On air: Why bother with the video store when there's FilmFour?

Channel 4 have become film wholesalers with a mission.
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU thought Channel 4 was being unusually lavish and interesting with its movies last night - What's Eating Gilbert Grape? back to back with The Usual Suspects, the premiere of Peter Greenaway's erotic drama The Pillow Book, starring Ewan McGregor, and Italian genius Nanni Moretti's Caro Diario - you'd be right.

This was a simulcast, as they say in the trade - a simultaneous broadcast with the opening night of FilmFour, Channel 4's new movie channel. It was a taster for the sort of fare subscribers can expect nightly. In short, an advert.

The cost of all these goodies, this week including Fever Pitch, Reservoir Dogs, Jamon Jamon, Shallow Grave and Blood Simple, is pounds 5.99 per month - or roughly the price of renting two videos from your local store. Of course, presuming you could find such a varied selection of quality film down at your local video store. "And that's if you remember to take the tape back in the morning and don't incur a fine," adds FilmFour's general manager, John Keeling, mischievously. So, come on, what's the catch?

Well, FilmFour are, in Keeling's words, "wholesalers". We the viewers are still going to have to find a distributor to our homes, and, at the moment, that means either a Sky satellite dish on the back wall (FilmFour is available on either digital or analogue) or cable. From mid-November, you will also be able to get it pre-packaged as part of OnDigital's bundle of digital channels.

My friend Chris reckons FilmFour will be what finally persuades him to hook up to the cable passing his front door in Tooting, south London. In many ways, Chris is a prime target for the channel. His wife, Nathalie, works for a small film production company, and together they manage to see about half of all new independent films that reach London's art cinemas.

"I'll probably subscribe," he says. "With Scottish football on Sky and first run Seinfeld on Paramount Channel, this will probably tip me over to cable."

John Keeling sees Chris as typical. "Many households are waiting for something special to tip the balance for them to hook up to cable," he believes.

Film journalist Charlotte O'Sullivan remains on the sceptical wing. She also happens to be fortunate enough to have a very good local video store in Notting Hill. "I like the idea of being able to watch the film I want when I want," she says. "FilmFour doesn't even start up until six in the evening. What if I want to loll around and watch Slacker on a Sunday afternoon?"

FilmFour has its reasons. "We're not screening films in the afternoon because everything has to be a PG certificate at that time of the day, and that's not what we're really about," Keeling reveals. "We're about showing strong, high-quality films, mainly with a 15 or 18 certificate."

FilmFour has a large potential audience as most people, he adds, including himself, neither have adventurous video outlets nor live in central London. "I moved out some years ago and we don't have a good local cinema. It shows mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and that's all," he says.

As for me - will I subscribe? I doubt it; I watch too much television as it is.