British broadcaster Channel 4 announced Tuesday that it was pulling the plug on its once successful movie-making unit after incurring huge financial losses following a string of box-office bombs.
Despite its huge successes in the 1980s and 1990s, FilmFour seemed to have lost its Midas touch in recent years. Last year's Charlotte Gray, a World War II spy thriller starring Cate Blanchett, failed to live up to critical and commercial expectations. That was followed by the universally loathed Death to Smoochy costarring Danny DeVito and Robin Williams. Audiences also gave a lukewarm reception to the recent money-losing Andie MacDowell comedy Crush and Nicole Kidman's Russian mail-order bride dramedy Birthday Girl.
The poor showings have forced Channel 4's corporate hierarchy to make some drastic changes, starting with closing FilmFour's distribution and sales offices and folding the film production back into the television unit in a reduced role. Channel 4 will slash funding for new films by two-thirds to an average $15 million per picture and cut 60 jobs. All told, FilmFour last year poured upwards of $45 million into its movies and lost an estimated $8.1 million.
Originally part of Channel 4, FilmFour made its reputation with low-budget, cutting-edge fare marked by a uniquely English perspective. The studio was credited with resuscitating the moribund British film industry two decades ago with its 1985 breakout hit My Beautiful Laundrette, which offered a young up-and-comer named Daniel Day-Lewis in his first starring role.
The company forged its identity in the streets, financing the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, two of the Britain's most prominent social-realist voices. The investments reflected the broadcaster's wish to be an alternative to the more conservative BBC.
FilmFour solidified its international reputation with 1992's The Crying Game and 1994's Four Weddings and a Funeral, which allowed the studio to move away from politically charged projects to slicker, more entertaining films. The Crying Game, which flopped at the U.K. box office, was a world-of-mouth phenomenon in the U.S., earned a slew of Oscar nominations and put its talented helmer, Neil Jordan, on Hollywood's A-list. Four Weddings and a Funeral made its floppy-haired star Hugh Grant a household name and shattered British box-office records.
Following the mid-'90s hits Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, which launched the careers of director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor, Channel 4 spun off its FilmFour unit in the hopes of challenging Hollywood studios at the box office.
But it was that taking-on-the-big-boys mentality that proved to be the death knell for a film studio that by its own admission had grown too big for its britches.
"Over the last four years significant investment and hard work has gone into FilmFour Ltd. to develop it as a meaningful player internationally," Rob Woodward, managing director of 4Ventures, FilmFour's holding company, said in a statement. "However, this has not proved possible, given the sheer scale of the major studios."
Others, however, suggest FilmFour was doomed by its move away from innovative and quirky low-budget comedies and dramas that offered a fresh alternative to the typical Hollywood blockbuster.
"They need to look much more to Europe. That is the cinema we have more in common with," Loach told the BBC.
Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, whose company picked up a number of FilmFour releases for distribution stateside, lamented to the Los Angeles Times that the demise of the company was a "huge mistake."
"FilmFour is the best thing that ever happened to the British film industry," he told the Times. "It has built up a great library of movies. Films I made 10 years ago that didn't make much money are now making good profits because of video and DVD sales. Movie companies are built on the strength of their libraries. Stay the course and you will win."
That kind of advice may be too little too late.