Digital Futures: Independents' Day

By Susan Picken

trainspotting-danny-boyle.jpgTrainspotting, 1996

Dipping its toes in the digital waters, on 1 November 1998 Channel 4 launched its newest offshoot onto the nation’s airwaves. Conveyed via cable, satellite and digital networks to the homes of its subscribers, FilmFour promised viewers an eclectic, informed and intelligent alternative to the blockbuster offerings of Sky’s movie channels.

Already a significant presence in the British film industry, Channel 4 has, by uniting all its film related activities under the rubric of FilmFour, created a vertically integrated film base, incorporating production, marketing, distribution and now, with the FilmFour channel, exhibition. Already in the forefront of public awareness with the international success of productions like Trainspotting, with the inception of this comprehensive film organization, FilmFour, it seems, has carved itself a unique niche in British film culture.

Buzzwords abound in today’s media lexicon. Chanting a mantra of choice and diversity, broadcasters must vie for the attentions of an increasingly fragmented and distracted audience. The viewing public is aggressively wooed by the seductive allure of endless exclusives, specials and premieres. For a population which is not merely media-literate but positively cynical, buying entertainment becomes a lifestyle choice, a form of fashion accessory.

The distinctive identity of Channel 4 has, to a large degree, predetermined the character of its newest venture. Like its parent company, the FilmFour channel has a very particular target audience in mind. Constructing its on-screen persona around the term “independent”, FilmFour taps into the hip urban consciousness of a whole generation of culturally aware ABC1s. Tailoring its editorial profile to the expectations of its audience, in its first few months of existence FilmFour has offered subscribers a varied smorgasbord of indie US efforts, Hollywood movies and foreign language fare, periodically interspersed with short films from all over the globe. All, of course, liberally sprinkled with a generous helping of Channel 4 productions. Eclectic, definitely, intelligent, certainly, but what’s “independent” about it?

A textbook example of the limitations of the English language, in filmspeak “independent” has become a term so stretched and warped, so routinely applied, as to become meaningless. David Cox, the Channel’s programme editor, recognizes the difficulties: “I’m not really sure what qualifies as an art film anymore, or what qualifies as a mainstream picture, or what, exactly, an independent film is. Most of the films at Sundance are really mainstream, for instance. The Thin Red Line is probably the biggest, most expensive experimental film ever made.” Contradictions like these underline some of the difficulties facing FilmFour. How does one build a coherent identity out of inconsistency? How does one account for diversity without lapsing into schizophrenia? At the very least, these questions emphasize the pressing need for some sort of reappraisal of the critical vocabulary we apply to the cinema: in a culture in which everything is termed independent, ultimately, of course, nothing actually is. A glance at FilmFour’s schedules exemplifies the problem. Within an exceedingly problematic and constantly shifting set of parameters it is possible (just) to see Reservoir Dogs or Slacker as “independent”, but, what about The Shawshank Redemption or Wes Craven’s New Nightmare? (all the aforementioned films were shown in the channel’s first monthly programme). Billing them all as “independent” inevitably begs the question: if these films are independent, what exactly are they independent of?

leaving-las-vegas-mike-figgis.jpgLeaving Las Vegas, 1995

At first sight an amorphous, although interesting, mass of film titles, FilmFour’s variegated schedules ultimately seem to organize themselves around a single guiding principle. United by what they are not, rather than what they are, FilmFour offerings are not blockbusters, not Hollywood cash cows, not multiplex fodder. David Cox confirms this non-conformist stance: “The real question is not how far we will go, but how far we will go towards the mainstream.”

In theory, an open, adventurous programming policy would seem to augur well for smaller or more “difficult” films. In actual practice, the schedules to date tend to have been dominated by “big” movies and Channel 4 productions. Once the channel becomes more firmly established, however, the plan is that its programming will become more daring and provocative. Already in the pipeline, for instance, are a short season of experimental British films by such directors as Andrew Kötting and Patrick Keiller, and a programme of cutting-edge digital work.

With an editorial commitment to screening a diverse range of films, FilmFour has the potential to occupy a unique position in broadcasting, in effect operating as a kind of “repertory cinema” of the airwaves. Nick Jones, senior editor of film programming for Channel 4 and FilmFour, shies away from the “rep” tag, however: “What we don’t want to do is create a film buff’s channel, that’s probably, in a way, what killed “rep”. There is a difference between a film buff’s channel and a channel for people who love the cinema and, hopefully, this is the latter.”

Free, to some extent, of the financial and temporal constraints which have had such an adverse impact on the repertory cinema circuit, FilmFour has the potential to go so much further than “rep” ever could. With a weekly 84 hours of airtime to fill (twelve hours a night, seven days a week) the channel can operate on a number of levels, simultaneously addressing markedly different sectors of its audience. David Cox recognizes this: “FilmFour has many sides to its character. It has a big, fun, playful side and a more serious, appreciative side.” Whatever face the channel is presenting, however, Cox is adamant that underlying it all is a commitment to film in all its diverse manifestations: “What we are showing is an ongoing dialogue, alternative sides of a central conversation, a conversation which is different every time but which is always about film.” It is this multifaceted yet dedicated personality which may prove to be one of the channel’s most effective selling points.

The future viability of FilmFour is contingent, however, upon grass-roots economic success. Thus far, Channel 4 executives profess themselves pleased with their new channel’s take-up figures. Certainly the potential for healthy growth is there, with virtually all of the UK now able to receive FilmFour in one form or another. To survive, however, it is imperative that not only do new viewers join up, but that existing viewers continue to subscribe to the channel. As industry wisdom has it, most viewers will continue their subscription as long as they see a minimum of two films per month. At £5.99 a month FilmFour seems like a bargain, a considerable saving on a trip to the cinema, or the hire of a video. Add on the cost of cable line rental, however, or the purchase of a digital set-top box, and the channel becomes a significant additional expense.

fargo-coen-brothers.jpgFargo, 1996

FilmFour’s continued existence is thus dependent on keeping its customers happy. Like any other retailer it must establish not just a “brand” but a brand loyalty among its subscribers. Nick Jones feels that the best basis for this loyalty is a trusting relationship between broadcaster and subscriber, and believes that audiences will be prepared to take a leap of faith with some of the channel’s scheduling: “The trick is presenting films in the right way, giving the programmes a context for viewers. As we go on developing, more and more people need to feel that they can understand why something is being shown, why, indeed, it exists in the first place. It’s a trust situation, we have to get used to each other.”

Wary of appearing pedagogic, however, FilmFour is concerned to emphasise entertainment rather than education. Nick Jones is hopeful that the channel’s programming strategy reveals not just an informed knowledge, but a genuine passion for film: “If you look at the schedule you can see some sort of guiding principle and intelligence. Even the mainstream films aren’t just mainstream films, there’s something more to them. You might not know what the film is but its presence on the channel might convince you to watch it.”

Based on the success of similar ventures in the States, the potential of FilmFour is enormous. Across the Atlantic, its two nearest equivalents, Sundance and the Independent Film Channel, have made a significant impact on the public consciousness. Less a derivative than a hybrid of the best of the two US channels, FilmFour will, however, be extending its remit considerably further than either, establishing a significantly more proactive role in film exhibition. Depending upon its degree of success, FilmFour could not only provide a valuable alternative to cinematic exhibition but, in addition, have some input into future film production. Robin Gutch, head of the new FilmFour Lab, is optimistic about the channel’s prospects: “Potentially, FilmFour is very exciting, it could be a significant outlet for independent cinema, for films which would not otherwise get any sort of distribution deal.” In addition to providing a much needed exhibition “safety-net” for smaller film producers, Gutch also sees FilmFour as complementing the work of the Lab, providing a “natural” home for future Lab productions.

It could be that, in the current exhibition climate, the “virtual” cinema FilmFour promises is a godsend. Few would deny that, at present, the film exhibition sector in Britain is undergoing a crisis. Strangled by the grip of the multiplex, the repertory cinema circuit is in a state of serious, if not to say terminal, decline. Given the chance to achieve its full potential, FilmFour might just occupy a unique place in British film consciousness. Accessible and intelligent, diverse and stimulating without being intimidating, not only could the new channel be of value to subscribers and producers alike, it could also prove beneficial to film culture as a whole. As David Cox believes: “Film is traditionally an ephemeral art. By helping films to have a longer existence, by making them less of an event and more of a presence we can give them a whole new lease of life.”

Exciting as it may be, this filmic utopia does have some drawbacks. Primetime, for instance, is still the preserve of bigger, more commercial films, while anything challenging or obscure is, for the most part, shunted into the graveyard slot between midnight and 6am. The ability to programme a VCR would seem to be a prerequisite for subscription. That other bête noire of pay-TV, repeat programming, also rears its ugly head upon occasion (although the channel promises to keep it to a minimum). Despite these reservations, however, FilmFour holds the promise of some real cinematic delights. Where else can one see Godard, Greenaway and the Coen Brothers in the space of a single evening?

Of course, it’s still very early days for FilmFour. Given the chance, it could play a vital part in developing a healthy, literate, indigenous film culture. At the very least, it offers the vast majority of its subscribers the choice of informed, intelligent viewing, a choice of which they have long been starved.

Susan Picken teaches film studies at Middlesex University and is also a freelance programmer and writer.