After this week’s announcement that the BFI would be taking on a number of key activities formerly overseen by the Film Council, Screen’s Wendy Mitchell spoke to BFI Director Amanda Nevill about how the BFI would have to change moving forward.
What would you say to people who don’t think the BFI is a good fit for Lottery funding?
There is a misconception here. Let’s look at what the BFI does, and how commercially successful we are. If you look at the IMAX, that was the highest-grossing screen for Harry Potter. The BFI Southbank’s percentage of occupancy is up there in the high 40s, which is nearly double the industry norm. With the BFI London Film Festival, we negotiate year round with the distributors, studios, and production companies around the world to bring those films here, and it’s a real industry reason that we do that.
If you look at all of the resources that the BFI delivers, like the of the BFI and the archive, those are used by television researchers and film researchers. The BFI Southbank is one of the launching places for films, we do previews all the time.
When you start to look at us very deeply, I think people can say first of all this is an organisation that does make money, unlike the Film Council. It funded very well but it didn’t make money. For every pound of public money, we generate another £1.50, because we’re very lean, our salaries are very low, every single penny of that profit is invested back in the things we’re here to deliver. I’m absolutely certain that’s one of very significant reasons the minister looked at us, we’re very lean, mean, salaries are low, overheads are tight, and the money gets invested back.
[BFI chairman] Greg Dyke’s statement today said that the BFI would hope to increase Lottery Funding for production from £15m to £18m, thanks to overheads savings. Can you give us any insight into where those savings will be made?
We’re putting our mouth where our money is in a way. One of the arguments [for the Government’s recent decisions] is that this country could no longer afford a Film Council and a BFI. Common sense tells you that if you put two organisations together you can make economies of scale and savings of overheads, which you can then redirect or reinvest.
Greg is quite rightly saying that our aim from the get go is to ensure that that money gets to the bottom line to reinvest. In this context, Greg is saying that his aim for next year is to increase the Lottery fund for that year whilst we do a massive review and consulation of all of our policies and strategies, with the industry.
This isn’t just about a new chapter for the BFI, this is about a very different chapter in the way the government relates to the industry. I don’t just mean the making of the Harry Potter films, I mean right the way across from emerging filmmakers to developing audiences to getting a greater diversity of British films seen out in the regions, and seeing what we can do to promote British films overseas.
Is it too early to think about the number of total staff at the BFI, or the location of offices?
The BFI as it stands now is facing a 15% cut on top of six years of no additional funding. So the BFI, in size, is going to be shrinking anyway. We will then be bringing staff from the Film Council to follow with the activity that we are picking up. The other thing is that we will be looking really hard at the way in which we offer that funding. So that the overheads are minimal.
Having gone through all the modelling that we looked at for the merger, and this is going to be less than during the merger, we know that you can get overheads out, you can get savings.
Even though we’ve had a standstill budget and inflation going up, in the last five years the turnover of our businesses has gone up 10% over inflation.
How many board positions are currently open at the BFI?
Five. We deliberately held back from filling those. We straight from merger discussions to abolishment of the Film Council to this. So we promised we wouldn’t fill those positions.
What kind of people would you like to see in those roles?
We’ve got some very strong industry people on the board already like Eric Fellner and Peter Watson. And Tessa Ross has recently formally come on board.What we’d be looking for is a mix of very high-end industry figures, film directors, possibly somebody from a digital convergence area, and then almost certainly somebody with some legal head on their shoulders.
Vaizey also very pointedly noted that BFI senior management roles might change, can you elaborate on that at all?
This is, in fact, the BFI moving on to its next chapter, he used those words deliberately. We’re taking on more activities so we need to skill up in those. So the expectation is that the senior executive board will have to bring on at least one or two posts I would have thought, although it’s very early to say, to help support delivery of these responsibilities.
What about some areas of UKFC business that weren’t brought up in the speech today, like the Innovation Fund?
It hasn’t gotten down to that level in detail, but I can reiterate that any funding commitments that are in place will continue until April 2012.
We’re going to take that year to do a very wide-ranging consultation. I think there’s a huge amount of pent up desire for people to discuss and get out their particular ideas for what they think should happen. I want to make sure there is more than enough time to do that. So eventually we’ll come up with a strategy that people will own, even if they don’t agree with every part of it. And then we will put the funding support on whatever that strategy is.
Is there any concern about the BFI charter having to change to accommodate Lottery distribution?
I know it for absolute certain that actually the charitable status will be of enormous benefit, because you are required to reinvest back in, you have to keep a tight lid on your costs and overhead and salaries. There will be a couple of small changes to the charter, which aren’t fundamental at all, for example when the Film Council was invented, we had to change a bit in it to say that our funding would be received from the Film Council. But we’ve already been extremely careful to check all of this.
Why this could this move be good for the industry and also good for the BFI?
It is a new chapter. That’s not to say the old chapter wasn’t good, it was a really important part of film going forward. But I think different times require different solutions. The things that used to frustrate me and that now really excite me are this notion that we can join things up a lot more. For one tiny example, we put production funding in, a lot of that money will go to emerging filmmakers, there are a lot of difference when we can say, here’s your money to make your film, and by the way there is all the rest of this BFI portfolio that can support you from the get go. That notion of fusion and creating this whole environment of support, that has got to be exciting.