29 June 2007
The new Prime Minister’s announcement today that James Purnell is returning to DCMS, this time as Secretary of State, is very good news for the BFI. He is a big fan of archive film and a staunch supporter of the BFI, having been a member for some time. When he was Film minister he played a key role in getting the ball rolling for the BFI to lead a joined up Archive strategy for the UK and he knows only too well the difficult financial environment we operate within. I am very confident that he will fight our corner where it counts.
I hope you will have seen some of the coverage we have generated to support our case to Government for both capital funding for the archive and an increase in grant-in-aid funding. Although the press inevitably sometimes confuse the issues, the consistent message coming across loud and clear is that we are underfunded and that the collections and Library are of central importance to the BFI.
It is important that you know we have not been sitting still on any of the issues facing us. For well over a year many meetings have taken place directly with Ministers and with the UKFC to argue the case for more funding. We are not alone in facing the same challenges as all other national cultural institutions. However, the achievements of the past three years across the Archive, South Bank, Festivals and new digital initiatives have considerably strengthened our case in the eyes of our funders.
I am sorry that some of you have had to cope with negative and disparaging comments from (often anonymous) outsiders, both verbally and in print, which have sought to undermine what we do. In some cases these calls to action are well intentioned but unhelpful as they are driven by those not in full grasp of the facts as we face them. It would be ill-advised, therefore, to be drawn into responding at an individual level as it can only be damaging for the BFI and for colleagues.
We are delighted that Amicus will be building on the campaign to date and working with us on a joint campaign that is co-ordinated and effective, drawing on both press and political contacts to present a united front.
(If you haven’t heard what’s going on at the BFI, then BFIwatch, a blog set up by BFI author Pam Cook, which has collated all the media and public documents, is a good place to start. It’s at http://bfiwatch.blogspot.com/ and it’s updated regularly.)
A lot of lip service is paid to the people who make the BFI run from day-to-day: publishing books, videos and educational materials, looking after the archive, putting on events, marketing those events, or making sure the whole show runs smoothly and everyone gets paid on time. But they’re not often called on to add their voices to the letters to the Guardian, blogs, or academic mailing lists. Which is a shame, because they’re the people who keep the show on the road in the first place. So as former non-heads of department, non-senior academics and non-cultural heavyweights, we felt the need to add our voice and point of view to the discussion.
We don’t have a big list of what the ‘problems’ of the BFI are. In our view, two simple factors are responsible for the dire crisis the BFI now finds itself facing: Incompetence, and cowardice.
Firstly, incompetence. The activities currently at most serious risk at the BFI are not at risk because they’re ‘unsustainable’, ‘uneconomic’ or even vaguely not part of the ‘core’ of what the BFI does. All these activities are capable of covering their own costs even before they add to the richness and diversity of film culture and education. They’re at risk because they’ve been mismanaged. They’ve been put into an ill-conceived ‘trading’ division, set unreasonably high financial targets, and reorganised by managers who don’t know the first thing about their operational activities. Now they’ve been hung out to dry on the line of budgetary deficit by senior managers who would clearly have a hard time organising the weekly shop at Sainsbury’s. While staff have worked hard to meet their insane targets, it’s been to no avail: their budgets are produced as objective ‘truth’ of their failure. This is unacceptable.
Secondly, cowardice. The BFI’s senior management are afraid of what the BFI does. It’s all a bit too complicated and difficult fitting all the activities of the BFI and their wonderful interrelated synergies (the library produces programme notes for the NFT; the NFT add filmographic data to the BFI’s databases, that data gets used by both the archive and screenonline; screenonline writers go on to produce work for BFI publishing) into a ‘core’ mission statement. They don’t love film culture, they love the appearance of sophistication and importance that their association with film culture gives them. Those who sat in the public gallery of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee and watched Alan Parker and John Woodward unashamedly hold their hands out for yet more of the taxpayers’ pound, only to be followed by Anthony Minghella and Amanda Nevill’s craven promises that they would deliver ‘better value for money’ were astounded by their cowardice. We remain astounded by their unwillingness and inability to fight for a fairer bite of the cherry for one the nation’s most important cultural heritage organisations. It seems clear to us what the problem is and where the blame lies. Anthony Minghella is due to step down as chair of the governors soon. He should go now, and he should take Amanda Nevill with him.
The recipients of other letters have been prevailed upon to write letters of protest to Minghella, Nevill and the BFI’s board of governors. We don’t hold out much hope on this score: they’re the people who got the BFI into this mess in the first place. However it is still important to let them know what you think and to encourage members of the governing body to look more closely at how the BFI has been (mis)managed. So please, write to Amanda and Anthony and the BFI governors (www.bfi.org.uk/about/people
But more importantly also write to the papers, post notices in online communities you belong to, raise the issue in meetings of your unions and professional associations, tell other former colleagues about it (and pass this letter on too if you wish). Lend your support to any campaigns that emerge from the BFI staff. Make a fuss, because the more noise is made, the greater the chances are of stopping these plans.
27 June 2007
Like other UK cultural organisations, the BFI will find it increasingly difficult to survive in such a climate. All the more reason to work out a long-term strategy based on the range of integrated activities and resources offered by the institute. The partial approach taken by management offers short-term solutions in response to the current crisis, but as Director Amanda Nevill has acknowledged, the BFI's financial future remains very uncertain (see her Guardian response posted below).
A proper consultation process about the direction taken by management would be a starting point from which to put the BFI's plight on the government's agenda. Since the current crisis has taken many years to reach this acute stage, one could be forgiven for asking why public consultation has not happened before. Unfortunately, it looks unlikely to happen now.
[link no longer available]
25 June 2007
The busiest day was Monday 18 June, when 296 visits were recorded.
24 June 2007
Published 24 June 2007
The film world is at loggerheads over plans to sell off the British Film Institute's London headquarters - as the organisation struggles to cope with a financial crisis insiders believe is a result of the arts budget being raided to help fund the 2012 Olympics.
A legion of critics and academics say the plans, said to have the full support of the BFI's chairman, Anthony Minghella, Oscar-winning director of The English Patient, could herald the break up of the BFI's world-renowned collections.
The HQ, in the heart of the West End, was a gift from John Paul Getty and is home to the institute's library - which includes periodicals going back to its founding in 1933 - and stills archive.
There have long been fears that the Olympics are draining resources from the arts. The BFI's £16m annual grant has been frozen for four years, yet it needs around £34m a year to survive. It is also planning to "outsource" its publishing arm.
This week the BFI issued a plea for a further £34m to help it prevent the loss of a "substantial percentage" of its film and television archive housed in other parts of the country. That archive, containing tens of thousands and films and television programmes, is acknowledged as the best in the world.
Stephen Frears, the Oscar-nominated director of The Queen and a governor of the BFI, said: "The BFI is underfunded. That is the real issue. More importantly the archive [of films] is underfunded. That's to do with films decaying and that's a really serious problem."
The institute's director, Amanda Neville [sic], confirmed last week that selling its HQ "is a possibility". Ms Neville said the BFI's "vision" was to create a new film centre - as yet unfunded - to house the library and stills archive as well as a revamped National Film Theatre. Until then, a university or college would house the library.
She said: "We look after the greatest archive of film in the world. We have a responsibility to ensure that we continue to be an international centre of film in this country. The National Film Theatre [on the South Bank in central London] is coming to the end of its natural life. So the plan is a new film centre that combines all of that.
"The vision is a very exciting one. The library and archive will be at the heart of that. It has to come back to the film centre at the end of the day - assuming that centre is built."
Critics, however, fear the centre will not be built, and the library and stills archive will end up going to the British Library, so breaking up the BFI's unsurpassed collection.
Michael Chanan, professor of film at Roehampton University, has published an open letter raising concerns about the BFI's plans, which has been signed by 50 other academics and film historians.
Professor Chanan said: "Our concern is that it is the end of the BFI as we know it. The BFI started in 1933, but this looks like the end of the line. The main problem is that the budget has been at a standstill since 2001. They are selling this building in Stephen Street, which they realise is worth a lot of money. But where are they going to put the reading room and library?
"There are one or two people who don't trust the BFI to run the film archive."
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith of Queen Mary, University of London, added: "You just wonder what this organisation is doing. The archive and library is the heart of how the BFI operates. While I appreciate they are trying to do their best, the idea of separating the library from the rest of the operation is crazy."
The BFI's Ms Neville said: "I make no apology for being ambitious. If the film centre doesn't happen there's going to be no national cinema to go to. I can't believe as a country that we're going to allow that to happen. Anthony Minghella is 100 per cent behind me."
A spokesman for the British Film Council, which channels funding from the Government to the BFI, said: "The UK Film Council allocates as much money as possible to the BFI without compromising our other spending commitments.
"We recognise that more money is needed for the National Archive, which is why we have been working closely with the BFI and other partners to produce the first ever National Archive Strategy."To read the article online, click here:
22 June 2007
BFI demands £34m to save `the world's finest film archives'
by Louise Jury, Arts Correspondent
Evening Standard 21 June 2007
The British Film Institute is to demand £34 million upfront and another £6 million a year to save the nation's disintegrating film and television archive.
Four years after the BFI was condemned by the National Audit Office for leaving historic pieces of film to rot, it has produced its first costed strategy for tackling the problem.
Its report says there is an urgent need for funds to stop a "substantial percentage" of the National Film and Television Archive at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, being lost. In addition, money is needed for mass digitisation of archive film for public access, the document claims.
The BFI stresses that its current funding will not cover this. It receives £16 million a year of which £3.5 million is for the National Archive.
This contains 50,000 fiction films, more than 100,000 non-fiction titles, including The Open Road, a 1924 Land's End to John O'Groats travelogue which features an experimental colour process, and about 625,000 TV programmes.
There are also many other archives in the regions and museums for which the BFI is taking strategic responsibility as head of the new UK Film Heritage Group.
The biggest bill would be £25 million for new storage facilities. The National Audit Office found flammable nitrate film in storage that lacked humidity and temperature controls.
The document points out that digitising a 90-minute film from an original colour negative - one of the BFI's more complex tasks - can cost £8,000.
Amanda Nevill, director of the BFI, said it was a historic move for the BFI National Archive to join with regional archives to present a single vision.
She said: "In this country, we have the greatest collections of film in the world. Our film and television heritage is unparalleled. The public appetite for archive film has never been greater but with much of the sector in a critical condition it desperately needs investment."
The BFI plans to put its strategy out to consultation until 7 September before presenting a finished version to the Government. It may find it harder to secure funding given Olympic demands. Potential sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund are having budgets cut.
To access the BFI statement referred to in the article, click here:
21 June 2007
BFI shakeup raises alarm
by Adam Dawtrey
THE BRITISH FILM Institute is one of those chronically underfunded public organizations that lurch permanently from one crisis to another, yet somehow always endure. So veteran BFI watchers could be forgiven a cynical shrug at the latest storm in a Stephen Street teacup, which has brewed up over the plan to dismantle its trading arm.
BFI Trading was only created a couple of years ago, in a bid to maximize revenues and boost the org's brand. It brings together publishing, film sales, the DVD label, the stills and footage libraries. But it never hit its income targets, and proved costly to run.
Some of its operations, such as Sight and Sound magazine, will put under new management; some, such as book publishing and film sales, will controversially be farmed out to commercial partners; and others, such as stills, withdrawn from exploitation entirely.
This U-turn has, of course, got staffers in spin - especially those who will lose their jobs. And last weekend, 58 film scholars from as far afield as Sydney, Singapore and Central Florida U. wrote a public letter of protest about the sale of the book imprint, blaming the whole thing on the "philistine and commercially oriented" U.K. Film Council, which is responsible for the BFI's funding.
The BFI, wrote the academics, "has a worldwide reputation for its South Bank film theater and the London Film Festival, the National Film & TV Archive, Sight and Sound, the library services..., the education department, and nowadays the website and DVDs. All of these are designed to support each other, and it will be a lessened institution if any one of them were taken away - not least its books on cinema and television."
The org has survived many of these spasms before - over the withdrawal from production, the closure of the Museum of the Moving Image, the takeover by the UKFC, the cutback on exhibition services.
And yet this time, perhaps it's about more than just a few scholars worried that they won't be able to get their monographs published.
The fear is that the BFI, already diminished under the shadow of the UKFC, is finally reaching a tipping point where it no longer has the financial means to hold itself together. The recent $12 million (a third over budget) spent tarting up the National Film Theater was just window-dressing for an org that's struggling to hang onto its identity and find its purpose in the digital age.
Whether the issue is just money, or also the quality of leadership provided by chairman Anthony Minghella and director Amanda Nevill, is open to debate. Minghella is, in any case, due to step down this year, so the choice of his replacement will be crucial.
Staff union Amicus has offered to put differences aside and launch a national campaign with the BFI executive to highlight the cash crisis, so long as the restructuring plans are put on ice.
In fact, the closure of BFI Trading is a sign of how desperate the org's financial condition has become. The division was created in the vain hope of plugging the BFI's funding gap, and its failure has left the org in an even worse state.
The BFI receives a government grant of £16 million ($32 million) year, which it doubles by sponsorship, donations and commercial revenues. But the grant has been frozen for the past four years, while costs have rocketed. The deficit next year will be an unsustainable $6 million, and rising.
The next step will be to find a university willing to house the vast library, one of the greatest collections of cinema literature anywhere in the world, so that the BFI can sell off or rent out its hugely valuable Stephen Street HQ in central London.
One board member, who agrees with the "realignment" of BFI Trading, nonetheless describes it as "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic."
"The big question, which is the funding deficit, is not being addressed by this," he says. "If the U.K. Film Council doesn't address this urgently, some of the three principal activities of the BFI - the archive, exhibition and the knowledge activities - will not be able to continue."
Variety 18-24 June 2007
Get the online version at:
How things move forward depends on a number of factors. If the BFI takes the consultation process seriously, management should take on board the growing concern about the realignment plans expressed in letters from individuals, groups and organisations, press coverage and internet forums. Some have asked for the implementation of Phase One to be postponed until proper discussion with stakeholders takes place. Others have put forward constructive alternative solutions to the BFI's funding crisis. A public forum between management and stakeholders is in the pipeline (watch this space).
18 June 2007
Film archive is the BFI's prioritySaturday June 16, 2007
Cy Young's letter (June 13), while it might be well-intentioned, is
muddled and untrue. The BFI, like many national cultural
institutions, is facing extreme financial challenges and we
are going to have to be extremely creative to navigate
through straitened times. However, as Cary Bazalgette
correctly points out (Letters, June 13), the archive and
collections (which include the library) are a central priority,
both in terms of long-term care and access for the public.
Among a number of initiatives designed to support this priority,
we are in discussions for a more formal alignment with the
education sector, which we are hoping will bring investment
and thus additional benefit to users. Hopefully in the long run
this would also lead to a much-improved physical environment
for our valued library users. The notions that we would give
away the library or depend on a commercial sponsorship to
achieve this are fantastical and unfounded.
The heart is being ripped out of the British Film Institute
Wednesday June 13, 2007
While I share the concern of Professor Chanan and colleagues about the BFI's current difficulties (Letters, June 9), I feel their letter misses its target in two crucial respects. First, they present a list of BFI activities which appear to be equal in status and importance: while they are all vital, it must be understood that the essential core of the BFI is the National Film and Television Archive, probably the greatest archive of moving image media in the world. When the BFI was transformed into a funded appendage of the UK Film Council in 2001, the NFTVA became the only major national collection in the UK not directly accountable to government.
Opinions will differ as to whether or not the UK Film Council is as "philistine and commercially oriented" as Chanan & co claim, but the real issue is that 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: they are simply quite different kinds of organisation. In these circumstances, the professors' demand for the BFI to organise open discussion and take cognisance of the opinions of its members and stakeholders is unlikely to be met. Surely it is the culture department that bears responsibility for the lack of debate about the cultural, educational and academic functions of this extraordinary and unique national treasure?
Former head of education, British Film Institute
Even if former BFI writers find other publishers for their work, they will always need somewhere to carry out their research, and there is no obvious reason why this should not continue to be done in the BFI library at 21 Stephen Street. But this is most unlikely to happen, since for several years the BFI has been looking for an excuse to close down Stephen Street (the building was a gift from film enthusiast J Paul Getty).
Strong rumours are circulating that, unless the BFI library finds sponsorship from a commercial partner during the next 18 months, this resource will be jettisoned because the BFI's new installation (studio cinema, exhibition gallery and mediatheque), known as BFI Southbank, cannot operate successfully - ie balance its books - without raiding the budgets of all other BFI activities. Hence the threatened disappearance of the library, with its holdings of books, magazines and ephemera passed to some university campus, and removed from the loving care of the dedicated BFI employees whose accumulated knowledge represents 50% of what this unique facility provides.
The heart is being ripped out of the British Film Institute to pursue the vain concept of the all-purpose Film Centre on the South Bank. It could be only a matter of months before the green light is given to piecemeal dismemberment of the BFI.
Freelance writer and researcher
17 June 2007
The busiest day for visits was Wednesday 13 June, when the blog was visited 440 times.
15 June 2007
No to BFI realignment
Following the letter by 48 film academics expressing concern about the future of the British Film Institute (Letters, June 1), readers should note that subsequent announcements confirm that the BFI is redefining its educational remit.
The BFI's envisaged outsourcing of its publishing arm constitutes merely one stage in a process of radical 'realignment'. This extends to a range of other activities and services, including the BFI Library, a core research and education facility, which could soon be closed or divested to a consortium of London-based higher education institutions. This would fundamentally alter the library's status as a public national and international resource.
The institute has so far only selectively disseminated its plans in detail -- for more information, visit www.bfiwatch.blogspot.com Particularly worrying is the lack of consultation and transparency in arriving at this strategy, and the vague terms in which the BFI defines its future role in film education. The institute's management portrays the downscaling of core activities in favour of expensive projects such as the South Bank Centre as an opportunity, but the arguments put forward to justify the proposed measures do not convince. Public discussion is needed as to what purpose and constituency a 'realigned' BFI is meant to serve.
Prof Tim Bergfelder
Head of Film Studies