The UK government’s new film policy plan unveiled in a speech by Ed Vaizey next week promises another crucial period of consultation and reorganization in a local industry weary from upheaval.

At 10am next Monday, the UK’s minister for culture, communications and creative industries Ed Vaizey will set out his plans for the future of UK film policy, four months after the government announced the abolition of the UK Film Council.
What appears to be the case as of today (Thursday) is that the Lottery development and production funds (currently the UKFC’s Film Fund) and the P&A Fund are headed for a new home at the British Film Institute (BFI), while Film London will adopt inward investment functions and all international activities like export, the UK Media Desk and UK activities at Cannes. The regional screen agencies will be consolidated into a nationwide body called Creative England.
It’s somewhat ironic that some of the key UKFC functions should be absorbed by the BFI bearing in mind that the UKFC and BFI had been instructed by the previous government to merge in mid-2009. The subsequent negotiations between the two organizations were tense. The BFI after all is a royal chartered charity with a clear mandate to promote film heritage and culture, while the UKFC was an industry body with primary concerns to expand and stimulate industry. It was an incongruous team-up and ultimately the merger lost steam and fell apart in the face of the impending general election.
Now the heritage charity, led by chairman Greg Dyke – a titan in TV, but with no background in film – and director Amanda Nevill, has come out on top. It already has some 400 staff working in the national film archive, festival, exhibition venues, publications and education departments. And as of Monday it is poised to assume a key role in present-day industry.
But the task ahead for the organisation is enormous. These are just some of the challenges:
- At present, the BFI doesn’t possess many senior executives with at-the-coalface experience of the commercial industry. Of the 15-member board, only three – Eric Fellner (who is to step down shortly), Caroline Michel and Peter Watson – are fully active in the film industry, although Tessa Ross is soon to be announced as a governor. As a public arts and archive organization, the BFI is world class but there is a pressing need for an influx of know-how in production, financing and (for-profit) distribution into the BFI’s executive skillset.
- The BFI turnover is expected to double in the next year from its current level of around £38m, which will require an internal restructure on both a financial and organizational level. There is already fear in the industry that some of these new funds might be used to plug holes in the BFI’s existing operations like the beleagured BFI Southbank complex. Since much of the new funding is public Lottery money, a new layer of accountability – and red tape - will have to be introduced into the BFI’s operations.
- Furthermore, since the BFI royal charter is specifically designed to support development, promotion and access to “the arts of film, television and the moving image”, aggressive audience-seeking films – like recent UKFC investments Streetdance 3D or Horrid Henry - might be cut out of the loop. BFI Production, a previous production funding division, delivered some great art films from the likes of Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies but determinedly avoided the mainstream. Will the BFI stick with its old habits? Or will it be able to step up to serve an industry which is in dire need of mainstream stimulation? After all, it was Prime Minister David Cameron who made the inane comment last week that UK film-makers need to make “films [like Harry Potter] which people want to see.”
As was discovered when the original merger was being proposed, the blending of heritage and culture with commercial industry is an uneasy one and a sea change will have to take place at the BFI in order to accommodate industry needs as effectively as it does public needs per its charter.
Which of course means another consultation period with industry – the umpteenth, it seems, in the last couple of years – a lengthy stage of reorganisation and yet more confusion in and outside the UK. Meanwhile urgent questions surround issues of strategy and industry direction. Who is going to lobby the government or the European Parliament on piracy, the changing demands of the digital world or state aid? Who will provide market intelligence? Where will the disparate strands of the industry get their direction and cohesion?
It was Aug 21, 2009 when then film minister Sion Simon announced plans to merge the BFI and UKFC. It’s taken 15 months to get to the announcement that the BFI will assume key UKFC functions and funding. The saga continues.