End of the BFI as we know it?

Let’s have no illusions. It was probably inevitable. The government has announced plans for a merger of the BFI and the Film Council [UKFC]. As The Guardian has it, ‘The British film landscape could be facing its biggest upheaval in almost a decade…’ That is to say, since the Film Council was set up in 2000, to oversee and administer UK film policy, including responsibility for providing the BFI’s grant-in-aid. In all likelihood, what will happen now is the final subordination of the BFI’s cultural remit (which dates back to 1933) to the commercial interests that the Film Council effectively represents. Time Out has described the Film Council as ‘‘heavily geared towards optimising conditions for the commercial success of the British film industry’ (8-14 August 2007). As Ian Christie told the Independent Film Parliament, held in Cambridge in 2003, ‘The people running British cinema are not perceived as having a cultural stake in cinema at all, let alone a vision of British cinema per se. Rightly or wrongly, they are perceived as being in the pockets of the American majors, or at least their boutique divisions.’

Ignore what BFI Chairman Greg Dyke is telling the press, that it won’t happen ‘unless the BFI’s brand and core activities are protected’— that’s what he’s bound to say. According to one informed commentator, Jim Barratt over at Bigger Picture Research, this is a done deal: ‘Both the UKFC and BFI top brass have signalled their support for the proposal — no public statement would have been possible without it.’ But of course the BFI is prepared to accede — it will solve their problems for them (of which more below).

The rationale is supplied by Tim Bevan, the Film Council’s new chair: ‘We know that the climate for public funding is going to get much tougher, and it’s therefore sensible that we ask ourselves why there are two publicly funded film organisations in the UK. We need to look at the scope for savings across the board, to push as much money as we can into new film activity.’ Likewise, according to the DCMS itself (the government department responsible), the motivation for the merger is to create ‘a streamlined organisation, which can spend more of its money on film and services and less on infrastructure’.

So, scrabbling for cover in the face of huge government debt, the rationale is efficiency savings. We’ve been here before. This is unadulterated managerialism, and we know what it entails: riding roughshod over professional expertise, reducing everything to monetary terms—and understanding the value of nothing. What makes it so pathetic in this case is the paltry amount of money involved compared, let’s say, to bankers’ bonuses. The Film Council’s income last year was £63m, of which £24m came from the government and the rest from the lottery; the BFI gets £16m of this, but also earns about £22m from its various activities. Because of the mounting cost of the 2012 London Olympics, the Film Council now faces a cut of 15% or £19.95m in its lottery funding over the next five years. In short, this is a story of incompetent management of public funds, even before the recession hit. And now? As Variety puts it: ‘Pinkslips at both organizations are likely.’

The disinterested idea of film culture which is embodied by the BFI is about to be eclipsed by managerialist misconceptions about the ‘creative industries’ which satisfy the incomprehension of the political class, who have never understood the peculiarly fluid economics of the film business, let alone the troublesome relation between art and industry. (There is a long history to this incomprehension, which I wrote about a few years ago in some detail: see The Chronic Crisis of British Cinema.) The BFI will come off badly because faced with the impossible situation of several years stand-still funding, it’s already started breaking up. In fact its diminution has been going on for a long time, as documented by a very useful dossier on the BFI in a recent edition of the Cinema Journal (47:4 Summer 2008). We saw the demise of 16mm distribution and the closure of the production fund, which supported culturally adventurous film-making. True, the BFI has been putting out some wonderful DVDs, but the popular Museum of the Moving Image (half a million visitors a year) was closed to make way for the revamped BFI Southbank, which went over-budget by £1.5 million, triggering a cash-flow crisis. The publishing arm was hived off to an outside publisher. Staff was reduced from 530 to 400. Meanwhile, the National Film Archive had been seriously neglected, and in 2003 was criticised by the National Audit Office who found that irreplaceable films were at risk of loss through decomposition; eventually the government acknowledged the problem with a special injection of funds—as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith puts in the Cinema Journal dossier, ‘£25 million to solve problems that, in all honesty, should never have been allowed to arise’.

The 2003 National Audit Office report, entitled ‘Improving Access to, and Education About, the Moving Image Through the British Film Institute’, sounded a warning shot. The ‘Executive Summary’ said that the BFI must ‘broaden access by attracting new customers’ and complained that there has been ‘insufficient evaluation by the BFI of the BFI’s activities’. As a result, the BFI management were gripped, as Toby Miller puts it in the Cinema Journal dossier, by a ‘mimetic managerial fallacy…in keeping with the prevailing beliefs of public-policy mandarins and their restless quest to conduct themselves like corporate elves manqués’. (Meanwhile, he added, the parental Film Council was pouring money into industry training so that bright young things know the ins and outs of tax avoidance.)

The reason there are two publicly funded film organisations is not simply that they do different things but rather that they operate according to different values. The Film Council was the Blair’s government’s answer to the frustrated ambitions of the producers after the existing support system for the film industry was dismantled by the Thatcher at the start of the 1980s, when admittedly none of it worked any more. But producers have no business running archives. As Cary Bazalgette put it in a letter to The Guardian the last time there was a kerfuffle about the parlous state of the BFI a couple of years ago (for which I was myself partly responsible; see also bfiwatch, passim): having the BFI managed by a body whose central remit is to address the fortunes of the British film industry is a bit like having the British Library run by the Publishers’ Association. But the BFI is not a primarily commercial operation, it’s a public body, a charity with a Royal Charter, dedicated to a whole series of functions designed to foster film culture at large.

The BFI’s unique contribution to film education in schools and universities has been especially important, but the problem of the archives is probably the most crucial. The present situation is already anomalous, since another result of turning the BFI into an appendage of the Film Council was that it became the only major national collection in the country not directly accountable to government. I seem to remember David Puttnam saying a while back that the NFTVA should be more closely linked with the British Library. This would be a constructive view, he said, if you believe that the BFI is going to disintegrate. Now I am thinking, perhaps this is right.

By the way, I wonder, how much the coming re-branding exercise is going to cost?
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4 responses to “End of the BFI as we know it?

  1. Thanks for this analysis Michael. A truly depressing situation.

  2. Some good points there. Cary’s point is particularly sensible, but when did sensible opinions come into play in the structuring of the BFI.

  3. THE backline is that like the other national treasures on the southbank the NFT and NT and Hayward (and Tates) have not given enough of a feeling of connection with those of us who do not live in London.

    The development of Digital moving image has seen the appearance of projectors in even the smallest primary school but not the distribution and engagement with the access, content, diversity and resources that live in London.

    Somewhere culture must provide this breath to connect, to learn, there are too many lost opportunities that don’t get out, to inspire and to enjoy.

    That is the key nub of what must not be lost in any new ‘monster’

  4. Roger Drury’s point about the value of the BFI outside London is the major stumbling block in an era when the regional screen agencies created in 2001/2002 have been handed a mandate for education. One of the major points of the Film in England review carried out by the UK Film Council back in 2000 was the lack of input into the regions by the BFI, and nothing has changed in the past decade. The BFI is too centralised and the regionalisation of these functions through the RSAs could have great potential to reach out and create new partnerships in places the BFI has traditionally failed to reach. The decline of the BFI has been ongoing since the early 1990s, but it is only a depressing situation if you have access to it.

    Beyond the South Bank, the BFIs primary function is that of a publisher and distributor of DVDs.

    It’s worth recalling that Alex Cox’s speech at the 2003 Independent Film Parliament was as critical of the cultural values of London (‘It’s no secret that London looks to the US for its cultural clues’) as it was of the UK Film Council, and the BFI has to accept its part in this.

    The regional film archives of the UK are in a prime position to exploit this potentially expanding educational role at this level – not least as some of them are based at universities (Brighton, MMU, York St John, Teeside).

    The archives issue again shows England to lagging behind Scotland: Scottish Screen handed control of the Scottish Screen Archive to the National Library of Scotland in 2007, and is now supported by the education department of the NLS. No one caused a fuss about this – but then it’s not in London.

    Of course, all this assumes that the UK Film Council will not simply function in precisely the same centralised manner.