BFI Chiefs Address Cuts in Investment in New 10-Year Plan: ‘Our Reliance on Commercial Income Is Only Going to Rise’

As the U.K. continues to experience a tremendous boom in film and high-end TV production, which is a vital contributor to the otherwise battered U.K. economy, the British Film Institute (BFI) is at the heart of sustaining that growth. With its new 10-year plan, its bosses hope to set up the 89-year-old org for success as best they can, but are contending with a cut in investment.

On Friday, the BFI unveiled an ambitious 10-year screen culture strategy and a plan to fund the period’s first three years. The previous five-year funding plan, which covered the 2017-2022 period, boasted an investment of almost £500 million made up of government grant-in-aid, BFI earned income and national lottery funding. The new plan sees an injection of just £136.3 million, a 10% cut in real terms from the previous plan, and aims to reverse this and increase income by 10% by the org’s centenary year of 2033.

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“We do have a complex funding model – we are a charity, an arm’s length body, we’re a national lottery distributor. Our activities are not fully funded or covered by grant-in-aid funding,” BFI chief executive Ben Roberts told Variety. “The grant-in-aid funding such as it is, is declining in real terms, due to inflation. We’ve always had to look at commercial income, ticket sales, London Film Festival sponsorship, many generous supporters and donors. And I think it’s fair to say that our reliance on commercial income is only going to rise.”

Roberts says that the org wanted to be explicit in the strategy document about the funding challenges and at the same time embrace the opportunities, with digital being a key factor. The U.K.’s various lockdowns saw the BFI’s digital services deliver “meaningful income,” Roberts said. The plan is to start unlocking the value in everything the BFI does, and this includes monetizing the vast film assets the org holds in its archives.

The other key factor is bringing audiences back into cinemas. Post-pandemic, the U.K. box office is currently running approximately 29% below the heights of 2019, per numbers from Comscore. Roberts doesn’t see numbers returning to normal until next summer, because although some big titles are expected over Christmas, “there’s no consistency to supply.”

However, its not all doom and gloom as Roberts exults in the “continued appetite and enthusiasm for cinema going,” as evidenced by the success of National Cinema Day in the U.K. that set attendance records, as well as encouraging numbers at the BFI-operated cinemas, which include the BFI IMAX, which has seen a return to pre-pandemic levels of activity.

“Clearly you can stimulate an audience back to cinemas, if you can set a price and if the slate is strong enough – we feel that independent cinema within that needs a particular focus, because I think those big stimulus moments tend to favor the mainstream more than they do the independents,” Roberts said.

Harriet Finney, BFI deputy CEO and executive director of the corporate and industry affairs team, said: “We have absolutely maintained our funding to audience development in this strategy. A lot of that is thinking obviously, about independent film.” Finney and Roberts point towards a new pilot initiative where, once a month, independent films will be offered at independent cinemas, with a focus on British independent releases, with a view to stimulate audiences.

Another challenge the BFI strategy addresses is the broader U.K. independent film sector, which is strained to the point of market failure as a BFI-commissioned report found in July. The report has a number of practical recommendations for the sector’s amelioration, but there is no set timeline on it yet.

“Since we published that we have a new prime minister, we have a new cabinet, the economic climate continues to shift at speed, so as to when that will happen, I think is still a little unclear to us,” Roberts said.

There are three strategy elements the BFI is working on, Finney said: “How do you judiciously spend lottery funding? How do you use our convening power and our broking power in our unique role in between industry and government? And then how do we use the policy evidence research bases that we have as well. It’s not always just going to be a funding solution. But it’s actually how we use those three elements to tackle the really big issues facing the sector at the moment.”

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