projects. The company lost $8.1 million in 2001 on sales of $65 million.

A year ago, Webster stated publicly that the true test of his regime would be the upcoming slate of releases including “Lucky Break,” “Charlotte Gray,” “Crush” and “Buffalo Soldiers.” The first three flopped at the box office (although they did not lose money for FilmFour), while “Buffalo Soldiers,” the best reviewed of the four, remains stuck in post-Sept. 11 limbo.

Pics in the pipeline include Shane Meadows’ “Once Upon a Time in The Midlands,” which premiered at Cannes; Thomas Vinterberg’s “It’s All About Love,” currently in post; and Conor McPherson’s “The Actors,” starring Michael Caine and co-produced by Miramax, also in post.

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