BFI Film Fund director Ben Roberts is introducing important changes to the Film Fund guidelines during an event at the BFI London Film Festival today.

Below, he outlines his vision for the new approach, which includes the creation of six full-time regional talent executives, a clear set of funding priorities and a commitment to diversity targets, the ability to fully finance projects, and the removal of restrictions on form and length of content.

Read more: BFI makes key changes to Film Fund

Why we’re doing this?

Ben roberts

Source: BFI

Ben Roberts

It’s time! In the history of filmmaking, and especially since the arrival of video, there has been a continuous evolution of experimentation, ideas and technology. The recent wave of creative flair in new British cinema makes it an exciting moment to build on the momentum and confidence among filmmakers, and to open doors to those for whom the feature-length drama might not be their default setting, and create new languages in film.

At the same time we watch landmark features – like Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Julia Ducournau’s Raw – with a mix of admiration and envy, because we would love to see more British filmmakers encouraged to operate with that level of audacity. We know we have the filmmakers that are creatively up to the challenge – a lot of this is about giving our filmmakers the freedom and resources to go for broke, armed with the knowledge that they know someone is interested in supporting it, even if the risks seem substantial.

It’s a challenging time for independent film – a busy market and all the competition for audiences. As a community we have to stay relevant and be more inclusive. We recognise that the best creative voices don’t come from the same place, and that audiences – particular younger audiences who we have made a priority in BFI2022 – are getting their cultural kicks from a whole range of form and platform.

Cultural priorities

Our Lottery funds are meaningful but not endless, so whilst we want to support a broader range of work and voices, we also have to be clearer about our priorities than we have been in the past. This will help us help filmmakers make the most compelling arguments for support.

We’ve identified five cultural objectives for the Film Fund, which are:

  • Supporting the early careers of ambitious filmmakers;
  • Supporting work with cultural relevance or progressive ideas;
  • Filmmaking that takes risks on talent, form and content, where the more commercial sector cannot;
  • Work that recognises the quality of difference – in perspective, in talent, in recruitment;
  • An increase in the number of active projects originated by filmmakers outside London and the southeast

Diversity and inclusion

Targets are not the same things as quotas – quotas can unintentionally induce people to ’positively’ discriminate, which is unlawful. Targets on the other hand are part of how we can help drive real diversity and inclusion in the films we support, which is vital to ensuring more cultural vibrancy, relevance and commercial growth.

So, we are setting targets across our talent development work (through BFI NETWORK), our development funding and our production funding. We will monitor and report our decisions annually, across the writers, directors and producers of supported projects, and in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. We’ve long been guided by these principles, but we will put these in place formally from April 1, 2018, which is the start of our new funding year.

The targets are:

  • A 50-50 gender balance in supported filmmakers
  • 20% target for BAME filmmakers
  • 9% target for LGBTQ-identifying filmmakers
  • 7% target for filmmakers with a disability

UK-wide support

For the past five years, our talent development work has been delivered across the UK entirely through partnerships with the national screen agencies, with plenty of success. In England, and particularly outside London, we need to extend the existing outreach, brokerage and support for emerging filmmakers, many of whom are working entirely independently and can be quite isolated.

So in the first few months of next year the cultural hub lead organisations for the BFI Film Audience Network will be recruiting six full-time talent development executives in conjunction with the hubs of Film Audience Network (FAN). The new execs will be based in these cultural centres across England – venues such as the Watershed in Bristol and Broadway in Nottingham – working with each other, with us in Film Fund, and with the continuing talent development teams in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I see the newly-recruited execs working like A&R scouts – a focus on outreach, discovery, and an opportunity to fund, encourage and engage new talent – helping new filmmakers to cut their demos, so to speak.

In BFI2022, we made a commitment to delegate one quarter of our production budget to one or more regional funds, where the decisions are not made by the BFI and there is a particular focus on projects generated – as opposed to shot – outside London. That process will go out to tender to organisations who can look after it and lever other investment, in the same way that we recently put our documentary funding out for tender. We’ll have a participation in the process but the decisions won’t be ours to make.

Relaxing Film Fund guidelines

In the past, there has been work on our horizon that we haven’t been able to support because our guidelines have been too restrictive. We’ve now published new and more relaxed development guidelines, and we’re currently working through our production guidelines to be published in the next month.

In terms of running length, once we remove the theatrical requirement it might be the case that some projects work better at a different length. We’re reducing the minimum requirement from 69 minutes to 60 minutes, but we’re saying we could support shorter work, work in chapters, or longer works.

Factual work has lent itself well to longer-form recently. Take the examples of O.J.: Made In America and Making A Murderer. It’s exciting to think that we could support filmmakers, particularly in a development phase, with film projects like these.

Our approach in rewriting the guidelines was to try and be less prescriptive, to remove barriers rather than create new ones. We want to consider all kinds of works.

Filmmaking is evolving, with advances in technology offering entirely new creative possibilities, so we’re naturally interested in non-linear work. We don’t want to be too specific – in terms of VR or AR – but we’re interested in work that is interactive, immersive, experienced in new ways. We are currently exploring additional ways of supporting this space, so we’re not thrown off by it to the detriment of our ongoing support for linear, narrative work.

Removing theatrical restrictions

We’re aware that the theatrical market is bursting at the seams right now, and we recognise the difficulties in being seen in a crowded environment.

We’re relaxing our guidelines in terms of commercial attachments, because we want to support early and risky work that doesn’t necessarily have a clear path to theatrical distribution. Plus, not everyone is making work for theatrical release – that isn’t necessarily their starting point.

Lady Macbeth, God’s Own Country, Beast, I Am Not A Witch, Apostasy: none of these debut films sought a UK distributor before they went into production, but they all found the right home via good sales agents down the line. We are relaxed that some projects will find UK distribution down the line and some will go another route – ultimately the theatrical market may not be the right home for them. Netflix’s recent acquisition of Tinge Krishnan’s Been So Long is a good example of a non-theatrical platform, film and audience being a perfect fit.

It’s not about changing the nature of the work itself, it’s about removing those barriers around cinema releases. It’s a working assumption that the theatrical release is the mark of a film’s success. Cinema is still our first love, but we’re trying to move the conversation on a bit.

Fully financing

We recognise that it’s getting harder to get first features off the ground with the need to secure multiple financing partners, so we’re establishing a full-financing model for debut and lower budget films.

Lots of projects come to us with talent attachments that can fall away if the financing doesn’t solidify quickly enough. We’re often one of the first financiers on the project but our commitment doesn’t necessarily make it real, because there is more financing to be secured. So, we want to keep projects to a certain timetable when they come to the BFI.

We want to be able to let producers move forwards confidently, to talk to talent and agents about dates with a certainty that the project will go ahead on schedule, and then they can go about raising additional finance. In certain scenarios, we’re there to fully finance work up to a certain budget level – up to £1m – but we will still encourage all producers to be securing other finance for their projects, including the many partners, lenders and investors who we work with on a regular basis.

This approach might work particularly well for risky work without a clear route to market. We encourage producers to have a good sense of their potential audience, but let’s also recognise that so many of the more formidable successes in independent film, television and online, come from most unexpected places, and catch the industry and audiences by surprise.

This is the essence of the changes to the Film Fund – not to narrow the opportunities for creative and commercial success, but to open new ones.

Ben Roberts was speaking to Tom Grater