Channel 4′s establishment in 1982 signalled a change in relationship between British cinema and television. Channel 4 was conceived as a publisher-broadcaster rather than a producer-broadcaster like the BBC or the ITV companies, with the Channel 4 commissioning its original work rather than producing programmes itself.
Under this system, the series ‘Film on Four’ was established, commissioning films for television from independent producers, with investment set at around ?500,000. In operation the system became a form of patronage for the low to medium-budget feature film, with Channel 4 holding back transmission of some films to give them life in the cinema, entering into partnerships with the BFI Production Board or British Screen, or investing in (continental) European films.
Out of this came such films as The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), A Letter to Brezhnev (1985), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and investment in, for example, Paris, Texas (1984). In addition, the legislation, which established Channel 4, wrote into its remit that it could experiment and innovate and cater for audiences not previously addressed. Accordingly, the commissioning editor for Independent Film and Video had the responsibility of seeking new production from oppositional groups like Cinema Action, from small regionally based companies, and from the Workshop Movement, which the Channel helped to develop. The remit was extended to include investment in Third World cinema.
At the beginning of the 1980s, at one level Channel 4 seemed to provide the context for a medium-budget art cinema, and at another level it was creating a diversity of access to film production – and, as a national broadcaster, to viewing. Government legislation in 1991 made Channel 4 more independent than it had been on advertising revenue, and the accounts had to count the costs of patronage more carefully. The mid-90s were the company’s peak, films like The Crying Game (1992), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Trainspotting (1996), earning both critical and public acclaim.
Now called FilmFour Ltd, the company aims to fund around 20 films a year. A number of films each year are by first time feature screenwriters or directors and it is these films that FilmFour often fully funds. As a stand alone film company it’s aim is to develop and fund feature films, rather than films to suit a television audience. Therefore, they look for distinctive films, which can make their mark in a competitive cinema market. They will receive their television premieres on the FilmFour Channel, then on Channel 4 approximately two years after theatrical release.
In 2002, after costly box office flops like Charlotte Gray, Channel 4 said it was downgrading its FilmFour moviemaking unit and returning to it’s television roots and lower-budget cutting-edge British films. Many felt that FilmFour’s attempts to become a British Miramax with big-budget yet unoriginal productions had taken the company away from its core roots.