Reeling: Is the British Film Institute at Risk?

By Michael Chanan


Our great cultural institutions are usually housed in imposing buildings which proclaim their solidity and permanence. Not so the British Film Institute. The National Film Theatre is tucked away under London’s Waterloo Bridge, near to where it was first installed for the Festival of Britain in 1951. The library and offices, once housed in an office block in Dean Street, currently occupy another non-descript office block off Tottenham Court Road – a gift from movie-loving billionaire Paul Getty Jr. The National Film and Television Archive (NFTVA) is hidden away in the countryside outside London, with its nitrate films safely stored in limestone quarries in Warwickshire.

If this reflects the way the great and the good regard the art of cinema, then you may think it perfectly reasonable that the management currently on duty at the BFI would like to change this confused and fragmented image and build a brand new state-of-the-art film centre on the South Bank, a true monument of cinema’s centrality to modern culture. The problem is that the sums don’t add up.

THE BFI has always been a tangle of contradictions. Dating back to 1933, and thus one of the first institutions of its kind in the world, it has nevertheless been under-funded for decades, because governments which barely comprehend the arts are even more challenged when it comes to cinema and its ambiguous place within modern culture. They feel they can’t ignore it, because after all it makes a lot of money and promotes the country abroad, but they have never understood its peculiarly fluid economics, let alone the troublesome relationship between art and industry.


The situation was not improved seven years ago when the BFI was removed from direct ministerial responsibility and given to the newly created UK Film Council. The Blair government’s answer to the frustrated ambitions of the British film industry, the Film Council is a philistine and commercially oriented body recently described in Time Out (8-14 August 2007) as ‘heavily geared towards optimizing conditions for the commercial success of the British film industry’. Even here their achievement is debatable, which hardly makes them sympathetic to the BFI’s cultural and educational remit. As a correspondent in The Guardian put it (Cary Bazalgette, 13 June 2007), 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 commercial operation, it's a public body dedicated to a whole series of integrated functions designed to foster film culture at large.

In any case, since 2003 the Film Council’s grant has been frozen, and so has the BFI’s share of it, which, taking inflation into account, means a real cut on the preceding years. Questions have been asked about the competence of the BFI’s management, and the implications of the euphemistic ‘realignment’ which is now in progress, beginning with the publishing imprint being ‘outsourced’ to a commercial academic house. This follows the revamp of the NFT, rebranded as the BFI Southbank and replete with a new mediatheque, at a cost of more than £5m and which, according to a report in Variety (18 June 2007) went a third over-budget.

However, perhaps it isn’t their competence which should be questioned but the ideology under which they are required to operate, because they’ve done what’s expected. They’ve begun to digitize the archive and open up access; they’ve created new management posts and carried out feasibility studies for a grandiose Film Centre on the South Bank in time for the 2012 Olympics. But ‘realignment’ and ‘outsourcing’ are only expedient words for cost-cutting and asset-stripping, and the effect is to endanger the BFI’s integration of a whole series of functions around exhibition, archival preservation and access, publishing, education, and its library and reading room. Take any of these away and it becomes a lessened institution, but this is what seems to be in progress. Meanwhile, as reported by Private Eye (6-19 July 2007), ‘a mountain of old film needs copying and conserving before it crumbles to dust, not helped by the cutting of a third of the technicians' jobs at the conservation centre in Berkhamsted in 2005.’


The issue of the archives was the subject of a symposium hosted by Roehampton University and organised by MeCCSA (the academic subject organization for media, communication and cultural studies) in September. The intention was to see if some of the main stakeholders around the public sector film archives, and those concerned about the issues in the universities, could hold a useful dialogue at a critical moment for our mutual futures. This involves the recognition by the BFI that it cannot stand alone, because it shares the terrain with the regional film archives, the Imperial War Museum, the British Library and a few others. Moreover, digitization is not a solution to anything but a challenge and, on top of that, the expected enactment of the Gowers Report on Intellectual Property will open up opportunities which are currently closed off by archaic copyright laws.

Obviously the NFTVA is at the core of the BFI’s activities, but another result of turning the BFI into an appendage of the Film Council is that it has become the only major national collection in the UK not directly accountable to government. Four years after being criticized by the National Audit Office for leaving historic pieces of film to rot, the BFI has produced its first costed strategy for tackling the problem. To save the nation's disintegrating film and television archive, the BFI is now seeking a one-off grant from government of £34m and an annual budget of £6m, and in July, the new culture secretary, James Purnell, told MPs that the archive was a 'national treasure' and safe in the government's hands. This sounds like good news – even as the rest of the arts suffer cutbacks because of the rising cost of the Olympics – but is far from an instant fix. It’s only a beginning

Michael Chanan is a writer and lecturer.