BFI Films: A Remit for Cultural Diversity

By Jane Giles


BFI Films was set up a year ago as the division of the British Film Institute with responsibility for access to the theatrical/non-theatrical distribution, sale of rights (including archival footage and stills, posters & designs) and video publishing of its various and diverse collections. Each activity has both a cultural and commercial remit, and constantly renegotiates its place within the wider context of today’s industrial and educational sectors. Although cinema attendance figures are up in the UK, the range of titles on offer can seem increasingly limited to those seeking anything other than contemporary English-language movies. This article outlines some of the problems facing a distributor with a remit for diversity.

BFI Video  

Whereas the former Connoisseur label (a joint initiative of the BFI and Argos Films) first pioneered the availability of foreign language and arthouse movies on sell-through video, this market has since become more crowded, if not saturated. The label now features other types of work, such as archival and silent films, avant-garde or artists’ compilations, British titles and documentaries. Amongst a hungry schedule of about thirty annual releases, new titles include a double bill of Bernard VorhausGhost Camera and The Last Journey, Ron Peck’s Fighters and James Broughton’s classic of 1950s bohemia, The Pleasure Garden, in addition to Fassbinder’s Martha, Chinese Roulette and The Merchant of Four Seasons. Forthcoming are Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov) and Carmen (Cecil B. De Mille) along with Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari and Sansho The Bailiff. One of the challenges of publishing archival titles on video is achieving the best quality of sound and image; to master tapes from scratched or badly graded subtitled 16mm prints deters viewers from spending further time and money on films from the history of cinema. Yet the market for these is commercially modest and unlikely to make much return for the distributor who invests in restoring original materials.


BFI Films’ extensive, diverse and historically important collection comprises over 6000 titles, including new first-run features, classics, silent movies, shorts, experimental, documentaries and animation, all spanning the history of world cinema. Formats include 35mm, 16mm and some video, with theatrical (commercial) and/or non-theatrical (film society and educational) rights. The department also operates the booking of viewing copies from the National Film and Television Archive’s collection of over 300,000 items. These prints are now more widely available to independent exhibitors not funded by the BFI , and back-catalogue titles are regularly repackaged for tours, for which BFI Films seeks sponsorship to increase public awareness and diversify the audience.

out-of-the-past-jacques-tourneur.jpgJacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past

In terms of adding to the collection through investment in prints and rights for theatric releasing, BFI Films annually presents a diverse selection of around six contemporary titles, such as Under the Skin (Carine Adler), The River (Tsai Ming-Liang), and a dozen historical revivals (The Battle of Algiers, The Magnificent Ambersons). Best-quality prints and new marketing materials are made, despite the fact that this can rarely be cash-flowed by the once-traditional avenue of a sale of broadcast rights to television. BFI Films recently offered both Channel 4 and BBC2 the rights to key titles, including Orphée (Cocteau), Le Mépris (Godard), Mama Roma (Pasolini), Osessione (Visconti), Red Desert (Antonioni), An Actor’s Revenge (Ichikawa), and the films of Mizoguchi, Ritwik Ghatak, Ousmane Sembene plus shorts by Georges Franju, Roman Polanski, Maya Deren, Wladyslaw Starewicz and Derek Jarman. Neither broadcaster has been able to take up any of these titles. Similarly, BFI Films’ new titles such as Kiarostami’s Close-Up and Tsai Ming-Liang’s The River have failed to find a television sale (despite the fact that the latter received a special citation at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival from a jury that included Channel 4’s Head of Purchased Programmes). As discussed in the last issue of Vertigo, both channels are engaged in the struggle for viewing figures that assumes foreign language, black and white and historical titles to be of minority interest. Television’s failure to transmit this material both stymies its theatric possibilities and contributes to a general downwards spiral of unfamiliarity, breeding intolerance amongst viewers and cinema audiences.

Ironically the opposite is true for documentaries, a genre which BFI Films actively seeks for theatric distribution. In the UK most documentaries have front-end financing from television and no contractual holdback period to create a window for cinema exhibition prior to broadcast. The first problem in distributing new films, recently shown on television, is finding cinemas prepared to commit enough screening slots to justify investment in prints and marketing and to allow word of mouth recommendation. Secondly, the film press have to be convinced of the documentary’s cinematic potential to commit to these titles the precious little feature editorial and review space allowed them by media editors. This is all before persuading audiences to invest their time and money in a night out likely to be more intellectually challenging than simply entertaining. Documentaries recently distributed by BFI Films include A Bit of Scarlet, (Andrea Weiss), Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (Isaac Julien) and Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick).

point-blank-john-boorman.jpgJohn Boorman’s Point Blank

The new features distributed by BFI Films tend to be foreign-language films which have failed to find distribution within independent companies (Close-Up, for example) or BFI Production’s low-budget movies by first time directors, such as Stella Does Tricks (Coky Giedroyc). The cost of 35mm exhibition prints of low-budget features can be prohibitive if films are shot on Super 16, no dupe negative is made and the distributor has to strike a copy from A and B rolls.

16mm Non-Theatrical

Technical problems are also currently affecting the non-theatric (film society and educational) sectors. Although BFI Films aims to prioritise historically important work and films that represent different cinematic voices or visions, the range of titles available for distribution on 16mm has become increasingly limited. For example, BFI Films has recently been unable to achieve sub-distribution prints of key titles such as Temptress Moon, Will it Snow for Christmas? and L’Appartement. If a film is produced on 35mm, 16mm prints can only be struck if there exists a negative in this format, or if reduction reversal stock is available to make prints from a 35mm positive. In the Autumn the UK’s last supply of reduction reversal stock was used to create our 16mm print of A Self-Made Hero. BFI Films’ technical staff continue to liaise with the laboratories, but cannot yet confirm the development of new stock. The cost of creating a 16mm negative with an optical sound-track is around £5,000, a prohibitive amount for such small territories as the UK and Ireland alone (although we are investigating additional funding for this), so we currently rely on our US colleagues to create 16mm distribution materials that we can buy into. Relying on these materials causes its own problems, as we have no control over the date of their availability (UK and US theatrical release schedules can vary considerably) let alone occasional anomalies such as dubbing, pan & scan versions and Americanised subtitling.

Although the new titles that BFI Films can acquire on 16mm are limited, we endeavour to prioritise those of particular cultural interest such as Ma Vie en Rose, Marius et Jeanette and Happy Together, archive revivals of The Threepenny Opera (1998 is Brecht’s centenary), The Magnificent Ambersons and The Blue Angel, and a trio of US indies that challenge notions of sexuality, namely Chasing Amy, In the Company of Men and Sick. We are also currently looking at developing challenging features in our collection and to show shorts, a wide variety of which are available on 16mm.

tusalava-len-lye.jpgTusalava, 1929

For BFI Films one of the disappointments of the recently published Film Policy Review Group paper on distribution was its emphasis on increasing the audience of British films through a larger publicity spend on a small number of titles. What we are trying to do is strategically supply a range of films, including historical and foreign-language titles, for the creation of a more cine-literate national audience (which of course includes our future film-makers). One can only look in envy at the French exhibition scene, which in Paris accommodates a huge range of European and world cinema alongside national product and American movies, the latter being shown in both dubbed and original language versions. Part of the success of the French system is that a good percentage of cinemas show repertory-style programmes, not only presenting a film daily or weekly but for months on end, allowing word of mouth recommendation to help the movie find its audience.

Jane Giles is Head of Distribution at BFI Films.