In this week's Time Out, Dave Calhoun ponders the case for the BFI Film Centre:
Why London needs a new national film theatre
As the London Film Festival opens this week, Dave Calhoun wonders when – and if – visions for replacing the National Film Theatre will ever be realised
Before he died earlier this year, Anthony Minghella often spoke about the need for a new public home for the British Film Institute, so that a cultural centre for cinema in London could stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall. Minghella’s plan was that the current National Film Theatre on the South Bank should be vacated over the next few years and a shiny new altar to all things celluloid built further down the river alongside the grander temples to the arts that line the South Bank from Tate Modern to Westminster Bridge.
So, 18 months after the very successful rebranding of the NFT as BFI Southbank, and on the occasion of the London Film Festival, it’s timely to ask: how are Minghella’s plans for a National Film Centre progressing? We spoke to the BFI and they were optimistic if cautious about economic and political obstacles. The key message, though, is that the BFI expects to receive a funding decision from the government by the end of the year and be able to race ahead with several years of fundraising to find the rest of the cash. Realistically, they’re looking at a 2014 opening date.
But there are also signs of ambitions being downgraded to match financial realities. Andy Burnham, Secretary of State for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, has allotted a potential £45 million for the project should his department give the final sign-off. But he recently asked new BFI chair Greg Dyke and BFI director Amanda Nevill to resubmit their plans for the centre at a cost of £150m rather than £200m. Last Tuesday night, Dyke and Nevill met again with Burnham to present these new plans and the outcome of that meeting is not yet clear.
But what remains obvious is that, assuming the BFI receives that £45m from the Government, £5m (already pledged) from the Mayor’s Office and £15m-£20m to be accrued from the sale of their current Stephen Street offices, they will still need to find some £80m from other sources. Even assuming Lottery money is forthcoming, they will rely heavily on philanthropic donations and cash raised from commercial partnerships. We asked a spokesperson if they could envisage a ‘Sony National Film Centre’ or similar branding and were reminded that The Times London Film Festival already exists.
The more open-minded, the better – but whether £150m or £200m, public or private, what’s in it for Londoners? The BFI proposes that the new centre will sit on the South Bank but be bigger and better than its predecessor. The BFI has ruled out anywhere but the middle of the city and its eyes are on a plot of land (now a car park) that lies west of the current BFI site, nestling between the Royal Festival Hall and the London Eye.
Cynics, and guardians of the public purse, may cry that the NFT only recently had a refit to become BFI Southbank, complete with a new Mediatheque, studio cinema, gallery, bar, restaurant and a lick of paint – and all at a cost of £6m. But the BFI’s line on this is that renovation was only ever meant as a temporary move to create – again to quote Minghella – a ‘testbed’ for greater things. The BFI is now having to walk a fine line by talking up the need for a new home (that will not come to pass for at least six years) while at the same time not talking down their current operation.
The reasons given by the BFI for the need for a new centre are cultural and pragmatic. Pragmatically, the BFI Southbank is nearing the end of its shelf-life and noisy trams may be passing over Waterloo Bridge by 2011 (although this second point is a bit of a red herring as no such scheme has been agreed). The cultural reasons are two-fold: that film is too important for its home to linger half-hidden under Waterloo Bridge; and that a new, prominent space will allow for all sorts of new opportunities.
What are those new opportunities? Several conversations with BFI staff allow a broad picture to emerge even if the details remain vague. There would be roughly five cinemas, with one large auditorium capable of hosting events currently served by the Odeon Leicester Square, such as the opening night of the London Film Festival and major film premieres (this second use hints that the new centre may be more inclusive of commercial cinema and that such premieres might even become a major revenue stream). The new centre would also be a window on the BFI’s archive and restoration work – a sort of living museum to film past, present and future (an example given is that punters will be able to watch restorers at work). Crucially, the centre would also be the hub for a new, nationwide delivery of digital or digitised work, either through the transmission to cinemas around the country of live Q&A sessions or the beaming of films from the National Film & Television Archive into homes via the internet, television and their future equivalents (but only if the BFI can get over the rights minefield that such a scheme would create; it owns only 1 per cent of the material in its archive). The point is: a National Film Centre would incorporate the values (and, one hopes, the unique programming) of the current BFI Southbank but would also be more uniquely relevant and ready to advance into a digital age.
Fundraising and politics aside (for example, what would a Tory government make of the plans?), that last hope is a rightful and fascinating one. It’s crucial that some progressive thinking goes into deciding what a modern film centre should be. Is the current model of the multi-screen cinematheque adequate? Should people even be charged to watch films? Now is the time for a full debate as to what exactly this building should be. It’s time for radical thinking and it’s a discussion that we intend to continue on these pages as more details – and, hopefully, more money – emerge.
Author: Dave Calhoun