Film world at loggerheads over the future of the nation’s unique cinematic heritage
Financial crisis at the British Film Institute that threatens famed archives may be due to 2012 Olympics siphoning off arts funding
By Andrew Johnson
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.”
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