How Channel 4 became the matchmaker for cinema and television and helped transform both industries is to be studied by researchers from the University of Portsmouth.
The first major assessment of the channel’s contribution to British cinema is being led by Dr Justin Smith and Professor Paul McDonald at the University’s School of Creative Arts, Film and Media. They won a £386,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the four-year project.
Dr Smith said: “In the early 1980s British cinema was in the doldrums but Channel 4’s new Film on Four strand quickly transformed the traditional 90-minute TV drama, producing hits like My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev which enjoyed cinema releases alongside television broadcast.
“These films have become national treasures and it’s no exaggeration to say that Film on Four saved the British film industry back in the Eighties.
“People forget cinema and television had been arch rivals until Channel 4 came along. They developed a formula which produced quality television drama that also did well at the box office. From Trainspotting to Slumdog Millionaire, Channel 4 has been sponsoring British film on the international stage ever since.”
Dr Smith said the channel’s contribution to British cinema was a masterstroke and other major broadcasters have since followed their lead.
The grant will fund two PhD students to trawl the archives at Channel 4 and the British Film Institute library and interview key broadcasting figures. A third researcher will study BBC Films’ copycat strategy, drawing on their archives at Caversham, near Reading.
The Portsmouth team will work in partnership with the British Universities Film and Video Council to create a fully searchable database of Channel 4’s weekly Press Information Packs, which was another first for the fourth channel.
Dr Smith said: “This is also an important step forward in film and television studies. The two media have traditionally been studied separately; this project demands we bring them together.
“We are planning a major conference in 2012 to unite film and television scholars with industry professionals and policy-makers with representatives from television and the UK Film Council. It’s vital to us that this project is not seen just as a piece of media history. In the global television marketplace it is crucial that public service broadcasters continue to be engaged in helping to sustain our national cinema for the future.”
The Channel 4 project follows on from the success of the School of Creative Arts, Film and Media’s study of British cinema in the 1970s, which was also funded by the AHRC