The British Film Institute’s newly installed chief executive, Ben Roberts, has said one “silver lining” of COVID-19’s devastating impact on the U.K. film industry is a “radical rethink” for the financing and distribution prototypes surrounding independent film, which are now operating on a more equal playing field online.
“We absolutely cannot miss this moment to rewrite what the model — or a number of models — for independent film may look like” while also observing an extensive “upending” of release strategies for the field due to a paralyzed exhibition sector, says the former Protagonist Pictures CEO and Universal Pictures exec.
In the U.K., independent film is largely funded through the BFI, BBC Films or Film4, as well as an array of small funds. Securing distribution, let alone a theatrical release, remains an intensely competitive and costly proposition.
However, as more films look to digital premieres out of sheer necessity during lockdown, Roberts — who took over following the 17-year run of chief executive Amanda Nevill — predicts this normalization will set a blueprint for a sustainable model post-coronavirus.
“There were already disruptors in the sector, but they were seen as outliers doing something different, whereas now, we are absolutely seeing that all bets are off,” says Roberts, who took on the CEO role in early March, two weeks before the U.K. went into lockdown on March 23 and the industry effectively came to a standstill.
A BFI study published in January revealed that spending on U.K. independent film production fell by 45% to $218 million (£175 million) in 2019 — a figure that sat in sharp contrast to the rest of British high-end film and TV production, which grew 16% year on year to hit record spending of $4.49 billion.
Roberts is leading a working group for independent film that will consult with the U.K. government on best practices to get the field rehabilitated post-lockdown. Other working groups, all formed under the BFI’s Screen Sector Taskforce, are focusing on exhibition and distribution, broadcasting and production.
“This feels like a sea-change moment” for independent film, Roberts explains, “because it’s all about how you build and invest in stability. How do you make a sector financially viable, so that it attracts more money beyond public investment?”
More broadly, the executive says conversations with the government have been productive, and the working groups are compiling “policies, remedies and financial package proposals that will pull us out the other side.”
Adrian Wootton, chief executive of the British Film Commission and Film London, is leading the Inward Investment Recovery working group, and is collaborating closely with Roberts and the BFI.
“In consultation with producers, studios, streamers, unions and industry bodies, we have set up ‘task and finish’ groups focused on specific elements,” Wootton tells Variety.
“This includes developing production protocols for a new code of best practice, scalable across the entire U.K. film and TV industry. We are currently formulating proposals to feed into government to ensure that our industry is ready to get back to work as soon as it is safe to do so.”
While the country’s lockdown measures are set to remain in place until at least May 7, industry insiders predict it will be mid to late summer before major productions that can’t easily adhere to social distancing measures get rolling again.
“Prior to shut down, the screen sectors were really emerging as a pillar of the U.K. economy, so [the government] is as keen as everybody else to get us back up and working,” says Roberts. “The challenge right now is making sure that we have guidelines in place for production that are achievable and affordable.”
The BFI’s response in the interim has involved a vast repurposing of around $5.7 million in National Lottery funding to target areas of need — such as the freelance workforce and the exhibition sector — as well as adjusting criteria on existing funding schemes, such as its $3.1 million Development Fund, to respond to those with more pressing needs for cash-flow and overhead.
The BFI, which operates four screens out of BFI Southbank, was among the first organizations to shutter its cinema and is planning scenarios for the BFI London Film Festival, set to take place Oct. 7-18.
Among the options being considered are a hybrid model and an online-only venture. “I personally think festivals are going to be a very important way of reengaging audiences with cinema in communal spaces, because it is such a specific experience,” says Roberts.
Part of Roberts’ remit as CEO is also to oversee the BFI’s next five-year strategic plan, running from 2022-27. While planning was meant to kickstart this fall, it will now likely be delayed.
“We will definitely emerge from this as a different organization,” says Roberts, “and the industry will emerge in [a different place]. So for now, my job is very much focused on a recovery plan for the BFI and the industry, and to make sure we get through this particularly challenging period.”