Article in Chronicle of Higher Education

An article about the BFI’s plans to outsource BFI Publishing appeared today in the US publication Chronicle of Higher Education, available online at:

The full article is posted here:

Monday, June 4, 2007

Plan to Outsource Book-Publishing Operations at British Film Institute Worries Film Scholars


Film scholars in the United States and elsewhere are expressing concern about the future of the publishing division at the British Film Institute, one of the premier venues for scholarly books on cinema.

In particular, the scholars are worried about the institute’s plan to outsource the production — and perhaps editing — of approximately 30 scholarly books on film that it publishes each year to a commercial publisher. The scholars are also incensed that the institute failed to share such plans with authors and consumers of the volumes until after complaints about the proposal were raised.

The institute, known as the BFI, has told film researchers that the changes in its publishing division are part of a sweeping reorganization necessitated by financial challenges. In an e-mail message sent to film scholars late last month, the institute said that it was taking steps to preserve the quality of publications, if possible by retaining editorial control of them even as they are produced by a commercial publisher.

The American film researchers who initially raised the concerns have not been reassured by recent statements by the institute, and their dismay has spread to colleagues in Great Britain and several other countries.

The institute has engaged in “no proper consultation,” and has given “no guarantees of protecting the publishing culture,” nor good reason for making the changes, said Toby Miller, a professor of English, sociology, and women’s studies at the University of California at Riverside, who raised the alert among his colleagues. Mr. Miller organized a letter of protest to the BFI that was signed by 34 senior American film and cultural-studies scholars, and 18 others from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

The letter was sent to Amanda Nevill, director of the BFI, and to Anthony Minghella, a well-known film and television writer, director, and producer who is chair of the BFI’s Board of Governors.

Key Player in Film Scholarship
The British Film Institute conducts a broad range of film-related programs: It operates facilities for specialty film exhibitions in London; it maintains a large library of film and film-related texts; it sells DVD’s of films, as well as film clips for use in television
programs, documentaries, and the like; and it publishes about 30 books each year, as well as many teaching resources for use in schools. It also publishes the highly respected monthly, Sight & Sound: The International Film Magazine.

In an interview, Mr. Miller said that the institute “has performed a unique cultural function that goes far outside Britain.”

The letter protesting the planned shift in publications strategy made a similar point, noting that the institute is “the premier source for academic knowledge of the screen in the English language.”

Mr. Miller and his colleagues fear that the institute will sell off its publications division to a large publisher that will weaken the quality of the works produced by the BFI. “A lot of people feel that it’s inevitable they’ll send it away or outsource it,” Mr. Miller said. “Most people think it will be a choice between a small specialty press and a big corporate one. The question is: Will the decision be made on monetary criteria rather than on dedication to the field? It’s my hunch that it will, and that’s the worst-case scenario.”

Giving any control to a larger publisher, such as the two for whom Mr. Miller now edits academic journals, would probably mean “that BFI publications will get swallowed up in a much larger company that will inevitably have a whole set of other imperatives,” he said.

In response, BFI officials imply that Mr. Miller has engaged in harmful fear-mongering. In an e-mail message to film scholars last week, Ms. Nevill encouraged the scholars to consider her account of the BFI’s changes “in advance of your hearing it from other sources.”

Such changes have been in the planning stages since 2003, she said. “We set a new strategic direction — a dynamic, ambitious, and inspiring plan which led to a much-needed increase in funding.” That came, she said, from such sources as exhibiting films in innovative ways to broader audiences, attracting new sponsors for festivals, and building the BFI collections and their public usage.

But the institute still faced budgetary restraints that it could not escape, she said. Those stemmed in part from increased operating costs for such things as utilities and required retirement-plan contributions, but most seriously from four years of flat financial support from the British government, which provides a substantial portion of the institute’s budget.

“Hence,” she wrote, “our critical need to rethink and realign now.”

Among the planned realignments, Ms. Nevill acknowledged, was “to remove BFI Book Publishing from the direct management and responsibility of the BFI.” She added, however, that the BFI would retain “the imprint and close association between BFI books and the overall cultural programme.” The separation, she said, would be accomplished through “a sale, merger, or outsourcing arrangement.”

Among all the changes under discussion, “publishing is causing the most angst,” Nick Mason Pearson, the institute’s director of press and public affairs, said in an interview. The decision to try to find an external publisher that could “take on the costly element of producing books, while we retain scholarly and cultural output of books,” was far from an abandonment of the institute’s publishing record, he said. “We’re not turning our back on publishing books, or on our 250 titles in print. We’re simply seeing how far we can remove the risk involved in terms of costs.”

The institute is seeking a guarantee from potential partners that that will be the case, he said. He added, however, “I can’t hand on heart say we have a cast-iron deal. … That’s what we’re fighting for.”

Lack of Transparency
In their letter, the scholars say that the institute’s administrators fanned their fears by failing to consult them — “the community that helps to commission, evaluate, write, and consume the output of BFI publishing.”

And scholars are not the only ones who have heard little or nothing about the BFI’s plans. The University of California Press distributes BFI’s publications in the United States. Yet the press’s director, Lynne Withey, said she had heard nothing from BFI about any changes. “We have really liked working with them,” she said. “We would be very sorry to lose the connection. We have initiated some communications with them about what the opportunities for us might be.”

Mr. Pearson observed that the response from academics in the United States and elsewhere to the proposed changes has been “gratifying in a slightly obtuse way,” he said. “It shows that the academic community does highly regard BFI’s output.” But the BFI’s administration had not been in a position to consult with those scholars, because it first was canvassing its own staff for ideas on how to optimize the current crisis, he said.

Still, he said, “we are very anxious to assure our existing authors and academic community that we will continue to produce highly academic, really thoughtful imprints, and continue to lead the way, but it will have to be done with an external partner.”

For his part, Mr. Miller is not reassured at all. The institute has engaged in “no proper consultation,” has given “no guarantees of protecting the publishing culture,” nor any good reason for making the changes, he said. There has been, he said, “no sign of any rational evaluation involving experts. It’s just good we and others could raise a voice. There are dozens of e-mails signed by hundreds of people now circulating.”

Echoing those sentiments, another of the signers of Mr. Miller’s original letter, David Theo Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, said Ms. Nevill’s response “does not alleviate the concerns; to some degree, it heightens them.”

Mr. Goldberg said the lack of consultation with the institute’s key constituencies had been “a bit shocking.” And, he added, the proposals signal the institute’s priorities.

“They’re not losing all their funding, and they’re making some choices about what they want to put their funding in,” he said in an interview. “It seems that scholarly archives seem less germane to their future interests than they once were, and they were very central. Our generation of film and cultural studies cut its teeth on the BFI archives.”

For BFI officials “to say they are only doing what they need to do is shirking their responsibility,” Mr. Goldberg said.

Copyright © 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

One thought on “Article in Chronicle of Higher Education

  1. As an ex-BFI staffer the fact that the head of press doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘angst’ doesn’t worry me as much as his admission that the most concentrated response to the effects of the current restructuring proposals has been with regard to their effects on BFI Publishing alone.Amanda Nevill is finishing the job of eviscerating the BFI that she began three years ago with the mass redundancies of skilled archival staff in the NFTVA. For her, the ‘international focus’ is a shallow world of festivals, premieres and parties that can easily do without the hard work and dedication that goes into maintaining an archive and running a cultural organisation.All parts of the proposed restructure and redundancies programme, including its effects on DVD Publishing, the stills library and educational resource publishing, some of the most important parts of the BFI, should be talked about, exposed and campaigned against.

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