‘It’s curious,” Amanda Nevill, director of the British Film Institute, tells me. “There’s been lots of talk this week about how negatively middle-aged women are portrayed in film.” She pauses for effect: “Well, I’m a middle-aged woman.”
Indeed. It was her 54th birthday last week, as a gift of white orchids in her office attests. Ironically, from today Nevill becomes the British film industry’s most influential figure, as head of a newly expanded BFI that has absorbed some of the staff and functions of the now-deceased UK Film Council – including the distribution of lottery funds for film production.
Nevill is not the only woman on top in this rebooted BFI, now Britain’s leading film body. Four of her five senior staff were already women (including London Film Festival director Sandra Hebron) – and among the most high-profile of 44 arrivals from the UKFC are Tanya Seghatchian and Lizzie Francke from its Film Fund. “They’re all formidable,” Nevill says of her colleagues. “I haven’t deliberately gone out to recruit women. It just happened that way.”
Gender issues aside, her rise is remarkable. She totally lacks film-biz brashness; in manner, she is thoughtful, articulate and a good listener, with a consensual management style.
The BFI, now in its 78th year, has spent the past decade in the shadow of the UKFC, a body that sprang from the Blair government’s fascination with Cool Britannia and the capacity for our creative industries to make serious money for the nation.
The UKFC was a very New Labour quango – confident, metropolitan, well-connected in government, intrigued by cinema’s economic potential and faintly dismissive of old-school notions about the cultural value of film. Still, it helped professionalise and energise Britain’s film industry, and funded several worthwhile films, as well as some dreadful ones.
The BFI, in contrast, was venerated but somewhat sleepy. Its National Film Theatre, a refuge for older film buffs, seemed incapable of embracing wider audiences. It had a valuable archive and comprehensive if ageing library and research facilities. Its London Film Festival was worthy but under-achieving. Generally, it seemed in a rut.
Nevill became BFI director in 2003, having previously headed what is now the National Media Museum in Bradford. This Yorkshire woman was regarded as an outsider, and hardly any match for John Woodward, the UKFC’s shrewd, politically savvy chief executive.
“My first two or three years here were really tough,” she recalls. “I can remember for the first time in my life thinking I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and it would defeat me.”
Instead, she has discreetly revolutionised the institute. The National Film Theatre was rebranded BFI Southbank, and has become a vibrant, lively audience magnet without compromising the quality of the films it offers. Its Imax cinema at Waterloo is one of the world’s highest-grossing screens. Its archive enjoys a higher public profile. The BFI offers a ravishing DVD collection, especially strong on older British documentaries.
These are reasons why the BFI enjoys widespread public affection. But the UK Film Council, though respected within the film industry, drew criticism for the high salaries of its top executives and for some of the films it chose to fund (infamously, Sex Lives of the Potato Men, back in 2004).
Last summer, the new Coalition government decided this was a quango it could not stomach, and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt abruptly, perhaps over-hastily, announced its abolition.
Ironically, the UKFC had latterly improved its criteria for funding films, and its greatest triumph arrived after its death sentence was announced. The King’s Speech, which neither Film Four nor (astonishingly) BBC Films saw fit to support, would never have been made without the UKFC’s financial backing.
It became a multiple Oscar winner and a huge worldwide success, grossing $135 million in America alone. And a hefty portion of its net profits will now return to… the BFI.
When I observe to Nevill that the new BFI would find the equivalent of a King’s Speech every year hugely helpful, she says: “It wouldn’t be bad. But I would never want recoupment to be a motivation for what we invest in. Recoupment is the result of making good investments. It mustn’t be the motivation.”
This is less high-minded than it sounds. It’s easy to categorise the BFI as a body that supports films of cultural importance, while the UKFC sought out potential hits, but Nevill insists: “There’s a false dichotomy between commercial and cultural. They’re completely symbiotic. I don’t believe there’s a filmmaker out there who doesn’t want to make a film that’s so compelling that it sets the world alight and makes people want to see it. In other words, it becomes commercial.”
This suggests the films to be funded by the new BFI may not look that different from before: there should be support for work by auteurs such as Terence Davies (shunned for years by the UKFC, but belatedly acknowledged and subsidised) and, on the other hand, backing for mainstream British crowd-pleasers such as Made in Dagenham. Still, the occasional King’s Speech would help a new BFI faced with cuts. Half the Film Council’s staff have been discarded; the BFI’s budget is being slashed by 20 per cent and 70 posts are being lost.
Nevill ticks off the cuts the public will notice, including further downsizing of the Edinburgh Film Festival, maybe fewer DVD releases, and the BFI’s research library’s switch to the Southbank, where, run by a smaller staff, it enters a digitised era.
She refuses to be demoralised by cuts: “We have to start inventing the new, let go of the past, move away fast from this reshuffle and get a sense of liberation. We determined that we’d be smaller, but we’d be world-class and uphold the quality of what we do.”
Is anything especially on her mind at the moment? “How to connect bigger audiences, particularly outside London, with a wider diversity of films?” She shrugs. “We have to try.” With her track record, you wouldn’t bet against her.