ITV revives scheme for peaktime films

ITV has suddenly broken its silence on a movie-making scheme set up three years ago, that most people have probably forgotten.

The ITV Film Initiative was launched in 1996 by the then network director Marcus Plantin, with public backing from director David Puttnam. There was talk at the time of the impact the scheme would have, and how it would provide a major boost to the British film industry.

ITV’s biggest shareholders – which numbered six at the time and are four today – were committed to producing at least ten films a year, with the first of these going into production in early 1997. Now, more than two years later, the scheme finally has something to show for itself.

Next Wednesday (April 14) ITV shows the TV premiere of Girls’ Night, starring Julie Walters, Brenda Blethyn and Kris Kristoffersen, which has been produced by Granada’s film unit for the ITV Film Initiative.

This story of two sisters-in-law, one dying of cancer, who fulfil a lifelong dream of going to Las Vegas, is the first in what ITV hopes will be a long line of popular films it has agreed to co-fund in exchange for premiere transmission rights after their cinema release.

Cynics have suggested that the ITV Film Initiative – designed to inject at least 100m into the UK film industry over the following five years – was created for the benefit of producers in the ITV companies who wanted a boost from ITV’s controlling Network Centre for their pet film projects.

However, amid all the upheaval at the Network Centre since 1996, surrounding the arrival of Richard Eyre and his new management team, homegrown films appear to have taken a back seat to the urgent needs of revitalising the basic programme schedule.

Now, with the first fruits of the ITV Film Initiative about to appear on our screens, there is a renewed enthusiasm for the whole project.

Eyre says: “We have reviewed the whole process because it was something that we inherited. We have recommitted to it and we have now got a few films to announce.”

Girls’ Night will be followed this summer by another Granada Film production, Up On The Roof, and next year by Waking Ned, a film about a small Irish community in which a villager wins the lottery and dies before he can claim the money. The film was released in the UK two weeks ago, and took nearly 1m in its first weekend.

More film projects from Granada, Carlton’s film unit, Scottish Television Enterprises and United Productions, part of United News & Media, have been completed or are in production. Stars such as Bob Hoskins, Sean Bean, Brooke Shields and John Hurt are featured.

Movie premieres on ITV have been a thing of the past for years because the corporation has been outbid or outsmarted by BSkyB. Even ITV’s movie premiere series, consisting of more than 40 films a year, are only terrestrial TV premieres, following an initial showing on pay-TV.

ITV’s deal to buy the exclusive rights to all the James Bond films, including the rights to the world TV premiere of Tomorrow Never Dies and the latest movie The World Is Not Enough, turned a few heads. However, with the escalating price of Hollywood film rights, such deals remain the exception rather than the rule.

But if ITV can secure first transmission rights for some mainstream, good quality British films which have benefited from the attention of a theatrical release, in return for a fairly modest investment – estimated at about 15 to 30 per cent of an average 2m budget – it could go some way to filling the gap.

If the network can also achieve the bonus of hitching its name to some reasonably successful films, it will create some valuable PR for a channel which has been eclipsed by Channel 4’s film successes over the past 17 years.

The initiative will also counteract Sky’s move into original programme production. Last month it set up a new division called Sky Pictures, dedicated to part-financing films in return for the UK rights, with a pledge to spend $25m (16m) over the next two years on 12 films.

Jules Burns, joint managing director of Granada Productions, which has the biggest and the best established film unit of the ITV companies, with notable successes such as My Left Foot, says: “It’s very convenient to have a relationship where ITV is prepared to make a financial commitment at an early stage. Films are much riskier than TV.

“ITV is paying a reasonable price to get a first line of films for itself. It’s not a major part of the budget. But to have any piece of the budget committed is enormously helpful to give you the confidence to do it and encourage other parties to invest.”

The Network Centre is looking for movies with well-known stars, strong story lines and a broad appeal. But in exchange for its minority investment and the element of financial risk it will want a significant amount of creative control left in the hands of its director of programmes David Liddiment and controller of drama Nick Elliott. This inevitably creates a tension in the balance of power, especially if the producers at the ITV companies have secured financial backing from other partners in the US, who may want a different finished product.

But if the Network Centre and its shareholders can successfully collaborate, the ITV Film Initiative could provide a valuable source of material in the revitalised peaktime schedule. With News At Ten now out of the way, ITV has the chance to run uninterrupted films across the 9pm watershed.

It has already proved the commercial success of key “event” TV programmes, such as the 90-minute or two-hour episodes of Kavanagh QC and A Touch of Frost, or one-off feature-length dramas which keep viewers hooked for the majority of the peaktime period.

As Eyre explains: “This is part of a strategy to create a diverse schedule, at a time when the economics of Hollywood films are not going in our direction.”

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