Drama, but no crisis at BFI

The British Film Institute “is not in financial crisis,” writes Ian Temple, director of development and communications at the BFI (or as the org pretentiously likes to abbreviate itself, the bfi). “It is not in debt and its financial position remains sound.”

That’s a response to a recent report in Daily Variety about the appointment of Amanda Nevill as the publicly-funded org’s new director, which alluded to a “financial mess at the BFI.” Temple’s assertion is true, but disingenuous. A mess and a crisis are not the same thing.

Last week, a cash crunch forced the BFI to confirm the closure of its exhibition unit, which provides programming services to some 150 arthouse screens. The move, protested by regional cinema owners and film societies, is part of a package of cuts to compensate for a budgetary overspend last year, reportedly in the region of $1.5 million.

That was the result of a mix-up in the BFI’s notoriously complex accounts. Money was spent on the 50th anni refurbishment of the National Film Theater, that it subsequently turned out the BFI did not have. The finance exec responsible has quietly departed, and the hole has had to be filled from next year’s budget.

The Film Council, which gives the BFI its $23 million annual grant, will farm out the responsibility for exhib support to the regional screen agencies. In what Temple terms “a climate of flat funding,” the BFI will concentrate for now on what it regards as its core activities — festivals (primarily in London), the NFT (on London’s South Bank), the library and archive, and its publications.

Critics argue that makes the org too London-centric. This concern has been publicly acknowledged by new BFI chairman Anthony Minghella. He and Nevill, arriving in June from the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, are expected to launch a fundamental review of everything the BFI does.

Despite the tactical (and possibly temporary) retreat from exhibition, forced by a short-term budget blunder, there are encouraging signs that Minghella has the appetite and imagination for the task, which will include campaigning for more funding to reclaim some of that lost ground.

“He is putting incredible energy into this, almost as though it’s a new film project,” confides one board member. “His ideas will be very sophisticated and very radical. The savings we are now making are not as significant as the likely consequences of a review of all the BFI’s activities. And there’s every prospect that he will get the BFI more money — Minghella is incredibly persuasive.”

* * *

Vanity Fair back in Blighty

Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair” is back on track to shoot in May at London’s Shepperton Studios and on location in Bath and Gloucestershire. The $23 million movie, fully financed by Focus Features, had previously been delayed to August to give its star Reese Witherspoon a breather after finishing “Legally Blonde 2,” and moved from Blighty to Ireland in order to save money. But a window suddenly opened up in Witherspoon’s schedule for a May start. That meant returning to the U.K., where a significant amount of prep had already taken place, because there wasn’t time to set up the shoot in Ireland.

* * *

Kuhn types new name

It has only taken him three years, but former Polygram Film prexy Michael Kuhn has finally come up with a name for his production company. Previously trading simply as Kuhn & Co., it has now become Qwerty Films — a reference to the first six letters on the top left of a typewriter keyboard. This is apparently intended to signify the importance of good writing to Kuhn’s enterprise. At least he discarded the idea of calling his company Big Boy Films.

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