The future of co-production between European and American film companies was the talk of Cannes this year. So was the question of whether people who make films should also sell them. The strategy of FilmFour, British filmmaker and seller, to produce bigger films with US partners had not paid off and the share price of the Franco-American Vivendi Universal was in free fall. FilmFour’s experiment as a British mini-studio was based on the Hollywood model. But now both the model and its imitator are in trouble.
The very idea of making and selling movies evolved in a Euro-American pas de deux. The first film company to do both-to be vertically integrated-was Charles Path?’s in France at the beginning of the 20th century. In a very French way, verticality became a moral issue: it would be wrong for local films to be handled by foreign distributors.
Then Hollywood stole France’s thunder. With the establishment of Universal in 1915, Hollywood’s Wall Street backers came to own sound studios, distribution companies and cinemas alike. So began the film industry.
It couldn’t last. Not even in protectionist France were things so sewn up. In 1948, the US Supreme Court instructed Hollywood to divest itself of its theatres. It was the beginning of the end of vertical integration. Until the 1980s, that is. A left-field British television station called Channel 4 made My Beautiful Laundrette with television money and it was a hit in the cinemas. In 1995, the same thing happened with Trainspotting. As the channel distributed neither film, it lost out on the profits. The solution? Scale up production to make bigger, even more successful Trainspottings, cut out the middle men and distribute the films itself.
Thus in 1995, FilmFour moved into distribution and in a modern twist on Hollywood’s own-your-own-screens idea, a dedicated digital channel also, confusingly, called FilmFour, was established, not only to screen its parent company’s films but to extend the cultural context in which those films were understood.
FilmFour grew in prestige. It acquired a new poster boy, chief executive Paul Webster. It had a hit with Little Voice, another with East is East. It moved into US production and did a deal with Warner Brothers. In the same year, 2000, it completed Late Night Shopping, Crush, Lucky Break, The Warrior, Charlotte Gray and Monsoon Wedding.
Meanwhile, France’s sewage company, Vivendi, which owned Canal+, had gone to Hollywood…