12 March 2008

Time Out on Greg Dyke

Dave Calhoun worries about Greg Dyke's impact on the London Film Festival in this week's Time Out:

Greg Dyke and the future of the British Film Institute

Last week, new British Film Institute chairman Greg Dyke gave his first interview in the job. Dave Calhoun bristles at what some of his comments might mean for the London Film Festival

Eyebrows travelled north last month when the coveted chair of the British Film Institute was handed to television executive Greg Dyke, the business brains behind ‘Roland Rat’ and ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’. ‘It’s a scandal,’ fumed one filmmaker in an email to me. ‘What the fuck does Dyke know about film?’

Others, myself included, were more measured. The BFI needs a strong leader at a time when the organisation is teetering at a crossroads: the BFI’s subservience to the UK Film Council, the quango that appointed Dyke, is almost a decade old and causing increasing tension. The limited nature of the BFI’s funding is threatening its core activities – research, archiving, preservation, exhibition, publications – at a time when it faces new challenges, not least the need to embrace the digital age. Above all, the BFI needs someone strong enough to realise ambitious plans for a new national film centre to replace BFI Southbank. The BFI needs a big hitter.

So when Dyke was appointed, I thought: Let’s wait and see. He may not have any background in cinema, but his experience both at the BBC and in commercial television might stand him in good stead to raise the estimated £150 million needed for the new film centre. I hoped, too, that someone with Dyke’s organisational experience might be able to argue strongly for the BFI’s cultural role in opposition to the UKFC’s more commercial interests.

Then, last week, a broadly uncritical interview with Dyke in the Times made my heart sink. We learned that Dyke is ‘an average filmgoer’ but not a ‘buff’ (his word). He supports a new national film centre with the proviso that it ‘has to have connections outside London’. He ‘loved’ ‘Atonement’. Alarm bells started to ring when Dyke moved on to the London Film Festival. He wants it to change. ‘London should have a great film festival,’ he said, no doubt pouring worry into the hearts of its current organisers at the BFI.

‘For what it is, the festival is successful,’ he continued. ‘But I think the idea of making it bigger and glitzier is quite attractive. You want the festival to be for buffs and the general public. A glitzier festival is a good idea. It does something for London.’

Why is this so worrying? Mainly because it raises questions about where Dyke is getting his ideas from and, crucially, what he perceives to be the role of the BFI. Firstly, a radical change for the LFF would go against the better advice of those who know the event the best: the people that run it, who, in private, have spent much of the past year listening patiently to the ideas of bodies outside of the BFI, like the UKFC, Film London and the London Development Agency who would all like to see it change (all are funders of the event). Secondly, on what evidence is Dyke, days into the new job, making these suggestions? Is he a regular at the festival and familiar with its programme?

Thirdly, and most worryingly for signs of the direction of his tenureship, his comments seem similar to noises emanating from the UKFC, noises which I’m aware that the current custodians of the LFF at the BFI oppose: that the London Film Festival should become bigger, more populist, and more glamorous and perhaps move its date from October, not for cultural reasons but so that the festival can act as a flag-waver for the British film industry purely in trade terms and so that distributors can gain more mileage from its programme.

This isn’t supposition. Andrew Eaton, Michael Winterbottom’s producer and deputy chair of the UKFC, told me last year that he thought the festival should move to June. Sources tell me that the UKFC has also suggested that January might work, a suggestion which shows a woeful ignorance of the festival’s current ability to programme films with autumn release dates and potential to win awards. Looking back at last year’s line-up, such a move to January (or July) would have excluded ‘Eastern Promises’, ‘The Darjeeling Limited’, ‘Juno’, ‘Lust, Caution’, ‘I’m Not There’ and ‘Into the Wild’. These sorts of films don’t come round twice a year. Such proposals suggest that programming – the bread and butter of any good festival – hasn’t come into the equation at all.

If a change of date means a better festival, so be it. But the reasoning for a new January or June date for the LFF seems almost entirely based on when other international festivals take place – festivals attended by industry folk. Which means that the London audience counts for nothing. This makes Dyke’s recourse to the idea of a festival for the ‘public’ as well as for ‘buffs’ null and void. Why should the public care if the LFF happened the same month as Cannes or Venice? The public wants exactly what the festival offers: interesting films, well picked.

The idea has also been doing the rounds that the LFF should become competitive. Again, the only reason for this would be to raise the festival’s profile within the industry and to shine a light on the city. Leaving aside the question of whether there would be enough good titles to justify another competitive festival, the public – the ‘buffs’ of whom Dyke speaks – have no cause to care whether there are awards or not. An audience wants interesting films; the festival’s healthy ticket sales suggest punters are getting just that.

Which leads to the most disturbing element of Dyke’s comments: his sneering at the idea of a festival for ‘buffs’. Would anyone dispute a sporting event being for lovers of sport? Or the Proms being for lovers of music? Why separate the ‘public’ and ‘buffs’? It smacks of the very philistinism – that cinema should not be seen as an art or an intellectual pursuit – that the BFI exists to defy.

The LFF is not elitist or unpopular. It sells out. It plays a mix of art house and popular work. Last year, Tom Cruise, Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody all turned up. More mainstream films – and there are plenty – would be at the expense of more difficult work. In fact, they would reason the event out of existence; what justification is there for the BFI – a publicly-funded body – to be putting money towards films that would survive in the marketplace?

Dyke needs to show more independence of thought and more understanding of why the BFI and the LFF exist. His role is a cultural one. He has no right to let the LFF become a postcard for the city, like the New Year’s Eve fireworks, or an advert aimed at foreign producers, or a marketing tool for studios and distributors. The LFF is a cultural institution and should be left well alone for London audiences – the buffs – who enjoy it in droves every year.

The article and reader comments can be found at:

Greg Dyke And The Future Of The British Film Institute - Time Out London - Time Out London


2 comments:

spam said...

The people who 'know about film' have not done a wonderful job in managing the BFI -- perhaps Greg Dyke should be given a chance. Once he's settled in, he may be more of his own man than is assumed here.

COUNTERpoint Film and Music said...

Oh dear - Time Out being off-message. Perhaps the once-upon-a-time Waldo Lydecker will be round to have a word and explain that keeping your mouth shut is a route to a better career.