Amanda Nevill is fighting for British film
Evening Standard 03.09.10
For Amanda Nevill, director of the British Film Institute, it is the best of times and the worst of times. After seven years in the job, she is gearing up for the 54th London Film Festival. The annual event goes from strength to strength: ticket sales of more than 124,000 last year were “almost at capacity” and this year LFF director Sandra Hebron has secured the hotly-anticipated Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation Never Let Me Go, and Danny Boyle’s latest film 127 Hours, for the opening and closing galas. The rest of the programme, likely to equal or exceed last year’s record of 193 feature films from 46 countries and 15 world premieres, will be announced next Wednesday.
Nevill, who is 53 and a glass-half-full person, is “fantastically excited” about the festival. It is a huge public event for London cinephiles, a chance for “more challenging” or obscure films to find audiences and distributors, and “a way of flying the flag for the film industry in this country”.
She is also excited about the fact that Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has told her, in writing, that the £15 million allocated annually from the Lottery to fund British film, and the tax breaks for inward investment in movie-making in the UK, are secure for the next year.
But the glass is also half empty. The body which has, until now, administered that £15 million, the UK Film Council, will be axed in 2012 in the Government’s bonfire of the quangos. Its role as a funder, co-producer and international promoter of film was always separate from the BFI’s role as curator of the nation’s cinematic heritage. Indeed, the Film Council also used to administer the BFI’s annual £16 million grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
But since the announcement of the Council’s demise, there’s been speculation that the BFI will have to take over the whole show. Meanwhile, the BFI has lost £45 million pledged by the last government, and £5 million from the Mayor’s office, to kick-start the building of a state-of-the art, £166 million film centre for London to replace the decrepit BFI Southbank under Waterloo Bridge. And like all other publicly funded organisations, the BFI is being asked by the Government to come up with a business plan for the next four years based on a likely cut of between 25 and 30 per cent of its funding.
To put matters into perspective, the BFI earns an estimated £1.50 for every pound of its £16 million annual grant, but that grant has been at a standstill for six years. The organisation has the equivalent of 380 full-time staff nationwide, about 100 fewer than it did seven years ago. With inflation and pension liability, it faces a reduction in its operating budget of between £6 million and £7 million over four years: redundancies and a further scaling-back of BFI activities are inevitable. The sums involved are crucial but, in world film terms, tiny — for perspective, consider the budget for Christopher Nolan’s cerebro-blockbuster Inception: £129 million. But as I say, Nevill is an optimist. So we start off with the good news.
As she points out, the beauty of The BFI London Film Festival, this year in partnership with American Express, is that it is a public event, unlike Cannes or Venice, or London Fashion Week. It’s a celebration first and a marketplace second, and therefore presents a mix of films “which are more getatable, as well as films that you would not otherwise see in this country, and work by established film-makers who are doing something different”. The opening and closing gala films are cases in point.
The wistful coming-of-age drama Never Let Me Go, although directed by American Mark Romanek, is “British film-making at its best”, with a cast including Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield.
“There’s something in the DNA of British actors, the Shakespearean tradition, the understanding of timing, and an ability to bring real subtlety to a role, that is unique,” says Nevill. “The cinematography by Adam Kimmell is amazing, and the way it tells an understated but devastating story in film —which is an in-your face medium — is beautifully done.”
On the other hand, 127 Hours shows “a great British director with a huge history trying something different”. Directed by Danny Boyle, and in inverse proportion to the huge casts and spectacle of Slumdog Millionaire and his forthcoming opening ceremony for the Olympics, it tells the story of climber Aron Ralston, who was trapped by a rock in a canyon while mountaineering in Utah and had to sever his own arm with a penknife to survive.
It sounds a bit like the decisions facing the British film industry. Understandably, Nevill doesn’t want to comment on the rights or wrongs of axing the Film Council. British film is a small world. But she insists the BFI will not seek to take over the Film Council’s £15 million funding budget: she expects that the Arts Council, “which has the mechanisms in place and can minimise overheads”, will fill that breach instead. “I don’t think it’s our role to be a distributor of Lottery funds,” she says, “but we definitely want to be closely involved with some of the things those funds end up funding.”
As Nevill points out, the BFI runs cinemas, mounts festivals, distributes films and DVDs around the country, puts film online and has a strong record in education, promotion and publishing. It makes an estimated 12,000 films available to audiences across the country, in various media, every year. Access to BFI screenings, in the festival and year-round, is open to everyone but the organisation is currently engaged on a drive to swell the ranks of its devoted membership, who enjoy many fringe benefits. “The BFI is a very powerfully vertically integrated cultural entity in the context of film, with huge expertise,” she says.
Recently the organisation has been particularly active in digitising material and putting it online. Nevill points out that digital technology has democratised film-making by making it cheaper and easier but damaged the idea of watching film in cinemas “as a congregational experience”, which is a core strut of the BFI’s cultural remit. Currently cinema audiences are up — a movie is a cheap treat in a recession — but she believes some picturehouses will close, and those that remain will have to “make the film-going experience fabulous”. These are some of the many conundrums in an uncertain future landscape.
The forthcoming cuts are likely to be so savage, she says, that hardly any area of BFI activity is safe: not digitisation, not DVD distribution, not Sight and Sound magazine. But then, everyone is in the same boat, and as her chairman Greg Dyke told her: “We’ve just got to get on with it.”
The setback to the film centre, designed to be a practical home for glitzy premieres as well as the BFI’s core activities, is particularly galling, though. Nevill acknowledges that it’s hard to argue for a cinema when hospitals and schools aren’t being built, “but it’s not a vanity project”.
Britain has admirable institutions dedicated to art, theatre, opera and music but BFI Southbank, formerly known as the National Film Theatre, was built under a bridge in the Fifties. A sewer runs under it, traffic runs over it, and it leaks. It will have to close for three weeks later this year to replace air-chillers installed in 1957. These should have lasted only 10 years but they’ve been endlessly patched and fixed and are only coming out now because they are illegal. Nevill reckons the BFI could raise £72 million from the sale of its Stephen Street headquarters (which was a gift from John Paul
Getty II) and fundraising. But that wouldn’t even pay for the replacement of the Waterloo Bridge facilities. So they are looking at the possibility of a scaled-down film centre, or a phased build of a bigger one. Interest has currently been withdrawn from the preferred site, a car park next to Jubilee Gardens and the London Eye.
At least the BFI’s peerless but imperilled collection of fragile, decaying film stock will soon be safe, stored and frozen in a new vault near Birmingham which was commissioned and paid for before the crash.
“We either do something about the film centre now or bequeath the problem to the next generation,” she says, “and I am keen to get it resolved on my watch.” Born in Yorkshire — she still has a house near Howarth — and mother of two adult daughters, Neville describes herself as a “sticker”.
She came to the BFI after consecutive nine-year stints running the Royal Photographic Society and the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television in Bradford. And she has no plans to step down from her current post anytime soon, although her reign has not all been smooth sailing. Together with her previous chairman, the late Anthony Minghella, Nevill has modernised and streamlined the BFI. She also faced intense criticism from some quarters over access to the archive and dumbing down.
“But that dynamic, of debate and argument, is the lifeblood of an organisation like the BFI,” she says. “One of our sponsors told me that if he could bottle the passion in this organisation, he’d be running the top-rated company in the world.”
Arguably, an organisation infused with passion will be better equipped to knuckle down and deal with the hardships ahead in a creative way.
“We are going to be living in a very different world, and everybody is affected,” says Nevill.
“But I’ve said to my staff and the board that we will look back in five years’ time and see that this period was the making of some organisations. And the BFI is going to be in that category.”