The BFI has had budgetary setbacks and its National Film Centre plan was shelved by the new government, but the organisation has reconnected with audiences and there are bright prospects for the future.
“We want to be as close as possible to production,” says Amanda Nevill, the director of the British Film Institute (BFI), when I ask her about the possibility of lottery funding for film production being brought under the aegis the BFI. “If it’s about bringing production funds to support emerging film-makers and sustain existing British film-makers, that fits with the BFI perfectly. That is what the BFI is here to do.”
“It would be a vote of confidence in the BFI which has a wealth of production experience on our board and incredible cultural richness in our history. In its day, the BFI produced films from Derek Jarman, Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter and shorts from Stephen Frears and Ridley Scott.”
At present, the BFI is in the running to absorb the lottery funding responsibilities from the UK Film Council which is being dismantled. Nevill also suggests that the distribution and exhibition activities of the UKFC would find a natural home under the umbrella of the BFI which already distributes films across the country and operates a cinema network in the UK from its three-screen BFI Southbank and BFI IMAX in London to a string of walk-in mediatheques across the country where the public has access to films from the BFI Archive. That’s in addition to its flagship London Film Festival and London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival events.
Nevill insists she’s not making any land grabs (“that’s not our style”) and whether those former UKFC functions end up at the BFI or not, she wants all strands of the UK industry to engage with the BFI’s diverse operations.
For Nevill, who had to manage the tumult generated by the former government’s plan to merge the BFI with the UKFC, it’s been a challenging seven years running the world-famous institution whose mandate is to “promote the understanding and appreciation of film and television heritage and culture.”
The BFI suffered a major blow this year when the new UK government scrapped plans for its long-cherished National Film Centre. Last October, the previous government had pledged £45m to the centre which was designed to bring all the BFI’s activities into one new £166m home. The BFI is also in the process of implementing a 25% reduction in budget, although Nevill says that the reorganization which the cuts will make necessary would change altogether should production funding be brought back under its umbrella. “If you bring that creativity into the mix, it should impact on everything we do,” she says.
But the organisation has also achieved a major reconnection with the British public in the last few years.
With a background in charge of the Royal Photographic Society (1990-1994) and The National Museum Of Photography, Film & Television (1994-2003), Nevill arrived in 2003 at an organization in need of a reboot. “Everyone was undeservedly knocking the BFI. It had got into a hole,” she recalls. “The South Bank cinemas were not a 21st century public offering and removed from what a much broader audience wanted.”
Backed by her chairman, the late Anthony Minghella, she launched a strategic review. “We drove through a lot of economies and started to drive up productivity and investment into getting audiences back. We spent six months on a massive staff consultation to re-energise the organization. We turned it inside out, basically.”
Part of the challenge was to address a crisis in the National Film Archive on which the National Audit Office had just delivered a damning report when Nevill took the job. Housed on two sites, one in Birkhamstead and one outside Birmingham, the archive vaults needed emergency repairs and the collection – which consists of over 0.5m titles – needed to be frozen to prevent further decay.
A £6m revamp of the South Bank followed, bringing in restaurants and new facilities to the BFI’s key theatre showpiece. “We broadened the programme and put a greater emphasis on people,” says Nevill. “The visitor numbers have shot up and we have % occupancy in the high 40s now. Across the country, we are now an organization with a much more modern face which reaches millions of people.”
Turnover has almost doubled since 2003 and is now £40m a year, while staff numbers have fallen from around 500 then to some 400 now. Meanwhile new alliances have been struck with American Express, Samsung and Hewlett Packard to bring in investment from the private sector.
“Our job is to create the best possible opportunities for film-makers to show their work and give the greatest experience to audiences,” says Nevill, which brings her back to her current challenges in the wake of the government withdrawal from the Film Centre proposal.
“The critical thing is that the money has gone but our existing problems haven’t,” she explains. “The Film Centre would have solved a whole lot of problems. Our office headquarters on Stephen Street and the South Bank are both in need of a refurbishment and this would have put it all in one building. We have an old estate and we need to spend more money to keep the doors open. NFT 1 needs to be closed again for a month later in the year. It is not a rosy financial picture and it will be a very difficult and testing time ahead.”
But Nevill says the Film Centre idea isn’t dead yet and she needs to keep the BFI in good shape until the next generation inherits the longterm challenges. In the meantime, there is the tantalizing prospect of new directions. “I am hungry to get it right,” she smiles, “and for the BFI to really play its part.”