Trading unit under the gun

The British Film Institute is one of those chronically underfunded public organizations that lurch permanently from one crisis to another, yet somehow always endure.

So veteran BFI watchers could be forgiven a cynical shrug at the latest storm in a Stephen Street teacup, which has brewed up over the plan to dismantle its trading arm.

BFI Trading was only created a couple of years ago, in a bid to maximize revenues and boost the org’s brand. It brings together publishing, film sales, the DVD label, the stills and footage libaries. But it never hit its income targets, and proved costly to run.

Some of its operations, such as Sight and Sound magazine, will put under new management; some, such as book publishing and film sales, will controversially be farmed out to commercial partners; and others, such as stills, withdrawn from exploitation entirely.

This U-turn has, of course, got staffers in spin — especially those who will lose their jobs. And last weekend, 58 film scholars from as far afield as Sydney, Singapore and Central Florida U. wrote a public letter of protest about the sale of the book imprint, blaming the whole thing on the “philistine and commercially oriented” U.K. Film Council, which is responsible for the BFI’s funding.

The BFI, wrote the academics, “has a worldwide reputation for its South Bank film theater and the London Film Festival, the National Film & TV Archive, Sight and Sound, the library services …, the education department, and nowadays the website and DVDs. All of these are designed to support each other, and it will be a lessened institution if any one of them were taken away — not least its books on cinema and television.”

The org has survived many of these spasms before — over the withdrawal from production, the closure of the Museum of the Moving Image, the takeover by the UKFC, the cutback on exhibition services.

And yet this time, perhaps it’s about more than just a few scholars worried that they won’t be able to get their monographs published.

The fear is that the BFI, already diminished under the shadow of the UKFC, is finally reaching a tipping point, where it no longer has the financial means to hold itself together. The recent $12 million (a third over budget) spent tarting up the National Film Theater was just window-dressing for an org that’s struggling to hang onto its identity and find its purpose in the digital age.

Whether the issue is just money, or also the quality of leadership provided by chairman Anthony Minghella and director Amanda Nevill, is open to debate. Minghella is, in any case, due to step down this year, so the choice of his replacement will be crucial.

Staff union Amicus has offered to put differences aside and launch a national campaign with the BFI executive to highlight the cash crisis, so long as the restructuring plans are put on ice.

In fact, the closure of BFI Trading is a sign of how desperate the org’s financial condition has become. The division was created in the vain hope of plugging the BFI’s funding gap, and its failure has left the org in an even worse state.

The BFI receives a government grant of £16 million ($32 million) year, which it doubles by sponsorship, donations and commercial revenues. But the grant has been frozen for the past four years, while costs have rocketed. The deficit next year will be an unsustainable $6 million, and rising.

The next step will be to find a university willing to house the vast library, one of the greatest collections of cinema literature anywhere in the world, so that the BFI can sell off or rent out its hugely valuable Stephen Street HQ in central London.

One board member, who agrees with the “realignment” of BFI Trading, nonetheless describes it as “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.”

“The big question, which is the funding deficit, is not being addressed by this,” he says. “If the U.K. Film Council doesn’t address this urgently, some of the three principal activities of the BFI — the archive, exhibition and the knowledge activities — will not be able to continue.”

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