BFI Heads Ben Roberts and Harriet Finney Talk ‘Screen Culture 2033’ – The Hamden Journal

The British Film Institute today launched Screen Culture 2033, a 10-year vision for the UK’s screen industries alongside a three-year funding plan, the first strategic budget set by chief executive Ben Roberts.

Roberts was named BFI CEO in February 2020, having led the BFI’s Film Fund for six years and served as deputy CEO for a further two. Almost instantly, he was charged with leading the organization’s response to COVID-19, a gigantic task undoubtedly complicated by near-constant political instability in Westminster. During his two-year stint, Roberts has seen four culture ministers, under two Prime Ministers, and even a change of Monarch, which delayed the release of Screen 2033.

On the numbers side, the BFI has set an annual budget of £45 million ($49 million) or £136 million ($150 million) over the first three years of the strategic plan, which is a dip of around 10% from the previous three-year period under the last funding plan, BFI2022.

Of these funds, £54 million ($59 million) will be available to filmmakers through the BFI National Lottery Filmmaking Fund, BFI Network, and the National Lottery Creative Challenge Fund, a new funding strand for what the BFI has described as “risk-taking creative storytelling.” £34.2 million will be spent across education and skills programs, £27.6 million for audience development, £10 million for screen heritage work, £7.3 million on innovation and industry services, and £3.2 million for international activity.

These figures are accompanied by a series of longer-term pledges shaped less by filmmaking and filmmakers but instead focused on audience engagement, screen education, and emerging technologies. These pledges include the creation of a tiered BFI membership that will band together access to Sight and Sound, BFI Southbank, BFI IMAX, and BFI+, a re-vamped streaming service launched out of BFI Player. The BFI will seek to fund the streaming service through a significant one-off investment.

“We think it can be more than just the Player,” Roberts told The Hamden Journal shortly before the strategy launch. “So that switch from Player to Plus, which feels kind of arbitrary, actually speaks to a broader ambition to have more of the BFI’s cultural program and cultural assets online.”

BFI+ will be the cornerstone of the BFI’s long-term “digital-first” approach, which will steer everything the organization does, including, curiously, film acquisitions.

“I think there’s an opportunity for us to look at our acquisitions policy to make sure we’re continuing to offer something new to digital audiences,” Roberts said. “And I think Player has a role to play in creating more of an audience for British independent film because that market is challenged.”

Screen 2033 also identifies how the BFI aims to update its production funds in the future. Traditionally, BFI National Lottery funding has focused primarily on film. But Screen Culture 2033 notes that the organization believes it may have a role in video game production as well as interactive and immersive technologies and television.

“With national lottery funding, you have to think about whether there is a public benefit,” said Harriet Finney, BFI Deputy CEO. “We need to be very careful about how we support a maturing form, like video games, but there certainly is a role for us.”

Below, we go in-depth on Screen Culture 2033 with Roberts and Finney, who discuss the decisions behind their funding plans. The pair also provide an update on the BFI London Film Festival. The BFI is currently searching for a new model to fund the festival, which has traditionally received money through corporate sponsorship and a small amount of National Lottery funding called Section 27, which is set to end after this year’s edition of the festival.

DEADLINE: In Screen Culture 2033 the BFI cites recent challenges in public sector funding. What exact challenges are you referring to?

HARRIET FINNEY: The relationship the industry has with the government couldn’t be better. The government understands the value of the screen sector. The fact that we doubled in size in the last six years and contributed hugely to economic growth and jobs across the UK. But there have been decades of pressure on cultural organizations, and that’s not something that’s remotely unique to us. It’s coming across the entire cultural sector. Public funding is permanently under pressure. You just have to read the papers and the speeches to know public funding will continue to be under pressure. 

DEADLINE: To be specific, has government funding gone up or down?

FINNEY: It’s flat.

DEADLINE: So in real terms, that means it’s going down?

FINNEY:  It has, in real terms. There have been quite significant cuts or reductions over the past decade because there have been some periods where you have inflation, but some periods where it’s been flat.

DEADLINE: It has been a very turbulent few years with Brexit and multiple general elections. We have a new prime minister and culture secretary. How does that impact the BFI’s work?

BEN ROBERTS: We’re in a good constructive conversation with the government as a sector. Throughout the challenges of COVID, we worked closely with the government to secure the recovery packages for the sector, including the cultural recovery fund and the production restart scheme. Screen culture showed its value during lockdowns in terms of how important it was for people to be comforted, informed, entertained, and supported through information and entertainment delivered through their screens. So we’re not in any kind of philosophical argument with the government about the value of what we do well. 

DEADLINE: But still, there has been much talk and evidence of ‘culture wars’ from the most recent government. As CEO of the BFI, to what extent has that been unhelpful to what you’re doing?’

ROBERTS Honestly, I don’t think it is impacting us. I’d be prepared to say if it was. I think we share lots of the government’s priorities around improving access. From a programming perspective, we are very open about who’s making and watching films, and that’s probably what might lead us into conversations about cultural wars or wokeness. If you’re a cultural organization, you just have to take that on the chin now.

DEADLINE: Can you tell me about BFI+ and what that’s going to be? 

ROBERTS: When BFI Player was established a decade ago as part of Film Forever, it was intended as a platform for a program of digitizing screen heritage content that we were doing. And that version of the player was built with very limited resources. Over this last decade, lots of things have happened. Firstly, streaming as a practice for audiences has grown immeasurably. And for us, incrementally, it started to serve more of a purpose as a streaming service. We still weren’t throwing bags of resources at it. Then lockdown hit, and within weeks we had to move Flare, our LGBTQ+ festival, onto Player. We subsequently ran numerous editions of our festivals, including LFF, on Player. And we migrated a number of major programs and seasons like Japan 2020 onto Player. As a result, I think two things happened. One, our subscriber base grew. More people engaged with it and stuck with it, so we saw that it was a valuable source of income generation for us, and culturally, it served our mission of reaching beyond London and the Southbank. But we also recognized the functional limitations.

We think it can be more than just a Player. So that switch from Player to Plus, which feels kind of arbitrary, actually speaks to a broader ambition to have more of the BFI’s cultural program and cultural assets online. We’ve got 90 years of writing through Sight and Sound. We’ve got paper collections in the archives and program notes. So we think the experience you could have as someone who likes BFI Player and likes the BFI could be infinitely better and equally enjoyed wherever you are in the UK initially and, hopefully, overseas if we invest in this strategy. 

DEADLINE: How will BFI+ affect the BFI’s distribution and acquisition plans?

ROBERTS: Our distribution label traditionally deals with re-releases of classic films that might chime with parts of our program. So we recently re-released The Big City as part of our Satyajit Ray season. We do that quite a lot, but we’ve also increasingly been there to support new independent films, particularly British independent films, where there is room for us to contribute something to that market. Two recent examples would be After Love and Bait. Our distribution has always been principally theatrical, Blu-Ray and DVD. We still have a thriving Blu-Ray and DVD market rather like Criterion, but we’ve also seen that there’s a huge audience for those films on Player. So I think there’s an opportunity for us to look at our acquisitions policy to make sure we’re continuing to offer something new to digital audiences. And I think Player has a role to play in creating more of an audience for British independent film because that market is challenged. 

DEADLINE: How is LFF doing financially? 

ROBERTS: The festival has never been of a higher profile or a greater value to UK audiences and the international film industry. We’ve got more premieres this year than ever before. Last year was a reset at the Southbank Centre, which transformed the festival’s profile and gave it additional visibility in the capital, and the industry loved it. People said it felt like we now had our version of the Palais or the Lido because it’s easy to navigate, and there’s a grandness to it. The current funding model is at the end of its cycle. We’re pretty clear that in order to continue to grow our ambitions for the festival across public programs and the industry program, we have to establish a new funding model for the festival. We’re currently discussing what the mix of government funding, support from the industry, sponsorship, and commercial activity will be. We feel that festivals remain vitally important in the landscape. Venice is doing a lot to profile new work this year. Festivals are back, so we’ve just gotta make sure we’ve got a long-term sustainable funding plan. 

DEADLINE: Why is the Section 27 funding the BFI was accessing now unsuitable? 

FINNEY: So all lottery funding is time-limited and project-based. Over the past few years, we’ve been granted time-limited funding to deliver specific new elements to the festival. And that time-limited funding has come to an end. So this will be the last festival delivered under Section 27. 

DEADLINE: So you only have one year to figure out how the festival can continue?

ROBERTS: Yes, but just to be clear, it’s not a surprise to us. We knew the Section 27 funding would come to an end. Your question was: how is LFF doing financially? At the moment, it’s incredibly valuable for the BFI. It’s a cornerstone of all our cultural program activities. It also underpins a lot of our other activities and income across membership and sponsorship. We have no doubt that we’ll find the correct model for it. It’s also about the balance of that model. And we feel that increased industry engagement with the festival is an area where we want to grow our conversation about support at the BFI. 

DEADLINE: Screen 2033 says the BFI will increasingly look into using lottery money to fund interactive works, video games, and television. What will this entail?

FINNEY: With national lottery funding, you have to think about whether there is a public benefit. We need to be very careful about how we support a maturing form, like video games, but there certainly is a role for us. In the beginning, in terms of the lottery strategy with video games, we will be thinking about where we can naturally add value, which will be policy, research, and evidence-led.

DEADLINE: Screen 2033 also says the BFI plans to increase co-productions. What regions are you looking to bolster? 

FINNEY: Europe is still our closest partner, and co-production is still vital. We’re working in a new international context. We’ve recently done trade delegations to Nigeria, for example, thinking hard about the areas where it makes sense for us to work, like the US and Latin America. So there are several different territories that we’ve been working with, but Europe continues to be an incredibly important partner for all things.