DCMS says it’s ‘baffled’ at BFI complaints; industry says Government is sending mixed messages.

Britain’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS ) has issued a sharply worded statement calling on the British Film Institute (BFI) to accept the 10% cut in its resource funding that was announced last week.

“The Government will do whatever it takes to ensure Britain remains as at the forefront of the global film industry. The UK film industry is worth billions, with our tax breaks securing hundreds of millions of pounds of inward investment,” a DCMS spokesperson noted. “However, we cannot, and public bodies should not, ignore the need to tackle the country’s deficit.  We are baffled that the BFI, despite vastly increased amounts of Lottery funding, and having received an additional £1.3m of capital, (part of which will support the development of a BFI player to unlock new revenue streams) appear unable to recognise the role that they have to play in this.”

According to the spokesperson, the 10%  cut facing the BFI “is in line with the average across Government.” The DCMS also stated its confidence “that this level of funding will enable the BFI to continue to carry out its functions effectively.”

The DCMS statement came in response to an equally robust statement from the BFI last week decrying the cuts. “We are shocked that film has not been protected alongside the UK’s other national arts bodies and museums,” the BFI said of the cuts, which were twice as heavy as those that will fall on other cultural and arts organisations.

The DCMS is believed to have reached an agreement with the Treasury for an 8% cut in spending in 2015-2016. Arts organisations and museums now face a reduction of 5%. “This relatively small reduction recognises the huge contribution that they make to our economy,” the DCMS stated.

The fact that the BFI’s funding will go down by double that amount implies that the BFI isn’t making the same contribution - something industry observers contest fiercely.

“Personally, I have to say I was extremely surprised to see that The BFI was not treated in the same way as other arts or cultural bodies,” commented Libby Savill [pictured], a partner at O’Melveny & Myers in its Entertainment, Sports and Media Practice who was recently appointed BFI deputy chair. “I have nothing against the arts bodies and museums getting a  lesser cut (5%) but the trouble is that someone has to then pay for it. It does seem that the BFI is bearing the brunt of some of that.”

In recent months, there have been been excellent relations between the Government and the BFI - or so it appeared. Chancellor George Osborne has been fulsome in his praise for the UK’s creative industries (including film), which are strongly supported by tax reliefs. The warm response to last year’s Film Policy Review “A Future For British Film” underlined the increasingly close links between the BFI, the Government and the industry. It had been widely assumed that the BFI’s five year (2012-2017) “Film Forever” plan had the full blessing of the DCMS.

Don Boyd, founder of online arts platform HiBrow, believes that the BFI is being singled out now because “film is still not recognised enough as being an art form. There is this uneasy relationship between film as business and film as an art form and, as such, deserving (of) the same cultural status as all the other arts forms.”

The BFI combines cultural, creative and industrial roles. It has taken over from the disbanded UK Film Council as the lead organisation for film in the UK and its responsibilities now include distributing Lottery money to filmmakers and certifying tax relief for film, high end TV, animation and computer games. 

“It feels like the Government is sending mixed messages to the industry in the UK and abroad,” adds 3 Mills Studio Executive Derek Watts. “When, at the end of April, the Chancellor spoke at BAFTA championing the British creative industries, he said; ‘Our creative industries are one of the jewels in Britain’s crown and are just the kind of industry I want to back, which is why we are introducing these new tax breaks to help and promote production in the UK.’ So to follow that under three months later with a budget cut of 10% in real terms from the main UK film body appears inconsistent.”

At a time of continuing austerity, one British producer notes that it is counter-productive to “whinge” about cuts everyone else is facing too. However, the 10% figure seems to many industry observers simply to be unfair given the lesser cuts elsewhere.

John McVay, Chief Executive of UK trade association Pact (which represents independent feature film, television, digital, children’s and animation media companies) points out that the cuts won’t have a direct impact on his members’ interests. “No-one (among the Pact members) has picked up the phone and said, ‘We don’t like this’.”

McVay points out that production funding, the work of the certification unit, and Lottery funded film education work won’t be affected. 

“On those things, I don’t see any detriment. Clearly, across the other activities of the BFI - which may be more the more archive or cultural activities - unfortunately it looks as if the BFI has another round of difficult decisions,” says the Pact head. “Looking on the production side, as far as I am aware, none of that has an immediate detrimental effect on the BFI’s ability to support indigenous production.”

Others point to the threat to the BFI’s core cultural activities. “The BFI is the protector of our past, present and future film heritage, all of which are important, and a cut to the BFI funding will undoubtedly have an impact in one of those areas,” says Watts.

Savill makes a similar point: “When I was on the Film Policy Review and from my experience on the Board of Governors of the BFI, we are seeing from first hand that film is contributing to the economy: It’s a real growth story - and the BFI is now the sole strategic body for film in the UK with that as part of its mandate. The tax credit is about proven GDP benefits that bring in investment. It isn’t about everything that film culture and a film industry means to the UK economy. What about talent development, what about skills development, what about film education, and audience development as well as its cultural remit? In order to contribute to the economy, film needs to be supported in those other areas as well. Otherwise, it is all about playing for inward investment which is only half the picture for a viable industry.”