The executives at the BFI Film Fund talk to Wendy Mitchell about the funding process, changes under new head Ben Roberts and the diverse slate of films they are backing

There is no secret formula, no hidden door, no magic Rolodex. Sorry, conspiracy theorists, it doesn’t even involve lunches at The Ivy. The boring story behind the BFI Film Fund is that there do not appear to be any secrets - these are film executives sitting around a table simply talking in-depth about film projects every week and deciding which to award funding.

“People think there are dark arts involved,” BFI Film Fund head Ben Roberts says with a laugh.

The Film Fund, which was started at the now-defunct UK Film Council (UKFC) in February 2010, came under the auspices of the British Film Institute (BFI) in April 2011.

Roberts, former CEO of Protagonist and executive at Universal and Metrodome, was appointed head of the fund in March 2012 - after Tanya Seghatchian had resigned from the post in September 2011.

The veteran team of senior executives - Chris Collins, Lizzie Francke and Natascha Wharton - moved over from the UKFC to the BFI. Another UKFC expert, Isabel Davis, now the BFI’s head of international, is also part of the BFI Film Fund team.

The key myth they want to dispel is that their decisions are part of some sort of insiders’ network. Roberts says: “I get annoyed at the suggestion it’s a bit of an old boys’ club, that it’s the same old, same old. I really don’t think it is… You carry this bureaucrat status, which is really frustrating because it’s unfair to the process that we’re engaged in, which is supporting film-makers.”

Francke adds that support comes for film-makers of all shapes and sizes: “It is not about who you’ve met. It’s about the quality of your work… The catholic nature of what we do has been set since the Film Fund was started [at the UKFC]. Diversity was the mandate at the Film Council and under Ben it’s the same thing - it’s about finding different films for different audiences.”

That diversity was on display in Cannes, with BFI-backed projects including Ruairi Robinson’s sci-fi film The Last Days On Mars and Clio Barnard’s fiction debut The Selfish Giant in Directors’ Fortnight, Paul Wright’s poetic debut For Those In Peril in Critics’ Week, and Mark Cousins’ archive documentary A Story Of Children And Film in Cannes Classics.

Roberts notes that because the BFI is a different kind of entity from the UKFC, there is in fact a wider-ranging remit.

“The Film Council had certain pressures on it in terms of industry, in terms of sustainability, that I don’t think are quite there at the BFI. We feel quite comfortable that you can’t have a sustainable cultural film industry, so that you acknowledge that cultural film-making requires support from us.”

Wharton adds: “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a desire to support the more audience-friendly films alongside those. It’s the range.”

Without the former restrictions of divided funds such as the Premiere Fund and the New Cinema Fund, the BFI Film Fund can back any kind of project at any time.

“We are working on the cultural end and the commercial end, it’s a much broader palette and all of those things are valued,” Collins says.

“It feels slightly more open as well to all different kinds of possibilities, all [applications] come into one space and are seen by a multitude of people.”

Other members of the team include development editor Jamie Wolpert, story editor David Segal Hamilton and head of physical production Fiona Morham.

The distribution team of Alex Stolz and Katie Ellen also now report to Roberts. Overall the total annual budget for production, development, talent and distribution is $40.1m (£26.1m).

The process

Each of the BFI Film Fund executives reads each eligible submission that comes in. That can be 10-20 per week.

The fund’s editorial team meets twice per week for two to three hours at a time, once about production and once about development. The application is discussed in a group, and within a maximum of six to eight weeks, the application is either turned down for funding or the executives ask for more information (a script or other material).

Roberts says the meetings bear evidence of passion for films and film-makers. “I was quite surprised when I arrived at how lively the conversation can be. There is more difference of opinion than I perhaps expected, but that’s really good,” he reveals.

That level of exchange leads to many projects being discussed over several weeks of meetings, not being decided on immediately.

“The benefit is that sometimes you get time to consider and reflect on other people’s views. And not just work on your own instinctive reaction. That’s helpful,” Collins explains.

If they disagree on a script, usually they can agree on a film-making team. As Wharton says: “Even if you don’t love a script, you could look at the director behind it and see they’ve got talent that is worthy of support.”

Once funding is awarded, there is a BFI executive assigned to handle that film. How closely they get involved with the creative team might depend on how advanced the project is, or how much help the film-makers want.

Francke explains: “It is not about control, it’s about enhancing and support and help. Our editorial standpoint is to help film-makers get to their best point.”

Rewarding vision

The BFI’s Vision Awards, given to UK film production companies to support growth, have been redefined to be more inclusive to more types of companies. The last application round this spring received 170 applications and awarded $4.3m (£2.8m) to 20 companies including the likes of Warp Films, Independent, Passion Pictures/Redbox and Third Films.

One area of increased support was for animation, which also now benefits from a new tax relief in the UK. The Vision Awards supported four animation companies (Blue Zoo, Flickerpix, Lupus and Nexus).

“There were companies who were completely new to us. It was an education for us… All the animation companies we saw were very impressive. There is a very dynamic aspect to the industry which does need enhancement,” Francke says.

Roberts says he was impressed by the range of geographic diversity for Vision Awards applicants, even if ethnic diversity was still lacking. He says: “It was very noticeable and we all recognise that something needs to be done at a slightly earlier stage so that we can see those applicants in future rounds.”

Wharton is still upbeat, noting that even if the Vision Awards companies are not run by black and ethnic minority producers, there is still a lot of diversity on screen emerging in the UK.

She points to Amma Asante’s Belle, Destiny Ekaragha’s Gone Too Far and Debbie Tucker Green’s Second Coming as three great examples of black women film-makers working in the UK. “The most important thing is who is telling stories,” she says.

Supporting first-time directors is also important. The fund has created special support for debut feature directors with its First Film Awards.

Collins explains: “We get a lot of applications at that first film, low-budget level. For them to be properly considered in a way that’s fair against the much bigger projects, we needed a slightly separate mechanism.

It does seem to be working quite well to ensure there’s a steady stream of new talent and there really is a chance of funding.” The New Talent Network launching this autumn will also support newcomers.

Roberts says when he arrived he did not plan major changes, because the system was working already and a “great team” was in place.

He adds: “People ask me if it’s a bureaucratic nightmare but genuinely it’s not. We’re able to be nimble in what we want to do. The BFI has really got its head around being an empathetic part of the industry - you have to operate in the way the industry operates.”

International outreach

There have been some updates to the way the fund works. One key point for the international film community is that a pot for co-production funding has recently been introduced - as of April 1, the BFI has earmarked $1.5m (£1m) annually for co-productions.

Davis says: “In the UK, we do punch above our weight, both critically and commercially. We want to engage with producers to tell them the UK is the partner of choice to scale up and reach international audiences.”

Projects do not have to shoot in the UK but will need significant UK creative elements.

Closer to home for UK producers, the team has also introduced a new “locked box’ system - a pool of money recouped by the BFI from investment in a successful production, which the producer can draw down for the development of future projects.

Damian Jones, for example, has recycled recouped monies from The Iron Lady into producing MJ Delaney’s low-budget debut feature Powder Room.

Also, the BFI Film Fund has started to issue ‘letters of intent’ for films they intend to support, which helps producers raising other parts of their budget.

“It’s helping those projects get to the starting line,” Roberts says. “It can help propel the projects.”

Still, further improvements could be made. Roberts says he would love for the fund’s decisions to be made more quickly than they are now (which would require more resources).

“If you consider how many applications we see - and it’s a good thing they are properly discussed and we don’t get through them too quickly - the consequence of that is time. I would hope we’ll make some real effort for that kind of turnaround.”

And, of course, more money would be welcome - the fund’s budget is $33.8m (£22m) per year but will rise to $37m (£24m) annually by 2017. That still does not match up to some other European territories.

Collins adds: “If we had more money we could do more.” Most of all Roberts wants the UK industry to know that doors are open to them through a transparent application process.

“We would like to see more of more,” he says. “There are film-makers who don’t think that we’re here for their type of project, but regardless of the genre, if it’s a good project we should be looking at it.”