An article about the BFI’s crisis and the state of British film culture has appeared in this week’s Time Out. Amanda Nevill’s dismissal of the concerns expressed by stakeholders, and her other comments, are illuminating. The article’s characterisation of resistance to her plans as ‘conservative’, and its enthusiastic support for the London Film Festival, could also raise the odd eyebrow. The failure to adequately consider or represent the diverse views of the people who use and value the integrated services of the BFI seems to be systemic.
by Dave Calhoun and Ben Walters
Time Out no 1929, 8-14 August 2007
Twenty-five miles from London, on the outskirts of the Hertfordshire commuter town of Berkhamsted, stands an eclectic bunch of buildings that look like they might once have housed a temporary RAF base or a secret code-busting operation during WWII. It’s here on this site, which mixes an appearance of light industry with an air of academia and technical expertise, that you’ll find the National Film & Television Archive. You might not have heard of this 72-year-old institution which, unlike its printed-word counterpart, the British Library, doesn’t have a strong public profile. Yet last month in Parliament new Culture Secretary James Purnell boldly declared `the BFI archive is a national treasure. It is arguably the finest film and television archive anywhere in the world… It is safe in our hands’. It was an assurance that many who are aware of the rocky history of this great British institution will believe only when they see the archive refurbished, replenished and renewed with their own eyes.
This unrivalled collection of film prints and other important movie materials – such as the private collections of directors David Lean and Derek Jarman – is our film and television heritage made real in the London suburbs and, with a horrible predictability, it’s been under threat from a lack of cash for years. The archive is a fascinating place to visit. One building houses a comprehensive collection of commercially redundant video-playback machines, which are essential for transferring old video to new digital tapes for storage and making them available to such outlets as the Mediatheque at the BFI Southbank. On Time Out‘s visit, ITV’s news coverage of the first Gulf War was being transferred bulletin by bulletin.
Nearby, another building, accessible via an airlock and security door, houses three 650-squaremetre vaults that rise ten metres into the air. They contain row after row of film cans stored in a climate of 5°C and 35 per cent humidity-advantageous conditions for slowing down the inevitable decay of film stock. The archive is home to 250,000 cans – the world’s largest collection – of nitrate film, notoriously unstable footage that can burst into flames that burn underwater; a nitrate fire killed 180 people at an early Lumiere brothers show. Most of the BFI’s nitrate material is kept in limestone quarries in Warwickshire – `it’s better to store it away from masses of humans,’ explains senior preservation manager Andrea Kalas. In the 1970s, vast amounts of footage were transferred from nitrate to acetate-based `safety’ film which has since proved alarmingly prone to a less dangerous but equally ruinous process of `vinegarisation’. Elsewhere, a white-coated preservation was examining critical scratches on a delicate roll of film that contains footage of Sir Henry Seagrave attempting to break the water speed record on Lake Windermere in 1930 and crashing to his death.
It’s a sparse, specialist environment, peopled by staff fondly described by one BFI representative as `loonies’ for their passion, expertise and long service. Berkhamsted houses 50,000 fiction features, 100,000 non-fiction works and 625,000 TV programmes. Getting the material into the public domain is central to the archive’s values: it was here, for example, that the Mitchell and Kenyon films of Edwardian life were restored so that they could play to more than 4 million BBC viewers in 2005. But a paucity of funds means that about half of the collection is currently unviewable by staff while roughly a quarter of all material held is awaiting formal acceptance into the archive. In truth, the staff here can only dream of the work they need to carry out. This has not gone unnoticed by government: in 2003, the National Audit Office condemned the BFI, which manages and funds the Archive, for leaving films to rot on its shelves.
The Berkhamsted facility is closed to the public and rarely accessible to anyone other than its 100 or so staff, but its work is crucial to anyone who cares about the past, present and future of a cinematic culture in Britain. Nowhere else in this country is there an independent body responsible for the collection and preservation of film material at a national level. Without such an archive, the survival of films would be left to the vagaries of private owners and film companies, neither of whom have the expertise or the will to ensure we don’t lose for ever key titles in our film history. The current annual budget for the BFI archive is £3.5 million. (The British Library’s is more than £100m.) The BFI is now seeking an annual budget of £6m, with an additional one-off grant from government of £34m to bring the storage conditions up to scratch and begin digitisation. Digitisation is not, however, a holy grail – there’s no guarantee that the format will prove any more durable than celluloid-nor is it cheap. An average feature costs around £8,000 to transfer; a Technicolor film requiring restoration work might come in at 20 times that. `If you were just digitising things to look at them on YouTube, you could find a way to do it cheaply,’ says Kalas. `But if you want to make sure that in 100 years people can see The Red Shoes on the big screen, it’s important to do it right.’
Sources at the top of the BFI are confident that Purnell and his colleagues are committed to increased funding for the archive and an announcement is expected later this year. But the debate over its future is only one aspect of a wider argument relating to film in this country. The BFI is itself at a moment of crisis and never before has its role in our culture been so uncertain.
Charged, since its inception in 1933, with a broad remit to champion film culture throughout the UK, the BFI is predominantly dependent on government money. Generally recognised to have been underfunded for decades, its situation has not improved since it was removed from direct ministerial accountability and placed under the governance of the UK Film Council (UKFC) in 2000. The UKFC’s overall strategy is heavily geared towards optimising conditions for the commercial success of the British film industry – a privileging of profit and `sustainability’ many consider to be at odds with the cultural role of the BFI. One British filmmaker we interviewed pointedly described the relationship of the BFI to the UKFC as that of `servant and master’.
Since 2003, the UKFC’s grant has been frozen, as has the proportion passed on to the BFI. According to UKFC chief executive John Woodward, that sum – around £16 million – constitutes `almost 70 per cent of the total grant in aid money we receive from the government and the single largest funding award we make’. But it’s less than the BFI got in 1997 and, given inflation, represents a year-on-year decline that has effectively removed its ability to continue functioning in its present manner. `From where I’m sitting,’ BFI director Amanda Nevill said last month at the BFI’s Stephen Street headquarters, `the status quo is a great way to ensure the organisation dies.’
These chronic concerns have been compounded recently by more acute problems stemming from shoring-up measures taken by BFI management. `We have to make changes,’ Nevill insists. The announcement in May that a commercial partner was being sought to take over the running of BFI Publishing and DVD distribution met with protest from film researchers and academics, as well as complaints from within Stephen Street.
According to Nevill – who took charge in 2003 after overseeing the revamp of the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford – the roots of the BFI’s troubles are multiple. Firstly, she suggests, `film has always been a poor cousin of lots of other cultural things; secondly, film is a much more complex heritage to look after because it deteriorates very, very fast; and thirdly, possibly we haven’t made our case strongly enough in the past.’ The problem the BFI faces, she says, is that `you don’t have the option of only fighting on one front. There’s no way you’re going to lie down and say “Okay, we’ll prioritise the archive and let the National Film Theatre close”. It’s just not going to happen.’
It’s around this issue of joined-upness, however, that Nevill and the rest of the BFI management have faced the most vociferous criticism. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith ran the BFI’s education department from 1978 to 1980, after which he headed BFI Publishing for a decade. Now based at the history faculty of Queen Mary College, University of London, he is researching the Institute’s relations with government and national film culture throughout its existence. While reluctant to discuss specific management actions, Nowell-Smith is emphatic about the long-term value of this integration. `For over 50 years,’ he says, `the BFI has been the envy of the world because of the unique way it houses such a range of film-cultural activities under one roof. Historically, all the parts have been able to contribute to a whole that is greater than any of them. This still happens, but less and less. Just as the rest of the world is beginning to catch up – look at the new Cinematheque in Paris – financial pressures seem to be driving the BFI in the opposite direction.’
The proposed hiving-off of BFI Publishing provoked particular anger at both the institute’s strategy and its tactics – the idea that the department’s work could be achieved outside the context of the BFI and the fact that the move was announced rather than proposed for discussion. A letter to the Times Higher Educational Supplement signed by 48 academics – 42 from overseas – cited BFI Publishing’s `unique contribution to the study of film and television around the globe’; a similar letter to the Guardian expressed the concern of 58 academics.
Nevill, however, is unmoved. `Go back and analyse who these people are. It’s a very small number of people… saying a small number of things because they’ve decided to.’ There is, however, low morale within Stephen Street as well. One insider described widespread concern at `a lack of ideas and a lack of leadership’ as well as indifference to views from below. For example, an email address to which employees were encouraged to send suggestions regarding the realignment process was later discovered to be defunct.
The financial straits of the past decade have seen once-pivotal BFI activities, such as education, almost squeezed out while the Institute’s attempt to carve itself a market niche has not proved a resounding success. The cultural remit of the IMAX has never been clear. The disappointing performance of BFI Trading, an internal grouping set up in 2005 to enhance the revenue from Publishing and DVD sales, partly contributed to the realignment strategy – the BFI’s own figures suggest that such areas in fact generated more income before Trading was established. Nevill refutes this. `It’s not market failure. We shouldn’t be using taxpayers’ money… if somebody else could do it without using public funds.’ So the commercial performance of BFI Trading isn’t a factor in looking for an outside commercial partner for Publishing? `No, it isn’t.’
Questions have also been asked over the ploughing of more than £5m into the redevelopment of the NFT as BFI Southbank, which opened earlier this year. The revamp was one of Nevill’s top priorities – the old NFT, she felt, was `a very tired environment’ representative of `a model where we, the clever BFI, chose the films… and you lucky beggars would come along and pay your money for what we’ve chosen and sit in the dark and enjoy it.’ Now, she suggests, people expect a more `bespoke’ experience. `We needed to create some sort of test bed to reawaken the public’s consciousness of what they were missing, and that’s how BFI Southbank was launched.’ Perhaps the most successful of the redeveloped site’s new features is the Mediatheque, the free online portal to thousands of hours of digitised archive material whose 17 computer terminals attract almost 3,000 users a month.
It gives an exciting taster of what a truly revolutionised cinematheque could offer – and this is the BFI’s aspiration. BFI Southbank was only ever intended as a stopgap, as the planned Waterloo tramline will make the site under the bridge unusable by 2012. The long-term plan is for a National Film Centre, perhaps between the Hungerford Bridge and the London Eye, which would house not just the contents of the Southbank complex but parts of the archive and the BFI Library – home to more than 50,000 books related to film and television, and another department whose future has been under debate. Acknowledging declining user numbers, Nevill nonetheless insists the BFI Library’s future is secure, dismissing what she calls `mad rumours’ about selling it off. `One of the ways we are seeking to get more investment and arrest the decline,’ she adds, `is to enter into a partnership with higher education and universities’- a partnership that would be particularly useful should the valuable Stephen Street site be sold and the library need housing before any National Film Centre might be built. And that’s a big if. The centre would require funding of at least £150m from `the normal cocktail of sources: government, Lottery, private fundraising and some of our own assets. It’s ambitious,’ Nevill acknowledges, `but I don’t see why we should be less ambitious for film than anything else.’ Certainly, the idea of a cathedral to film to stand alongside the National Gallery or the British Museum is an inspirational one. `The problem,’ according to one experienced sceptic, `is that it requires money that isn’t there, and there’s no reason to think it will be.’ A former BFI governor describes it as `worrying’ that the BFI is looking for approximately £150 million at the same time as seeking a lump sum to restore the archive.
Might a new BFI chairman help? Anthony Minghella is expected to leave the post at the end of this year. There is the hope that a new chair might have more commercial and cultural clout and there are those within the BFI who look with envy at such figures as Sir Nicholas Serota at the Tate and Lord Hollick at Southbank Centre, who both oversaw costly regeneration projects.
What’s without doubt is that change is coming and necessary. For some of the BFI’s most loyal supporters, any change may be difficult to stomach, and there’s a conservatism present in some of the criticism of the institute that may prove counter-productive: a piece by Colin MacCabe in the Observer last month raised crucial points regarding the organisation’s relationship with the government and UKFC but failed to make progressive suggestions for the future. If such thinkers are perceived by organisations like the UKFC as old-fashioned and obstructive, it will make the path to a transformed BFI a rocky one.
One area of energetic discussion that suggests a positive debate is possible is the BFI’s successful annual London Film Festival (LFF). The Greater London Authority is keen to see the festival become competitive and occupy more London venues. Andrew Eaton – Michael Winterbottom’s producing partner and deputy chair of the UKFC – suggested to us that the festival should be dragged out of the gloom of October and given more prominence in June. There are some who think it should be taken off the BFI entirely. Pleasingly, no one to whom we spoke could envisage an LFF without its current and exceptional cultural value, based on strong programming. This level of debate – radical and open-minded – may prove a fitting model as the BFI enters this critical stage.
What might be troubling, and perhaps confusing, to outsiders is how this crisis in our film culture conflicts with the profitability of our film industry. Last year, according to recent UKFC figures, the British film industry contributed £l.l billion to the Exchequer in tax revenues. Why, then, does the UKFC not appear to be shouting as loudly and publicly about the challenges facing the BFI as about, say, the success of `Harry Potter’?
`Arts cash crisis’ is a familiar headline, but British cinema culture finds itself at an important juncture today. The question of whether film is an art or an industry is perennial, but the stakes have never been higher. Do we continue to judge the `health’ of our national cinematic life on box office figures and awards? Or do we acknowledge that film heritage is an entirely different arena to what we call the film industry, and afford it the same respect as we do galleries and museums? `Film is not a Rembrandt,’ says Kalas. `It’s not the Magna Carta. It doesn’t have that cultural gravitas for most people. But when I look at a Mitchell and Kenyon negative, or the original of the first time Charlie Chaplin ever appeared on a film, I feel that way. And I think other people do too, when they understand how precious – and how temporary – it can be.’