The U.K. industry has weathered close to a year of the coronavirus pandemic and three national lockdowns, the most recent of which is still in place. While film and TV production has been allowed to continue throughout, and overall spend ($3.9 billion) dropped, remarkably, just 21% in 2020 — faring significantly better than most feared — the country’s cinemas, including the BFI’s own venues, have remained shuttered since December.
Meanwhile, wider industry issues aside, the org’s ambitious strategic plan, BFI2022, announced in 2016, is coming to an end next year, and a new and presumably COVID-proof formula will need to be instated, all while maintaining the groundbreaking diversity standards championed by Richards’ predecessor Josh Berger, the former Warner Bros. U.K. boss who chaired the BFI for 10 years.
Set to begin the role on Tuesday (Feb. 16), Richards, who will work closely with BFI CEO Ben Roberts, says he’s more than up to the task. The former Wall Street lawyer and Universal and Warner Bros. executive has a background in home entertainment, experience in independent production and also served as a BFI governor for seven years. As CEO of Vue, the Canadian oversees 225 sites across Europe and Taiwan. Former U.K. culture minister Ed Vaizey may have been initially tipped for the BFI chair role, but it is Richards — who is part of two working groups for the industry during the pandemic, and in close communication with senior levels of Downing Street — who was, ultimately, the contender to beat.
In an interview with Variety — his first since securing the government-appointed role — the exhibition boss discusses his vision for the org, plans to navigate the pandemic recovery, and the next chapter for the BFI’s strategic plan.
What’s your vision for the role, and how might your exhibition expertise inform what you do?
I have a personal love of British independent film, and I’ve been involved with it for over 20 years, through work with Film London and Creative Skillset, and as a council member for BAFTA, so I’ve been a big part of British institutions, supporting independent film. I’m a big believer in all the work the BFI has done on the educational side. I think it’s really important and one can look at the huge successes with talent across all of film and television right now, in how they started through programs that were set up initially by the BFI when they were younger. Nurturing and promoting the industry to young people is a big part of planning the future.
I’m just really excited to be a part of the BFI for another few years and to work with Ben and his team to see the BFI through a very difficult period that all industries have been going through this last year. As we emerge from COVID in the next few months, I want to help the BFI maintain its global presence.
How closely will you be working with Ben Roberts?
I’m there to help support the amazing team that Ben has built up. As a governor, I was front and center when we brought Ben on, so I’m a huge supporter and fan of his. I can’t wait to — both personally and professionally — start working with Ben again.
And how will the BFI help the industry move past the impact of COVID-19, outside of what it’s done to date in terms of setting up the Screen Sector Task Force and getting the production and exhibition guidelines outlined early on?
I’ve been steering companies across Europe through this. And I’m hoping to bring a business skill set to help the BFI get through this difficult period. We’ve already been through several openings and closings as a company, and I’m looking to help Ben go through the pre-opening protocols, bring everybody back on board, and get the structure up and running again.
BFI2022 will run out next year. What will the next chapter look like? I imagine planning is well underway already.
It’s a work in progress. I think companies need to be agile in the current circumstances, and I think Ben has done a really good job, because he’s laying a foundation now for the future. And that’s something that I’m going to be playing an integral part of with Ben. We’re fortunate that we have an incredible board of governors right now, with some very dedicated, talented people to also help steer the BFI through this. It’s an extraordinary group.
Will you look to maintain the diversity standards that were put in place?
Certainly, even as a governor, I’ve been supporting diversity through the entertainment industry for the last 20 years. With the BFI, that was always front and center of everything that we did, and that will absolutely continue.
And in terms of investment in independent film which has been dropping in the last couple of years, as evidenced by the recent BFI stats, how do you go about turning that trend around and protecting the independent sector?
I think it’s very difficult to judge anything on top of the last 18 months. A very big part of the BFI’s work has been the nurturing of talent and supporting independent British film. And I know that’s very close to Ben’s heart as well.
When do you think cinemas, including Vue branches, will be able to reopen in the U.K. after this recent lockdown?
The discussions that we’ve been having in our markets across Europe, and in the U.K., is that it feels like Easter is going to be the turning point generally. There are some markets that are looking at Easter as kind of a launch. There’s other markets that are looking at Easter as a potential risk and looking at the period immediately after Easter to open up. But it looks like we’re looking at a mid-April opening, and then businesses can hit the ground running.
The really good news is that television and film production, as we’ve seen through the recent statistics, is only down 21%, so there will be a steady pipeline of film and television. And I also think the government deserves a huge amount of credit for the roll out of the vaccination program, because we are global leaders in an area where you want to be a global leader on. That’s going to help the industry hit the ground running by summer.