Future of the BFI: Grandeur and Misery of Film Culture

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

In May 1996, in a written statement in the Commons, the Minister for the National Lottery, Virginia Bottomley, announced plans for privatising the British Film Institute. Privatisation would follow the model successfully being applied to British Rail. Infrastructure would be separated from operations and private operators would be encouraged to compete in the marketplace and tout for business in any way possible. The legislation went through on the nod, since the Opposition could not immediately think of any good reasons for opposing it, and came into effect on 1 October. A consortium led by Lords Rothschild and Hollick (acting, some believed, as a front for Silvio Berlusconi) acquired the heavily depreciated assets of the infrastructure company, Filmstock. London and Continental Railways won the contract to run the Museum of the Moving Image in conjunction with EuroDisney and the offer of a cheap shuttle service between the two parks (or, as the Guardian put it, the park and the allotment). Of the promised management buyouts only one – Colin MacCabe’s CyberCipher – was successful in its bid for a franchise. Most of the other franchises went to investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Public reaction was muted. There was a squeak of protest from teachers in the East Midlands, but otherwise silence. It was only when Filmstock unveiled its plans to sell all the archive’s nitrate holdings to Powergen to fuel a mini power station in the grounds of Mentmore House near Berkhamsted, and CyberCipher declared that it was going to release colourised videos of British film classics, beginning with Evergreen and The Blue Lamp, that any opposition emerged. Sir John Paul Getty issued his famous legal challenge and the Labour Party was forced to announce its plans to return parts of the BFI to public ownership. Labour was returned by a landslide at the General Election in May 1997, and took a few tentative steps to put Humpty Dumpty together again, limited only by Chancellor Brown’s determination not to release any taxpayers’ money for the purpose.


Relax everybody, by the time you read these words the BFI will have won the lottery and everything will be all right. There will be an Imagination Network, an IMAX cinema, and many other innovations, all part of the same organisation. Or maybe not.

The BFI is a typical product of British laissez-faire. It was founded in 1933 to encourage the art of film but given no brief to intervene in industrial matters. In the post-war period, while the industry was dealt with by the Board of Trade (later the Department of Trade and Industry and now once again the Board of Trade), responsibility for the ‘art of film’ was shuffled between various ministries. It is only since 1991 that the two aspects have been brought together under the auspices of the oddly named Department of National Heritage – a move that was prompted by the need for Britain to have a Minister of Culture (by another name) to take part in the deliberations of the European Council of Ministers.

The only major European country with a less co-ordinated cultural and economic policy towards the cinema is Germany. There, with the memory of Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry still fresh in people’s minds, it was decided as part of the post-war constitution to devolve all cultural matters to the Länder. France, Italy and Spain all practise more concerted policies. Embarrassingly, this is part of the legacy of Fascism, since it was the 30s Italian idea of a General Directorate of Cinema which was taken up by the Vichy government in France and survived after the Liberation as the Centre National de la Cinématographie.

Feeble though British film policy has been by comparison with the French, the laissez-faire approach has not been without its advantages. A weak industrial policy combined with the almost total absence of a cultural one left the BFI in the 60s and 70s free to operate much as it chose. It acquired a dominant role in what came to be known as film culture, functioning as a unique source of funds and expertise to enable the culture to develop. In the less favourable economic and political climate of the 80s it continued to perform this role, but in retrospect the policies it pursued seem rash and over-optimistic. Since 1990 it has suffered chronic and now acute financial crisis, made worse by a lack of cultural direction. What has gone wrong? Can it be put right, with or without windfalls of money?

Traditionally the BFI has had three main assets: material resources, human resources and a co-ordinated structure. The material resources take the form most conspicuously of its exhibition sites, the NFT and MOMI, and of its archival collections of films, stills, books and documentation. An ambitious and expensive programme of computerisation is supposed to have ‘informatised’ these resources, but it is still a long way off achieving that goal.

The BFI’s human resources are – or were – the thing in which it could take most pride. From the 60s onwards it was a pole of attraction for experts and enthusiasts of all kinds. Some came for a while and went on to do other things, but others stayed. The NFT, the Archive, the Stills Department, the Library, Sight and Sound, the Education Department, were staffed by people who knew and loved the cinema, who amassed information and wrote about what they knew. It was due to this human expertise, this mental archive constituted by people who actively deployed their knowledge, that the material resources of the BFI could be used to effect. In recent years this unique pool of expert enthusiasm has been dissipated. A machine and managerial culture has replaced a culture of people. The process of evaporation has been slow and has passed largely unnoticed, but the fact is that the BFI no longer functions as a source of knowledge and ideas except in an erratic and fragmentary fashion.[1]

The third great asset claimed by the BFI is the fact that it houses within one organisation all the related functions of archiving, specialist film distribution and exhibition, publishing and education, and independent film production. This means, at least in theory, that NFT seasons can be made up of films loaned by members of the International Federation of Film Archives, accompanied by related publications and followed by similar seasons in regional locations, or that new or old films can be released or re-released on both celluloid and video, exhibited across the country and again accompanied by a publication. Everyone knows, however, that this rarely happens in practice. Not only is it difficult for all the BFI departments to synchronise their operations but there are often copyright problems to contend with in getting simultaneous release of films and videos. Each part of the BFI tends (for good reason) to plough its own furrow. When I worked there the standing joke was: Question: ‘What is the a pan-institute idea?’ Answer: ‘Someone has an idea and the rest of the Institute pans it.’

Various attempts have been made under successive directors to improve the BFI’s internal organisation and ability to work as a single entity. They have had very little effect, except to spread confusion and stifle initiative. The focus on internal ‘restructuring’ has not been accompanied by any serious questioning of how the culture outside has changed and what should be done about it. The question posed is at best ‘How should we react to changes?’, never ‘What can best be done for film culture?’ – whether by the BFI or by some other agency.

The BFI is the prisoner of its own past success. Having been the focus of the film culture of the 60s and 70s, which required a large organisation to service it, it now finds itself equipped with an organisation that spins on its own axis, promoting services to a culture increasingly indifferent to what is on offer. The centenary of cinema exemplifies its current lack of any central focus. Globally, this has been a non-event. The only initiative of any importance to come out of it was the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. But what was interesting about ‘Spellbound’ was its engagement with an artistic culture which on the whole the BFI, in its landlocked way, has done little to foster or to connect with. ‘Spellbound’ had nothing to do with the BFI’s ‘core activities’, none of which has been able to use the centenary year to impress its presence on the outer world.

Yes, the BFI could do with more imaginative direction. It could concentrate its activities better. It could take steps to rebuild its human resources, further decimated by the latest round of economy measures. But it would be foolish to imagine that the BFI in the year 2000 could – or should – recreate itself as it was in the 60s, 70s or 80s. Financial considerations alone dictate that, if it is to be retained as one organisation, it will have to retrench. The pressure on it will be to become more focused and, doubtless, more managerial. This would be a mistake. The real, though unacknowledged, strength of the old BFI was that it was not focused. It was leaky and fissiparous, and the leaks and fissures were often the places where the best things happened. Indeed the great argument for holding the BFI together was that it didn’t hold together. Working as a loose and seemingly unmanageable federation, often riven by conflict, it was very productive – as some of its shrewder managers recognised. This goes against the grain of current managerial thinking, in Britain if not in the US, and it is doubtful if any government would feel justified in allowing it to be recreated.

It has always struck me as odd that the cultural HQ of cinema in this country should be an office block, and an unfriendly one at that. It wasn’t so bad when the BFI was located in offices dotted around Soho. But the Grey Lubyanka north of Oxford Street where it is now housed represents everything that is wrong with the present situation. The cinema is art, show biz, entertainment, but the face put on the world is one of bureaucracy – bureaucracy not as an instrument of national film policy, since there is no such policy, but bureaucracy that simply sheathes a number of useful activities in a simulacrum of power.

Why not break it up, pluralise it, introduce competition? Time was when I would have regarded such a notion as so heretical as to be almost unthinkable. The danger was obvious. Any government breaking the place up would seize the opportunity to reduce its support – and probably in precisely those areas most in need of it. But let us hypothetically assume a government in power with a more positive policy towards the cinema – not to that illusory entity ‘British cinema’ but to British films, on the one hand, and to cinema in Britain (which includes the circulation of foreign films) on the other. Do we still need a large ‘cultural’ body which is not supposed to interfere in industry matters (though it inevitably does so)? Might we not be better off with some stronger industrial organisation, and more diffusion and plurality on the cultural side?

Go back to what I said earlier about the separation of industry and culture written into the BFI’s original statutes. This separation is now a dead letter. Not only do we now (finally) have a ministry which deals, however ineffectually, with both, but the BFI has over the years steadily increased its interventions in trade matters – as producer, distributor and exhibitor, and as a forum for media policy. Meanwhile the industry itself is dispersed and disorganised. There is not, and has not been for a long time, any such thing as a British film industry in the traditional sense, making British films for showing in British cinemas. Studios have become facilities houses, distributors (mainly American-owned) distribute mainly American films, and most film viewing takes place not in cinemas but in front of the TV set. The production, distribution and exhibition sectors therefore have widely divergent interests. There are, however, two major objectives which policy-makers could set themselves: to increase the number, quality and variety of British films being produced and to improve their access to home and overseas markets; and to increase the range and variety of films – old or new, British or foreign – exhibited in cinemas. Neither of these objectives can be coherently pursued under the current dispensation. Nor should either, to any significant extent, be the responsibility of the BFI.

Suppose, however, that there existed a body (based on the British Film Authority) that was really empowered to look after the interests of British films, to assist their production and distribution, particularly in export markets, and reciprocally to facilitate the distribution of foreign films in Britain, a body which collected industry statistics, which opened up lines of communication in Europe and elsewhere. Suppose, too, in parallel with this, that really concerted efforts were made to support independent cinema exhibition, and that there was a statutory body which could supplement and co-ordinate the efforts of interested parties in the field.

What would be the role of the BFI in this new dispensation? Should it continue with its pretence of vertical integration? Might it not do better to bow to the reality that its production activities have nothing to do with anything else it does, and that its roles in distribution and regional exhibition, helpful though they have been in many ways, are ultimately a source of confusion so long as the same organisation both trades in its own right and affects the trading activities of others? The BFI’s activities in these areas should not stop but, for their own good and that of the culture at large, the parts need to be liberated from the whole.

If production, film and video distribution, and support to exhibition are hived off, what becomes of the rest? Well, this is the easy bit.

BFI South Bank and the National Film and Television Archive would become a museum of cinema and TV, a proper museum responsible for protecting, curating, studying and displaying artefacts, and devising wider displays involving artefacts and simulations from other sources. It would preserve films, catalogue them, study their history, and show them at selected exhibition sites – the prime ones, obviously, being MOMI and the NFT. It would have a videotheque and a properly equipped research department, combining technical, filmographic and other functions, and a publication department. It would provide a duplication service for stills, film footage and videos, but its main responsibilities would be to look after its holdings and find imaginative ways to display them.

After that what would be left would be an Institute, a small specialist body which didn’t aspire to run things. Its purpose would be to act as a forum for ideas, and there should be enough money left for it to publish a glossy magazine, to provide support funding for other less glossy magazines, to have a small publishing programme, either on its own or in association with commercial or academic publishers, to raise educational and policy issues, and to run conferences. It would have a library, a big, reader-friendly library, and a coffee-bar. It would welcome visiting researchers (as would the Museum); it might award fellowships; it could run academic programmes in association with the University of London or any other consortium of colleges. Most importantly, both the Institute and the Museum would be centres of expertise. There would be other centres – in Scotland, Wales and the English regions. Neither the Institute nor the Museum nor any other component of the dispersed structure should enjoy special privileges, nor should they be able to build up their own resources at the expense of their competitors and clients.

These are not revolutionary proposals. In fact they are quite conservative. They are similar to what happens elsewhere in Europe. They could be enacted by a government dedicated to an ethos of competition and to a modest programme of supply-side stimuli. They would be destructive in the hands of a government fanatically dedicated to anarchic privatisation, to the debasement of the intellectual life in the name of market forces, and to the destruction of local autonomy. But with any luck we won’t have a government of that type much longer.

When Anthony Smith was Director of the BFI, he had two fears. One was that the National Film Archive and National Film Theatre were secretly plotting to declare unilateral independence from the BFI. I know for a fact that, at least as far as the Archive was concerned, this fear was unfounded. (I have no reason to believe that the situation has changed in this respect.[2]) His other fear was of death by inertia and bureaucracy. ‘We are an institute,’ he would say plaintively, when faced with some particularly Gauleiterish proposal for administrative controls. I think that by being an institute he meant a place that was collegial, democratic, open to ideas and able to interpret and respond to public demand. The BFI has stayed together, but at the cost of no longer being an institute. An institute is what it should re-become.


[1] To give but one example of the drift that has taken place: the number of people with a working knowledge of foreign languages in the BFI has steadily dwindled over the years – partly, no doubt, reflecting the decline of language teaching in schools. When I joined the BFI in 1978 I could always find someone to help me with German or Dutch and to decipher, if not necessarily read, Russian, and I wasn’t the only person to whom letters or phone calls in French or Italian were inevitably referred. It now seems to be a matter of sheer luck whether there is anyone around who speaks any foreign language at all. This in an organisation which shows films from all over the world, collects stills, catalogues books on world cinema, enters data on to computers, hosts conferences, promotes discussion of criticism and theory…

[2] To pre-empt any paranoid suspicions to the contrary, I should state that none of the ideas in this article have been prompted by, or discussed with, anybody in the BFI.

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is editor of the Oxford History of World Cinema and was formerly head of publishing at the BFI.