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Brits unfulfilled by all that Four play

Co. unable to maintain the right critical, artistic profile

LONDON — The demise of FilmFour can be dated symbolically back to the moment, midway through the premiere of John McKay’s “Crush” at Cannes in 2001, when a truck smashed into Andie MacDowell’s young lover onscreen.

In that instant, the fizzy romantic comedy, with every prospect of giving FilmFour its first hit since “East Is East,” became a perverse melodrama, destined for box office failure.

“Richard Curtis would never have killed the toyboy,” whispered one baffled U.S. buyer afterward.

“That was a metaphor for the company,” another U.S. exec said last week, after C4 confirmed its plan to shut down FilmFour. “It was two-thirds of a terrific film, but then the truck hit the boy and it was worth zero.”

“Crush” illustrates the conflict at the heart of FilmFour’s identity, which ultimately proved its downfall. The company was mandated to make profits and styled itself as a “mini-studio,” but it only existed because Channel 4, its parent web, has a cultural remit to support British filmmaking.

The irony is that it may have failed not because it was losing money, but because it couldn’t maintain the right kind of profile critically and artistically.

The company tried to make bigger-budget movies with international value, but always wanted to add an extra twist, to set off in unexpected directions. FilmFour execs typically vaunted new projects as dizzyingly cross-generic — “a sophisticated urban thriller with the depth of an epic social drama,” or “a cocktail of Jacques Tati, Preston Sturges and John Hughes.”

The result: The films couldn’t make up their minds what they were supposed to be, and ended up being neither one thing nor the other.

“There’s a danger of being too clever for your own good,” admits Douglas Rae of Ecosse Films, about the critical and commercial failure of “Charlotte Gray,” which he produced for FilmFour. Pic was a romance with a dead hero, or a war film without Americans, or a female rites-of-passage drama.

“I have learned that you have to be very clear what genre you are in,” Rae confesses. “You have to give a clear signal to the audience where you are going.”

FilmFour chief exec Paul Webster tried his hardest to square the circle between making profits and earning kudos. That fiendishly tricky piece of geometry lies at the heart of independent cinema. It’s the same puzzle that confronts the specialized arms of the Hollywood majors — the likes of Miramax, Fine Line and United Artists — but their bottom line isn’t exposed to public scrutiny.

Ironically, “Charlotte Gray,” “Crush” and “Lucky Break” (a prison drama or a romantic comedy — who could tell?) all did decent business for FilmFour through foreign sales and co-production deals, with the likes of Warners, Miramax, Paramount, Universal and Senator. FilmFour broke even with them, even if its partners didn’t.

But the pics did nothing to burnish the C4 brand as the home of cutting-edge creativity. And in the end, that was more important.

It’s hard to imagine C4’s new chief Mark Thompson would have shuttered FilmFour if those three films had won Oscars but lost money. At the very least, the web would have been able to find corporate partners to share the financial burden of keeping the company running.

On the other hand, sterling artistic work with smaller pics such as “Sexy Beast,” “The Warrior” and the efforts of microbudget FilmFour Lab went largely unnoticed by the public.

As it is, FilmFour is returning to what it used to be under Webster’s predecessor, David Aukin, and before him David Rose — a production department within C4, with a budget of $15 million a year instead of $46 million, to invest mainly in U.K. TV rights to British movies.

In defense of the steep cutback, C4 insiders point out that FilmFour only invested about $24 million in specifically British films last year, with the rest going toward international acquisitions and co-prods.

Aukin and Rose probably made more flops and lost more money than Webster ever did. But so long as films such as “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “The Crying Game,” “The Madness of King George,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Trainspotting” came along reasonably often, they were doing their job — promoting the image of C4 around the world. And not just C4 — the web’s film arm effectively created the British film brand that has drawn U.S. and European investors to Blighty in recent years. FilmFour’s closure leaves that tarnished.

“It’s very damaging to the perception of the U.K. film industry,” says a senior exec at one of the lottery franchises. “The FilmFour management was good. It makes investors ask the question: If a fully integrated producer-distributor with its own sales arm, backed by a broadcaster, can’t make a go of it, then who can?”

“FilmFour will be a brand center again, which it used to be so effectively, instead of a profit center,” says Andy Paterson, producer of FilmFour’s “Hilary and Jackie” and vice chair of the Producers Alliance for Cinema & Television.

But the world has changed. Channel 4 is no longer the only game in town, with first choice of all the best British projects. Up against better-funded rivals, the new FilmFour could find itself drastically marginalized as a producer of little more than experimental telepics.

Most of FilmFour’s 60-plus staff, including Webster, will leave as the company winds down. C4 says it will honor existing production and distribution commitments — including Damien O’Donnell’s “Edgardo Mortara” (a co-prod with Miramax) and Walter Salles’ “Motor Cycle Diaries” — but odds are most of these will be laid off to other companies. The development slate, including the Elmore Leonard book “Tishimingo Blues” and the Paul Verhoeven project “Batavia’s Graveyard,” is headed for turnaround.

Sources say Webster is exploring the possibility of taking some cherries with him as an indie producer, in partnership with his deputy head of production Jim Wilson.

FilmFour lost $8.1 million in 2001 and $4.5 million the previous year, after registering a profit of $750,000 in 1999.

But the scale of the company’s losses was masked by its favorable output deals with the FilmFour pay TV channel, and with Channel 4 itself for free TV rights. The FilmFour channel paid $4.5 million a year to the film company for rights to movies that probably would not have managed to secure pay TV deals at all on the open market. Meanwhile, FilmFour movies were hidden in C4’s schedules, and rarely made much ratings impact.

In the end, FilmFour simply wasn’t delivering a visible benefit to C4 on any level. And with C4 itself suffering its first deficit in nine years, and planning to slash overhead across all its operations, the company could not escape the harsh consequences.

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