Ben Roberts, former CEO of Protagonist Pictures, took on the role of director of the BFI Film Fund, considered one of the most influential jobs in the U.K. industry, on June 18. Following the launch of the BFI’s five-year plan, he talked with Robert Mitchell at the BFI’s London headquarters about a range of topics, including his approach in the role, the BFI’s priorities and how emerging filmmakers fit into the funding scheme.
Robert Mitchell:You joined the BFI from a distribution and sales background rather than production, how was that beneficial?
Ben Roberts: It was important for me to bring a market reality perspective to the organization, because the BFI was largely focusing on cultural activities prior to rolling in the Film Council’s activities. So as we put the plan together, it feels connected to industry needs rather than to pipe dreams or aspirations.
I definitely brought experience more from some sectors than others, but there’s a team of people here who are incredibly experienced in production and development, and I don’t feel a need to be everything. (Moreover), as much as my experience in distribution and sales helps, so does having experience in larger organizations, in managing and setting up a company.
RM: A criticism sometimes leveled at the Film Council was that they could act more like a studio than just an instrument to help filmmakers get their projects made.
BR: I’m here to help producers, I’m not here to be one. You’re handing out a lot of public money, (so) you’ve got to get that right. The job is not to be on set all the time; the job is to work for the raft of people that you’re supporting in the industry — (and) not just producers. You’re supporting everybody.
RM: Is increased production funding likely to mean more coin for the same number of projects?
BR: We (target) 20 projects a year for production, but this year in particular, there’s so much great material, we’re trying to support as much as we can. But you have to give your support at a meaningful level. A project might come in that really needs a lot of money. You’ve got to be responsive to what the material is.
RM: Some recent production coin has gone to Roger Michell and Stephen Frears, and newer but established filmmakers like Joanna Hogg, Amma Asante and John Michael McDonagh. Will emerging filmmakers be able to compete for funding against filmmakers with a track record?
BR: Progression is as important as emergence. Getting people to the starting line is a big responsibility for us, and getting them to their second film is another. It’s also an important message that we’re doing Roger’s, we’re doing Stephen Frears’, because we believe in those films. I would say there is a desire to make films that feel relevant, but that relevance can be (many things) to many different congregations. We’re also here to (fund) risky material.
It’s about the quality of the filmmaking, but everyone gets most energized by finding those first-time filmmakers, and there are films in production or post that precede me being here: Ruairi Robinson’s “Last Days on Mars,” a massively ambitious film from a first-time filmmaker; Paul Wright’s “Seaside Stories,” his first film, which we’re an integral part of; Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant,” that’s a second film, but it’s a big step up for her. It’s a huge opportunity.
RM: There will be quarterly meetings on funding, with roundtable discussions about first-time helmers’ features. Is there a cap on budget level? Is there a quota for first-time filmmakers awarded funding?
BR: I don’t think quotas are something we’re interested in following. We have to trust ourselves to make a fair spread of choices, but I don’t think it serves anybody to panic-fill a final slot or limit someone in a certain area. We just have to respond to what’s out there in a given year.
We’re still figuring out how precise we want to be with the parameters that define (first-time) films, but I would say in most instances, a film coming from a first-time filmmaker would be budgeted at under £2 million ($3.2 million). You get a lot of material in that bracket.
RM: You’re re-introducing Vision awards for U.K. production companies with at least two credited feature productions, to enable them to develop slates with creative and financial autonomy. How do they differ from before?
BR: There are slightly different values to them. Last time around, they were up to fifteen $120,250 awards a year for two years. This year, we’re doing up to ten at $160,340 a year for two years, and five smaller awards of $80,170 a year for two years. We’re still tightening the guidelines on them, but we’re probably going to put the call out in the next month or so, because we want them to be active from the start of the next financial year.
RM: You’re funding three animation filmmakers for two years to develop concepts with experienced producers. Will these automatically qualify for production funding?
BR: The point of that idea is really about development. Not that it’s irrelevant whether it goes into production or not, but it’s understanding the process. It’s an area of development that’s very specific and has its own needs. The ambition is what you’ll end up with, (since what you) need in animation is a package that would be ready to be made. There’s no automatic locking of next stage funding here; it all comes back for discussion.
RM: The BFI can’t implement everything in the plan alone. How do partnerships figure into your strategy?
BR: I had this philosophy at Protagonist: Do things together and play to each other’s strengths. We didn’t start trying to re-invent initiatives people were already doing. To me, good communication is most important, feeling connected rather than competitive. There are people on the ground nationwide doing fantastic things based on their talent pool and the needs of that sector.
There’s a benefit to a U.K.-wide strategy for everybody to be connected to a team in London that’s connected to the business part of industry: A lot of the funding is in London. But we benefit from everybody helping us to uncover talent and nurturing it locally.