British Universities Film & Video Council

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A Film4 Timeline

Although the idea of film funding wasn’t directly discussed in the Annan Report which led to the creation of Channel 4, it was a passion of the Channel’s first Chief Executive, Jeremy Isaacs. In Europe film and television had long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship – in Germany and Italy broadcasters co-funded films which were screened in cinemas and later on television – and Isaacs was inspired by this example.

The original aim was to commission around fifteen to twenty films per year, films which would be co-financed and produced in partnership with other companies, and many of which would give opportunities to talented new writers and directors. David Rose was the first Senior Commissioning Editor responsible for guiding this innovation. Between 1982 and 1998 Channel 4 directly funded over 270 productions, which provided a major boost to the British film industry and created an unprecedented bridge between television and film.

During the 1990s, led by David Aukin, an increasing number of these productions enjoyed theatrical release, but it was the Channel’s broadcast seasons of Film on Four which, arguably, established the distinctive identity of its contribution to British film culture for a generation of television viewers.

From 1998 the Channel’s film production, distribution and video interests were incorporated into FilmFour, to be run separately from the main channel under the leadership of Paul Webster. Webster’s remit was to run FilmFour as a mini-studio, funding larger budget features through FilmFour Productions while continuing to fund low-budget, innovative film-making through FilmFour Lab.

In 2002, FilmFour was re-born as Film4 and re-incorporated within the Channel’s drama department under Tessa Ross, while its dedicated satellite subscription channel was re-launched on Freeview. Film4 remains the only free-to-air channel specialising in international film. Meanwhile, Film4 productions has soared to new heights of award-winning success, from Slumdog Millionaire (2008) to 12 Years a Slave (2013).

Film4 timeline

  • 1979

    At the Edinburgh Film Festival

    At the Edinburgh Film Festival Jeremy Isaacs states his intention, if chosen as Chief Executive of the new Fourth Channel, to make, or help make, films for broadcast on television here, and in cinemas abroad.

  • 1981

    David Rose

    David Rose, formerly Head of English Regions Drama at BBC Pebble Mill, is hired as Commissioning Editor for Fiction, including Film on Four.

  • 1982

    First Film on Four

    The first Film on Four, Walter (Stephen Frears, 1981), is broadcast on the channel’s opening night of transmission (2nd November). Opinions and reviews were polarized about the controversial film, featuring a remarkable performance from Ian McKellen in the titular role, as a mentally disabled young man.

  • 1983

    Premier of Angel

    Transmitted 28th April. This was the directorial debut of Neil Jordan, who also wrote the script. The executive producer was John Boorman, who had recommended the script to Jeremy Isaacs in 1981 when Film on Four was being established.

  • 1984

    Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas

    Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas is released, and becomes an example of Channel 4’s increased commitment to European filmmaking.

  • 1985

    My Beautiful Laundrette

    Stephen Frear’s My Beautiful Laundrette, originally envisioned as a film for television, enjoys a successful cinema release. The film was shot on 16mm film in just six weeks, and was to be shown on the Film on Four strand shortly after. However, when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival the reception was so favourable that the decision was made to give Laundrette a theatrical run. The film was a resounding success, crossing over from television to cinema and securing a distribution deal in North America, where it grossed $751, 465.

    This year also saw the end of the Eady Levy, a tax on box office receipts which was set up in 1957 to support the British film industry.

  • 1986

    Audience target hit

    In this year, audience share hit 10.7 percent, exceeding Jeremy Isaac’s original 10% target.

    Film on Four success

    In this year 39% of British feature films had some Channel 4 finance, including successes like My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev.

  • 1987

    David Rose collects the Rossellini Award

    David Rose collects the Rossellini Award for ‘Services to Cinema’ at the 1987 Cannes Film festival. The award signifies international recognition for the broadcaster’s continued commitment to feature film production.

    Festival highlights

    Sixteen of the twenty-one new British films screened at the London Film Festival (which ran from November 11-29th) were at least partially funded by TV money, and the majority of them by Channel 4.

    The British film industry

    At this time Channel 4 claimed to finance, in full or part, more than half the feature films made in Britain. It has backed about 130 since 1981, the year before it came on air, and most of them have had cinema releases before appearing on TV.


  • 1988

    Michael Grade succeeds Jeremy Isaacs

    Michael Grade succeeds Jeremy Isaacs as Chief Executive of the channel.

    The stylish thriller Stormy Monday, directed by Mike Figgis and filmed in Newcastle, was developed from the script stage in collaboration with David Rose. Rose’s doubts about the explicit nature of the script were overcome, and the film is both a modest success, reinforcing Channel 4’s claims to fund  ‘full-blooded movies’ rather than merely ‘TV movies’.

  • 1989

    Rise in European co-production, fall in production finance

    According to figures compiled by Screen International at the end of April, the production of feature-length films, mini-series and series was up by 38 per cent in the first quarter of 1989 compared to the previous year. Foreign co-productions increased by a staggering 300 per cent – undoubtedly in part as a result of the scarcity of production finance, British production partners, and government support.

  • 1990

    David Rose leaves the channel

    David Rose leaves the channel, and David Aukin takes over as Commissioning Editor for Drama (including Film on Four). After some hesitation due to rising production costs and a scarcity of good scripts, Aukin decides to continue funding feature films for release in the cinema and broadcast on television.

  • 1991

    Film on Four returns on a Sunday night

    Film on Four returns on a new night, Sunday, and with the premiere in the spring of seven fine features funded partly or wholly by the channel, including Chris Menges’ A World Apart, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers and Ken Loach’s Riff-Raff.  The summer season is launched with Terence Davies’ semi-autobiographical Distant Voices, Still Lives.

  • 1992

    Dust Devil: beyond social realism

    Richard Stanley’s supernatural fantasy horror Dust Devil is released in the UK and grosses just £30,000. Though unsuccessful, the film becomes a cult classic. From Aukin’s perspective,  the film serves as a conscious message to the industry about the wide range of scripts Film on Four is now willing to accept.

    10th Anniversary Season

    According to Hugo Davenport (writing in The Daily Telegraph on 6th February 1993), this 10th anniversary season, comprising 13 films drawn from the past 10 years, “reflects a diversity and adventurousness of approach that should give the lie to any idea that the channel has exercised some sort of art-house tyranny…Since the inception of Film on 4, the channel – operating from a tiny office in London’s West End – has invested in 265 films, spending more than £90 million.”

  • 1993

    Channel 4 begins selling its own advertising

    Channel 4 begins selling its own advertising. This year also sees the release of Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach, a film about the experience of Asian women in the UK. It is the first feature film to be directed by a British Asian woman.

  • 1994

    Shallow Grave

    Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle) is released to critical acclaim in the UK. Crucially, the film also secures trust in Film on Four on part of Channel 4 executives, who had doubts about its capacity to achieve success and ratings in the new commercial broadcasting environment.

    Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell) becomes the highest grossing British film to date.

  • 1995

    Profanity and Plaudits

    The Last Temptation of Christ attracted the largest number of complaints ever, and Oscars were received for the (Film on Four funded) Madness of King George.

  • 1996

    Michael Grade calls for end to levy

    Michael Grade calls for an end to the ITV levy on Channel 4, whereby the channel paid ITV a set percentage of profits in return for providing a theoretical safety net that, according to Grade, the channel did not need. Pledges to invest the money saved in UK film production.

    Trainspotting, fully funded by the channel

    Trainspotting (Danny Boyle), fully funded by the channel, is released in the UK and grosses £12.4m.

  • 1997

    Aukin leaves for Miramax

    David Aukin departs to joint Miramax, where he is also joined by Channel 4’s Colin Leventhal. Paul Webster is appointed to replace him in 1998. In the same year the funding formula payable to ITV is abolished, and the key Film on Four releases are Brassed Off (Mark Herman), Fever Pitch (David Evans) and Welcome to Sarajevo (Michael Winterbottom).

  • 1998

    Michael Jackson succeeds Michael Grade

    Michael Jackson succeeds Michael Grade as Chief Executive. Film Four becomes a stand-alone film company (Film Four Ltd.) under Paul Webster, incorporating development, production marketing and distribution under one roof.

    Film Four continues to make experimental features with its low-budget arm the Film Four Lab, and also funds larger budget features with American and European co-producers.

    The Film Four pay-TV channel is launched, specializing in art-house and cult films.

    Both the creation of Film Four Ltd. and the launch of the subscription channel, also dubbed Film Four for the sake of brand unity, are attempts to build outward on established strengths, and are symptomatic of renewed confidence in British film with the injection of lottery funding.

  • 1999

    East is East released

    East is East (Damien O’Donnell) released. Originally commissioned by David Aukin in 1997, the film becomes a huge success in the UK, partly thanks to FilmFour’s new, more aggressive marketing practices. It also breaks new ground in reflecting British multiculturalism on screen.

  • 2000

    FilmFour pay-TV channel begins to pay off

    FilmFour signs up 250,000 viewers in the first year of operation, and targets 400,000 subscribers by the end of the year. Channel premieres include (the Channel 4 funded) My Name is Joe (Ken Loach).

  • 2001

    Losing money

    Charlotte Gray (Gillian Armstrong) does modestly, performing below expectations, but is perceived in the press as a catastrophic failure. FilmFour is considered to be losing money, and failing to secure a much needed big hit to follow the success of East is East.

    Film Four makes a loss of £5.4m.

  • 2002

    Film Four is Dead. Long Live Film Four!

    Film Four ceases to exist as a stand-alone company with its own distribution arm,  and is relaunched as (reverts to) an in-house production unit within its parent Channel 4. Tessa Ross becomes Commissioning Editor for Film Four. She has a budget of £10 million.

  • 2003

    FilmFour’s Forty Films

    FilmFour puts 40 projects into development this year, including Brick Lane (Sarah Gavron) and what was to become Brothers of the Head (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe), the latter (a faux documentary about a punk band fronted by Siamese twins). The latter is one of several uncategorisable projects that helps to dispel fears that FilmFour’s retrenchment would mean parochial film solely aimed at British audiences and tastes. Tessa Ross invests in Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and develops Last King of Scotland (Kevin MacDonald, 2006) and Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009), both of which were inherited from Paul Webster’s regime.

  • 2004

    The Butler Did It

    Katherine Butler is appointed to head up Channel 4’s development slate, reporting to Tessa Ross, who takes on the joint drama brief across film and television in the new year, after the key players of the Channel 4 drama team decamp to the BBC.

  • 2005

    Aid for producers

    FilmFour announces it will give British producers a 10% share of its equity position as an advance against net profits (if no profits are made, the producer will keep the advance). This enables producers to get a financial return on their projects at a much earlier stage than is usually possible, intended to encourage them to develop new films and ideas.

  • 2006

    Film Four is Free

    Film Four subscription channel becomes free on Freeview.


  • 2007

    This is England

    This year saw the release of Shane Meadows’ This is England, a semi-autobiographical film about skinheads and subcultures in Thatcher’s Britain during the 1980s.  This film cemented both Meadows’ and Warp Films’ reputation for uncompromising, gritty and exciting film-making, and also cemented Film4’s relationship with both parties.


  • 2008

    The year of the ‘Slumdog’

    Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, funded (to the tune of £1.5m of its £10m budget) by Film4, receives its European premiere on the closing ‘gala night’ of the London Film Festival. The following year it cleaned up at the Academy Awards, receiving 8 awards including Best Pictures and Best Director.

    Based on the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, and adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), the film is about an 18-year-old orphan from Mumbai who appears on the Indian version of the TV quiz Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It stars Dev Patel (Skins) alongside an all Indian cast including Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal and Freida Pinto.


  • 2009

    Channel 4 cuts are biting, says Ross

    Due to the free-fall of the advertising market, Channel 4 – like all broadcasters – is having to make cuts. In March of this month, Tessa Ross tells the UK House of Lords select committee that Film4 could be in danger in the face of Channel 4 cut-backs, despite riding high on the recent success of Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle).


  • 2010

    Full Warp Ahead: Breakthrough for Warp Films and Film4

    In this year Warp Films – the innovative low-budget production company based in Sheffield and consistently supported by its collaborator Film4 – produced Chris Morris’ debut feature Four Lions, a satirical comedy drama following a group of homegrown Islamic terrorists from Sheffield, England. The film was a critical and box office success.

    Meanwhile, 2010 spelled good news for Film4. Firstly, with the arrival of the new Chief Executive, David Abraham, Channel 4 increased Film4’s annual budget by 20% to £10m, returning the budget for film development and financing to the level it was before the economic downturn. Secondly, Channel 4’s commitment to funding UK film-making was included in the broadcaster’s new public service remit for the first time in the Digital Economy Act, which passed into law in April.

  • 2011

    Comedy and Tragedy

    The Inbetweeners Movie (Ben Palmer) takes a remarkable £2.5m on its first preview day, on 17th August.

    This year also saw the release of Paddy Considine’s harrowing feature debut Tyrannosaur. Funded by Film4 and Warp X, it was an expansion of Dog Altogether, a short film for Warp Films that Considine wrote and directed.


  • 2012

    Funny Money

    This year Channel 4 announced that an additional £1m was to be invested in the development of new British comedy films under the Film4 banner, and under the commissioning aegis of Shane Allen, C4’s Head of Comedy. C4’s Annual Report calculated £44 million in pre-tax profits, down 19 percent from 2010’s levels. However the loss was mitigated by income generated elsewhere. Significantly C4 Chief Executive David Abraham cited the success of The Inbetweeners Movie (in DVD sales as well as box-office returns) in his dispatches on the figures.


  • 2013

    Innovation and New Talent

    In a UK first, Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic civil-war era chiller A Field In England was released on UK TV, in cinemas, and on Blu-ray, DVD and VoD simultaneously on Friday 5th July. The film was funded by Film 4.0, a digital low-budget arm of Film4, which this year also initiated a competition called Scene Stealers, asking aspiring filmmakers to reimagine scenes from past Film4 classics. The prize, a £5,000 development grant and mentoring from Film4.0 to develop an original short film project, was awarded to The Brothers Lynch (Keith and David Lynch) for their ‘steal’ of a scene from Shane Meadows’ This Is England.