FilmFour: back to the future

Tessa Ross is giving up her stripes as drama chief at Channel 4 to become head of the web’s new inhouse film production unit. This will replace FilmFour Ltd., the stand-alone company that finally closed its doors Dec. 20.

Despite her TV background, Ross is not a movie virgin. She was head of development at quasi-public film financier British Screen for three years in the early ’90s, before moving to the BBC, where she commissioned the script that became “Billy Elliot” and exec produced the Stephen Frears movie “Liam.” At C4 she oversaw Ken Loach’s “The Navigators.” Her brother is director Ben Ross.

Nonetheless, she has a lot to prove to the British film community. Says one film exec who has worked with her, “I don’t know that Tessa knows the difference between TV and cinema. But she’s very ambitious, she knows good writing and she can recognize good projects. The real question is to what extent the channel is still prioritizing film, because it really seems to be letting it go.”

C4 has pledged to invest £10 million ($15.8 million) a year through the new unit, which will retain the label FilmFour. That contrasts with the $50 million budget for the old FilmFour, although only about half of that figure was spent on British production.

The biggest handicap facing Ross is likely to be the lack of her own foreign sales arm to give her leverage in putting together projects. C4’s decision to close the profitable FilmFour Intl., along with the loss-making production and U.K. distribution operations, remains mystifying. Even BBC Films, which the new inhouse FilmFour most closely resembles, has a stake in sales house the Works and a co-financing relationship with BBC Worldwide.

In some ways, the appointment of Ross reps a throwback to the early days of C4 filmmaking in the 1980s, when pics such as “My Beautiful Laundrette” evolved out of the web’s drama department under David Rose. But even then C4 handled its own film sales.

Ross will report directly to chief exec Mark Thompson. Her team will include Robin Gutch, head of the experimental FilmFour Lab. She also inherits a handful of hot projects, including Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s bestseller “The Lovely Bones” and Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.”

Easy come, easy go

Whatever happened to The plan by easyJet mogul Stelios Haji-Ioannou to bring his cheap-seats and no-frills philosophy into the exhibition business has so far failed to get off the ground. He originally promised to open a cinema by November, but he’s still scouting for the first site, having been forced to widen the search from central London to the entire Greater London area. “There’s a difference between what we want to pay vs. what the cinema operators are prepared to give,” admits spokesman James Rothnie, who says the launch date has shifted to early 2003. “We hope it will be soon,” he says. “The project’s a definite goer.”

The company did manage to hire a film booker — former Ster Century exec Gary Mays — but he turned up for one day, took a look around and promptly quit. The traditional exhib/distrib sector remains profoundly skeptical that the rhetoric of selling seats for as little as 30¢ (if you book weeks in advance via the Internet) can possibly work in the real world — particularly since Stelios has set his face firmly against selling his own popcorn. EasyGroup apparently has done its own study into popcorn and concluded, startlingly, that it’s not financially viable.

Berlin lines up Oscar derby

The 53rd Berlin Intl. Film Festival is shaping up, as usual, as a platform for the Euro launch of several Oscar contenders. “Chicago” has been confirmed as the opening-night film on Feb. 6, to be followed later in the fest by “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Adaptation” and “The Hours.” By February, that lineup might seem old hat to Anglo-American attendees — although the fact that the Oscar noms are announced Feb. 11, right in the middle of the fest, always adds some spice. But there will be at least one genuine world premiere of a Hollywood movie — Alan Parker’s “The Life of David Gale” is set to unspool Feb. 7.

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