FilmFour eyes commercial ‘Break’

Pix part of strategy to move Channel 4's film arm out of arthouse niche

LONDON — FilmFour will reach a turning point Aug. 24, with the U.K. opening of Peter Cattaneo’s “Lucky Break.”

After 3-1/2 years with just one hit, chief exec Paul Webster has staked the credibility of his regime on a release slate that starts with “Lucky Break” and continues through the fall with “Crush,” “Charlotte Gray” and “Buffalo Soldiers.”

These, he says, are the first movies that fulfill his strategy to move Channel 4’s film arm out of its arthouse niche, re-engineering the company as a producer and distributor of bigger pics with real international value.

“Lucky Break,” an $8.5 million prison comedy from the director of “The Full Monty,” is FilmFour’s most aggressive release in Blighty. Paramount and Miramax jointly own U.S. rights.

Webster describes everything that went before — edgy low-budget movies such as “Sexy Beast” and “Gangster No. 1” — as “transitional.”

FilmFour is certainly overdue for a change in its U.K. box office fortunes. Since 1999’s “East Is East,” Webster’s only Brit hit so far, the company has suffered one flop after another, despite some critical praise.

It posted a loss last year of £3 million ($4.4 million) on sales of $62 million.

Hit needed

The resignation of C4 chief exec Michael Jackson has intensified the company’s need for good news at the box office to impress his successor.

Even prior to the news of Jackson’s exit, rumors — often contradictory — were swirling about the company’s key execs. Webster, however, confirms that he, production head Jim Wilson and development head Elinor Day all recently reupped.

He also denies reports that FilmFour has been ordered to slash overhead. “We’re trimming, but it’s not even 1%,” he says.

Nonetheless, much rides on the upcoming releases.

“If we lost millions of pounds and all those movies tanked, I would be the first to hold my hand up,” he says.

The rest of the U.K. film industry is crossing its fingers too. C4 may no longer be the only game in town for local moviemakers, but FilmFour under Webster is still the most plausible contender to become a true British movie studio.

The company has also spread its wings to America, where senior VP Rebecca Yeldham recently struck its first U.S. development deal, for the Elmore Leonard book “Tishomingo Blues.”

All these changes take time. Webster’s popularity has provided him with a long honeymoon. But his regime has its critics, and their voices are growing louder.

“FilmFour has lost more money since it has been making ‘commercial’ movies than when it didn’t,” notes one producer acidly.

“Problem is,” another producer adds, “the taste of the people within the company is different from the commercial brief they talk about. They want a signature movie. They prefer making interesting films to commercial films.”

This ambiguity lies at the heart of C4 itself, a pubcaster funded entirely by advertising with a mandate to innovate. However much FilmFour may aspire to be a commercial player, it is bankrolled by $70 million a year from C4, without the kind of shareholder pressure that concentrates the executive mind wonderfully.

Webster insists that FilmFour has no obligation to be “worthy.” The cultural job of developing talent has been re-assigned to the microbudget FilmFour Lab under Robin Gutch.

Still quirky

But the upcoming production slate is still plenty quirky.

There’s Marc Munden’s “Miranda,” a twisted romance starring Christina Ricci; “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands,” a Spaghetti Western updated to contempo England, from auteur Shane Meadows; Thomas Vinterberg’s offbeat “It’s All About Love”; and Gus Van Sant’s improvised “Jerry.”

What has changed, argues Webster, is only the budget size, not the style or quality.

“It’s a matter of scale and ambition. If you can pay more for talent, you increase the accessibility to the market.”

The bigger budgets drive foreign pre-sales to protect FilmFour’s downside. Webster insists that success cannot be measured by the narrow gauge of the U.K. box office alone.

FilmFour has been able to parlay its blue-chip brand into valuable relationships — notably a deal with Germany’s Senator, which covers 25% of the budgets.

It has a co-production pact with Warner, starting with Gillian Armstrong’s WWII drama “Charlotte Gray” and continuing with the Robin Williams vehicle “Death to Smoochy.”

“Charlotte Gray” is covered entirely by Senator, Warner and a foreign deal with Universal, leaving FilmFour with creative control but little upside.

‘Lucky’ model

Webster prefers the financial model for “Lucky Break,” where foreign pre-sales covered the budget, allowing FilmFour to take a low U.S. advance and a big slice of the backend.

“If the company can grow and achieve enough critical mass, we can hopefully have more leverage in the market to do better distribution deals,” he says.

Yet as FilmFour pursues the philosophy that bigger is better, its own smaller movies continue to argue the contrary. “Sexy Beast,” for example, is riding high in the specialized charts Stateside. Indeed, C4 has always been good at achieving success despite itself. The upcoming slate will prove whether FilmFour can also grasp it by design.