The Kill Bill prank and the BFI boss accused of asset-stripping
Evening Standard, Friday 12 October 2007 The 51st London Film Festival starts next week but there is unrest at the British Film Institute, with director Amanda Nevill under fire over her plans for the nation’s film treasures SOMEONE at the British Film Institute has a dark sense of humour. Copies of a poster for the film Kill Bill were pinned up around the institute’s headquarters, with the sword-wielding Uma Thurman’s face replaced by that of Amanda Nevill, the BFI’s director. According to an insider, the prank was a response to massive staff cuts and grumbles over Ms Nevill’s management style. She ordered a round-up of all the offending posters and a hunt for the perpetrator, not least because the episode touched a raw nerve. Ms Nevill has had to contend with a mounting wall of criticism of late. Her detractors accuse her of tearing the heart out of a revered and unique cultural body. According to one respected documentary maker and academic, her policies at the BFI amount to “asset stripping” the nation’s film treasures. Charges against her include:
• Hiving off the BFI’s publishing arm.
• Moving the institute’s unique collection of stills beyond the reach of all but a few academics.
• Seeking to strip the BFI’s London headquarters of its world-famous library of books and documents. Ms Nevill says she is modernising the BFI and she maintains that she has the staunch support of the chairman, Oscar-winning director, Anthony Minghella. But he is leaving the BFI at the end of the year and the word from inside the organisation is that they are struggling to find a replacement. The perception of trouble at the top of the BFI, in the week before the London Film Festival, has helped foster anxieties about whether the organisation can survive in its present form. “It look like it might be the end of the BFI as we know it,” Michael Chanan, film maker and professor of film and video at Roehampton University said. “If it was a private company you would say they are asset-stripping it.” Professor Chanan headed a list of more than 50 academics and film writers who recently wrote an open letter deploring Ms Nevill’s policy of “realignment”. They called for her plans to be put on hold until the institute’s members, interested parties and the Government can be more fully consulted. Within weeks of this an impassioned letter to Ms Nevill from a former BFI governor and long-standing member, Ray Deahl, was published on the internet. Mr Deahl accused the institute’s management of wasting money on expensive “rebranding” and failing to understand the historic purpose of the institute. He pointed out that recent seasons devoted to Laurence Olivier and Andy Warhol saw Olivier demoted to second place. “If only he’d had the genius to shoot five hours of Hamlet asleep,” Mr Deahl wrote caustically. He accused the BFI Southbank of neglecting silent films, to the extent that the Barbican was now considered the home of silent movies. “It’s not too late to save the day,” he wrote, “but with the clock at one minute to midnight there isn’t much time.” Some fear too much has already happened. Tony Sloman, the film historian, director and critic, had his BF1 membership cancelled after he was involved in an altercation with a manager at the NFT. “He was rusticated,” another long-standing member said. “The row was used as an excuse. The real reason they got him out was because he was a member of the awkward squad.” Mr Sloman said: “I had been a member for nearly 40 years and an elected governor. They barred me from even watching films at the NFT. I only got my membership back after Ken Loach and Lord Attenborough intervened. I thought the action they took was a bit heavy. I used the Data Protection laws to see what documents they kept on me. They had a file on me that wouldn’t disgrace the Stasi. They are spying on anyone who raises their voice in criticism.”
Mr Sloman would be the first to agree that he has a reputation for being a touch prickly, but others talk of a siege atmosphere inside the institute’s headquarters, prompted by disquiet over radical changes. The BFI has hived off its publishing arm to Palgrave MacMillan [sic], it is moving its unique stills collection to a storage unit in Berkhamstead [sic] and it is trying to persuade a university to take its library of books, periodicals and documents including original scripts and letters. The library itself is considered a national treasure. Hand-written notes from David Lean, Charlie Chaplin and Eisenstein are among its rare items.The BFI says it has to move the stills and library because it cannot continue to keep them at its Stephen Street building. The offices were given to the institute by the oil tycoon John Paul Getty II, a devoted film buff. Now, it is said, Nevill and her team are preparing it to be sold off to the highest bidder. “It’s all part of what she calls her ‘vision’,” a well-placed insider said. “They are not interested in the importance of the library to historians and scholars. When the stills go to Berkhamstead it be hard for anyone to get a look at them. God knows what will become of the library and the documents. They just want rid of them so they can pursue some grandiose ambition.” This turns on plans for a new institute to house several national film theatres. The London Development Agency gave the BFI £500,000 to carry out a feasibility study. One site considered is a car park near Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank. Ms Nevill and her team have been told that their plans would cost £200 million. The value of the Stephen Street would be a fraction of this and although the institute might be able to raise a loan against future earnings, no one doubts Government and lottery money would be needed. Would it come? Ms Nevill and the board are hoping for news next week on their appeal for Government cash to save the BFI film archive. They asked for £34 million and another £6 million year to safeguard more than 150,000 films and 600,000 television programmes, believed to be the biggest collection in the world. Four years ago — before Ms Nevill took over — the BFI was accused by the National Audit Office of allowing the archive to rot. Older film made with nitrate is considered dangerous because it can spontaneously combust and the institute has consigned it to a Cold War nuclear missile silo in Gaydon, Oxfordshire. Newer film is held at Berkhamstead but neither place is considered suitable. The BFI wants Government money to build modern storage facilities with refrigeration to stop the reels disintegrating. Arts secretary James Purnell has made reassuring noises but nothing has been promised yet. Stephen Frears, Oscar-nominated director of The Queen and a BFI governor said: “The BFI is underfunded. That is the issue. More importantly, the archive is underfunded. That’s to do with films decaying and that’s a serious problem.” Ms Nevill’s supporters say she is desperately trying to cope with a money crisis. The institute’s £16 million-a-year grant from the Film Council has been frozen for four years, and with increasing demands from the Olympics budget no one expects much improvement. BFI governor Leslie Hardcastle said “Yes, there is conflict but the fact is Amanda is struggling. The Angel Gabriel would come in for stick trying to do what she does. There is a very important issue here: do we want to preserve this important part of the nation’s heritage or not? If we do, it will cost money. I believe there would be no problem if we were dealing with books or paintings but government has always had difficulty seeing the cultural importance of film.” Ms Nevill’s critics agree that lack of funding has not helped but some question the use of resources. Revamping the NFT site and rebranding it as BFI Southbank cost more than £5 million and the project ran a third over budget Critics say money was wasted on consultants and image makers, while scant thought was given to the fact that plans for a tramway on Waterloo Bridge overhead in 2012 will render the site useless for the purpose of showing films. Ms Nevill was brought in to run the BFI four years ago after a successful stint at a museum and photography archive in Bradford. At the time, the institute was under fire for allowing its film archive to deteriorate. Ms Nevill claims she has reversed that situation. “We have taken the archive out of danger,” she said. Certainly if the rescue plan she devised is given the money it needs, the immediate threats to the mainly older film will ease. But what about moving the stills and possibly the library out of London? She accepts that access to the stills will be restricted at Berkhamstead, but she defends handing over the publishing arm: “Palgrave MacMillan can invest money in books and authors that we could never find,” she said. “We have a joint editorial board and books that should be published will be published.” She says her aim is to create a modern film centre where the archive, stills and library can be housed and accessed under one roof. Her vision is of an iconic building incorporating a number of national film theatres and anciliary facilities. No one doubts such a major project would benefit London but is it realisable? Ms Nevill says it is, if she can find £200 million. Her critics say she is pursuing a dream that is unlikely to be fulfilled and she should concentrate on preserving great cinema and its history. Meanwhile, the prankster who doctored the Uma Thurman posters has been identified as a male member of the library staff. What will happen to him? “Nothing,” Ms Nevill said breezily “We do have a sense of humour, you know”