Out with the new

. . .and in with that old way of watching movies -- on TV

LONDON — In a world of film downloads and portable media, not forgetting DVDs, the idea of movies returning to center stage on terrestrial broadcasters’ agendas sounds quaint.

That, however, is what’s happening as Blighty gears up for the July launch of its first free-to-air premium film channel, FilmFour, on digital terrestrial platform Freeview.

“As more terrestrials launch digital off shoots, the competition for content becomes ever more intense,” says Five topper Jane Lighting, a former U.K. distributor who knows this territory better than most.

“Consequently prices become ever higher,” she adds. “But currently the most cut-throat of all the markets is not the one for new formats and acquisitions but the one for movies.

“Never before has the battle to secure first runs of theatrical releases and back catalogues been so intense.”

Not that Lighting’s colleagues at rival webs need reminding of their weak negotiating position with studios and distributors in a sellers’ market.

FilmFour parent Channel 4, the British commercially funded pubcaster, recently wrestled a film package of more than 1,500 20th Century Fox flicks away from Five by spending a reported $255 million — probably the biggest movie deal in the broadcaster’s history.

C4’s chief buyer Jeff Ford declined to speak to Variety to discuss the deal. A rumored contract between C4 and Pathe is believed to be imminent, but the station was staying tight-lipped for the time being.

“We need to acquire free digital rights and that is causing ripples in other parts of the market place,” says a C4 spokesman.

Privately, however, terrestrial webheads acknowledge that big Hollywood films remain critical to their success even if they are being scheduled more strategically.

Families rarely congregate to watch big primetime movies on terrestrial TV anymore. Yet played out shrewdly the right movie can pull big crowds.

ITV1, the U.K.’s most watched private terrestrial web, recently scored a double whammy when it screened kids’ favorite “Ice Age” on two consecutive Saturdays, playing off the publicity for the sequel.

On each outing it decimated the opposition, scoring 7 million viewers, a third of the audience at 6.40 p.m. on its first showing.

On sister digital channel, ITV2, movies are a key ingredient. Recently “Tomorrow Never Dies,” the nine-year-old Bond flick, beat “American Idol” to win the No. 7 slot in the U.K. multichannel top ten.

And as digital rivals More4 and BBC3 race through U.K. fare, more movies are showing up in their schedules.

“We’re very hungry bunnies for movies right now,” says a film buyer at one of the main terrestrials who declined to speak on the record.

“We’re having to pay far more than we used to, even for library material. Year in year out the Hollywood studios aren’t making more films, but we’ve got a lot more channels to fill. When audiences are looking for something to watch in a 400-channel universe and they see the name of a movie they recognize, chances are they’ll check it out.”

“It’s quite simple really, films are much less risky for broadcasters than launching a new domestic drama or, God forbid, a sitcom because they’re known quantities,” adds a BBC film buyer.

All this augurs well for FilmFour’s bow as a free channel. Launched to much hype in November 1999 as a paybox, the artsy web failed to grab auds.

Only recently did FilmFour start to make an operating profit as around 350,000 subscribers forked out $10 a month to watch its pix.

C4 topper Andy Duncan, one of the brains behind the hugely successful Freeview digital terrestrial platform, reckons a free FilmFour will generate more coin from ad revenue than it did from subs.

“In the U.K. movies as a driver of TV and broadband services are going to become even more important,” says Theresa Wise, media partner at consultancy Accenture. “Apart from adult entertainment, movies are the only really big revenue generator as VOD services start to emerge.”

So isn’t the FilmFour model already redundant?

BSkyB, which once based its entire business on pay channels devoted to Hollywood blockbusters and U.K. soccer, is already moving towards broadband.

Tom Sykes, head of FilmFour Channels, disagrees that new media pose a threat to his service.

“Once we go free we’ll be in 18 million U.K. homes,” he says. “When people in Freeview homes are asked what is the thing they most yearn for they always say a dedicated film channel.”

In any case, C4 is planning a pay VOD FilmFour offshoot but declines to indicate what rights it has tied up.

But one thing is clear — going free is good news for British viewers and good news for Hollywood sellers.