Channel 4’s movie arm Film4 is one of the pillars of the British film industry, alongside BBC Films and the British Film Institute, so when its longtime chief Tessa Ross recently said she would be stepping down, it sent a frisson through the biz.
Ben Roberts, director of the BFI Film Fund, says if either or both of the networks shuttered their film divisions it would leave a huge hole. Film4 and BBC Films invest £27 million ($45.4 million) between them in development and production. The BFI Film Fund’s budget is also $45.4 million, but as well as covering development and production, it also pays for distribution and sales support. Most of the projects on the BFI slate are backed by one or other of the broadcasters, such as Cannes titles “Jimmy’s Hall” from Ken Loach, “Mr. Turner” from Mike Leigh and “Pride” from Matthew Warchus.
“In our independent film sector, it is really precarious, so public funding in the early stages is vital leverage,” says Christine Langan, head of BBC Films. “I don’t think the community can really survive without those doors to knock on.”
Sue Bruce Smith, head of commercial and brand strategy at Film4, warns that if the coin the broadcasters and the BFI deliver to the indie sector disappeared, the U.K. may “end up with films that only represent one side of what the audience looks for.”
It’s not just the money. Take Film4’s approach to nurturing talent, typified by its championing of Steve McQueen from “Hunger” through to “12 Years a Slave.”
“Film4 has absolutely stuck to talent as the principal raison d’etre. And one of the smart things about that is that there is a certain amount of loyalty that gets developed between talent and commissioner,” Roberts says.
All this has heightened interest in Film4 succession, added to which is the vitality of Ross’ legacy.
“When you have got someone with the sheer strength of personality and instinct of Tessa, it is quite hard for everyone to see beyond that,” he says, “because this industry remains very much one where a lot of the shape is determined by a number of characters and personalities, and her ability to navigate within the channel has been very important.”
This interplay with the broadcaster may be crucial in determining who succeeds Ross, and the direction of Film4.
While BBC Films’ slate has leaned more toward the mainstream, Film4 has been more left field, but its success with the movie adaptation of comedy series “The Inbetweeners” may tempt Channel 4 to modify this approach, as all of its funding comes from commercial sources, primarily advertising.
The broadcasters need the films to fit within the schedules of their various channels, with a premium placed on pics that can play in primetime.
Film4’s commitment to avant-garde pics and films from new filmmakers does present a challenge to schedulers.
“The fact that we innovate will sometimes mean that the films that we are making and the new talent that we are nurturing isn’t as obvious (for) a nine o’clock slot as perhaps what the BBC (would have) when they are setting out their stall. But it is good that we have a mixed ecology,” Bruce Smith says.
Channel 4 also has the needs of the Film4 channel, which is the only free-to-air channel in the U.K. dedicated to movies, to consider. The channel provides a valuable platform for their films. The needs of both broadcasters’ on-demand services, which are increasingly popular, are also a consideration.
Another way that Film4 contributes to the industry, Bruce Smith says, is to experiment with “different ways to bring audiences to a film,” such as the innovative release of Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England,” which was the first U.K. film released simultaneously in movie theaters, on DVD and Blu-ray, on VOD and on TV.
“There has to be some force in the industry that is able to shake things up,” Bruce Smith says.
Film4 is also able to support the theatrical release of films through themed seasons on its Film4 channel, and promotion via social media. “We try to work hand-in-glove with the distributors to give the film the very best chance for its launch,” she says.
While the BBC also requires its film division to commission pics that fit into its schedules and deliver an audience, Langan points out that it’s not all about the numbers, and, anyway, a hit like “Philomena” wasn’t “a complete no-brainer to start with, but was given a lot of time and attention and care.”
BBC Films adopts a balanced approach, Langan says, with the mainstream titles sitting alongside innovative pics like Joanna Hogg’s “Exhibition” and Carol Morley’s “The Falling.”
“These are films that are bold and unusual. Carol is at an early stage of her career, and I don’t think she would get to make that film without our support,” Langan says.
Another project that she is excited about is Rufus Norris’ proletarian musical “London Road,” which started out as a production at London’s National Theater.
As with Channel 4, the BBC’s involvement can offer reassurance to other backers, and for the production company they can be a “safe harbor in a storm,” Langan says. “There have been times when other people have gone out of business, and taken people down with them, or threatened to, leaving projects in a perilous position.”
At the end of the day, the amount of money available to Film4 and BBC Films is modest, and Langan says that the U.K. needs more sources of funding.
“What would be great in this country is if we had really meaningful financial muscles, if we had a studio, if we didn’t have to go with the begging bowl to Hollywood all the time,” she says. “We are very good at collaborating and being in those relationships, but, let’s face it, we have to be.”
She adds: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow have more financial independence, because clearly we are good at it, and people love it, and there is so much talent here.”