The new creative director of public programme at the BFI talks to Screen about the changing role of the BFI and her long term plans for the organisation.

Heather Stewart was appointed creative director at public programme at the British Film Institute as of May 1. It’s a pivotal role as the BFI adjusts to its new expanded role as lead public film agency following the demise of the UK Film Council.

Stewart’s task is to bring together the BFI’s cultural activities together. Her responsibilities now encompass BFI Southbank, BFI IMAX and BFI Festivals (including the LFF). Reporting to BFI director Amanda Nevill, she has overseen the launch of the Master Film Store, and the creation of a single unified position of “head of exhibition.” Stewart is putting in place long-term plans for publishing and collections as well as mapping out festival strategy.

The BFI is a cultural organisation. Now, it has an industrial role as well, overseeing production funding. How easy has that transition been?

“That been” is the wrong tense. We’re in the midst of it (the transition), working through all the implications of what it means to be the lead body for film. From my point of view, I don’t think culture is indistinguishable from these industry concerns.

What is the thinking in creating a single “head of exhibition” overseeing festivals as well as BFI Southbank and BFI Imax?

They were joined previously. When we were reviewing what we could do in making cutbacks, we were already aware that we were missing a trick in being clear about our long term integrated planning – what it was we were trying to say culturally, what was happening in the next 5 to 10 years in terms of what the BFI thinks are the really big stories that we want to communicate about film and television…if you want to say something about contemporary film in your festivals, how do you think about contemporary film for the rest of the year in your venues, your DVD label and online? It was trying to get a joined up picture.

There were also economic drivers as Amanda (Nevill) was looking at slimming down her executive team and consolidating the posts. In any case, Sandra Hebron [current artistic director of the BFI London Film Festival who will step down after this coming edition] after doing a fantastic job for a long time, was thinking about standing down. It was a good moment to take stock.

Clare Stewart (the new head of exhibition who previously headed up the Sydney Film Festival) was one of many applicants?

She was one of many applicants and was a great applicant. We are very excited to have her. We had a very high-powered interview panel. She stood out from our point of view. She is not coming in to replace Sandra. She is coming in as the head of exhibition to think about our cinema programmes and our festivals.

Edinburgh has just had a difficult festival. What are the challenges for the LFF? Has its funding from the UKFC’s Festival Fund now run out?

No, there is still some funding this year. It (the UKFC Festival Fund backing) runs out this year. We too have to consider what that will mean for future festivals. That money was for specific things – developing the industrial side of the festival and offering more premieres and red carpets. That’s a big issue for Clare and I to start thinking about.

Any early thoughts?

No, I wanted to get this recruitment done and then consolidate the team.

Given that the BFI now oversees production funding, is it conceivable that the LFF may come under added pressure to show BFI-backed films?

I suppose it could be. We haven’t got into that level of discussion at all. It’s the other way around from my point of view. It’s about what the BFI is wanting to say about film. We are sitting on top of the biggest archive in the world but the core preserved collection for this nation is British film and television. It would be a bit eccentric if we weren’t thinking in the round about what we want to say about British film and television. That would include the festival. It would include publishing. I don’t anticipate any pressure coming from one bit of the organisation to another but if it starts to happen, I am, sure we will work through it.

Is the Film Centre (the long planned new home for the BFI) something that can’t be talked about in the current climate?

It can be talked about as a definite twinkle in our eye. With the cut backs and the cutting away of the £45 million that was promised at one point [by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown], that’s just not the priority at the moment.

What are your current plans for BFI Southbank?

With the cuts we sustained, we had to close some things down and cut back on others. One thing we closed down was our gallery space. That was a great pity. We’re looking at how we will develop the space there and how we will move the library offer that is here [at the BFI’s offices in Stephen Street] to the BFI Southbank and develop that space that was used by the library: to link it to the “Mediatheque” offer that is there, where you can see films from the BFI National Archive, and to think about research and a more public library in a different way. We’re looking to late 2012 for the actual move [of the library].

There have been 68 jobs lost as the BFI has had to make cuts..

In common with the rest of the public sector and the arts sector, we had cuts in the Government spending review which we’d been planning for. We had been planning for a number of scenarios. Whilst we had a 15% cut, we already had some serious financial tough things in front of us because the BFI had been on a standstill grant the previous seven years. That itself is like a 5% cut a year. We had to take some quite drastic action. There were some things we closed down completely because we felt however great they were, they just weren’t our number one priority. The gallery was in that category.

What else has had to go?

There was nothing that closed totally but we changed what we had done. That is always much harder to do and it’s risky, of course, because we are still trying to earn a lot of money. We have to earn £18.5 million to keep going. That’s trading income. Then, there is £3 million or so development income – development and fundraising and sponsorship income…it’s hard work keeping on going, earning more and more money but then you’re cutting the base. What happens in the common parlance is that the organisation becomes less resilient.

When you have less staff and key people people with knowledge, you put yourself in some danger. We were looking very much at minimizing compulsory redundancy and trying to work around people who wanted to leave or were retiring. We had very few compulsory redundancies. That’s good for individuals who work here. Less good is that we took a lot of retirements. In the Archive, we had seven or eight people coming up to retirement who wanted to go. That’s a big thing because we have much less staff managing, giving of access to and caring for the National Collection. The library itself we lost 40% of the staff there. We still think we can offer a great library experience. In terms of the cinemas, we’ve cut back on our projection team on the basis that we’re showing more digital material.

At the same time, you’ve managed to build a state-of the-art for the Archive’s film collections – the Master Film Store – at a secret location in Warwickshire. How did you finance that?

It’s public money. That was a bid to the Comprehensive Spending Review that the Government conducts every three years. The big story from the BFI’s point of view was that we had done a lot of technical work assessing our collections and understood that 35% of the National Collection was in danger. Film has a fixed shelf life. It is organic material. It deteriorates. We understood that if we didn’t do something drastic, within the next 10 years, we would lose the Collection. This investment (a total award of £25 million) is a huge, huge thing. Now the National Collection is safe.

How active is BFI distribution (under Jane Giles)? Will you continue to pick up new titles?

In previous incarnations, we were not only doing revivals but picking up for UK distribution titles that no-one else was touching. If nobody would look at it and we thought it was an important title, we were picking up titles. We made a decision that this was financially too difficult for us. It’s very hard to get audiences breaking new material by new filmmakers. We thought that if that was being showcased in the festival and you had a really good plan about how you showcase contemporary work not just at the festival but across your cinema programme and on line, let’s think about it from an exhibition point of view. We should whole heartedly think about British film and television in terms of distribution because it is such an important part of what is in the archive.

One of the things Jane has done, especially with the DVD label, is rethinking it so it’s still an art house label, wanting to do collections of international material that tie tie in with the rest of our programme. But, in terms of British film and TV, anything that we were picking up that was new for release was British - hence Terence Davies (Of Time And The City) and Patrick Keiller (Robinson In Ruins). That has been the rubric for the last two years.

How is morale at the BFI at the moment?

We’ve been through an uncertain period – a period of change and restructure. That’s always quite tough. I think the BFI becoming the lead body for film and taking on these other areas of work that we haven’t had in our portfolio is really exciting.