‘If we get most of our information from screens, integrity matters’: meet the most important man in British film

Tthree weeks after ben roberts started a new job as chief executive of British Film Institute – becoming one of the most powerful men in the British film industry – the film business suddenly collapsed. It was spring 2020: the Covid lockdown. Almost overnight, the industry came to a standstill: shoots were canceled, theaters were closed, meetings were postponed indefinitely. “I went on a little road trip,” he says.

The impact of those early lockouts was profound — but in retrospect, it gave Roberts breathing room to develop what he calls a “reboot” of the giant body he had just begun to lead. “We are a complex organization. Some people know us for one thing, others know us for another. I thought: how can we better articulate who we are and who we are for? These days, you’re only as likely to know it because of the giant screens hastily built last week show archive footage of Queen Elizabeth II to those queuing to see her coffin as far as its cutting-edge programming is concerned.

The BFI today published the fruits of Roberts’ labour: a 10-year strategy paper entitled Screen Culture, which seeks to consolidate and distill the BFI’s core values, on the same day it published its plans for the funding it receives from the National Lottery. So what are these values?

Roberts with Tilda Swinton as she receives a BFI Fellowship in March 2020.
Roberts with Tilda Swinton as she receives a BFI Fellowship in March 2020. Photo: David M Bennett/Dave Bennett/Getty Images for the BFI

Roberts, 47, says: “It’s all about transforming access. Transforming access to our programmes, to jobs in the UK film industry and to screen culture more broadly.’ It includes what he calls the ‘pure economics’ of film-making: ‘When we published our Skills overviewone of the headlines was actually just the sheer number of jobs you could take up working in the industry, everything from working in accounting, to construction, to being a green guy.” Then there’s ‘community cohesion’ – the screens, he says, are “a form of entertainment, combating loneliness, promoting well-being, providing information.”

To even the most casual observer, the BFI has changed beyond recognition over the past decade – in many ways its new strategy cements its position as the beating heart of the British film industry, pushing it ever further into the commercial mainstream. Roberts himself is proof of that: a veteran of the British distribution and finance sector, he was vice president of Hollywood studio Universal before becoming chief executive of commercial company Protagonist Pictures in his 30s. He joined the BFI in 2012 as head of its manufacturing stock, and clearly his mission is to make the organization and its 700-plus employees more nimble and responsive to the wider world.

Covid has, of course, presented numerous challenges – not least because it has highlighted the film industry’s increasing reliance on digital technology to reach its audiences.

This was where the BFI’s streaming platform came into its own – “We were very grateful to lock it down” – not least because the organization could switch its program content to it, and the reach of the BFI Player means it is central board of Roberts’ Access Strategy, through an upgraded streaming offering called BFI+. He talks about creating a “digital universe that’s more than just watching movies”, adding what he calls “non-linear content” such as journalism generated by the BFI, live events or educational material to enhance the experience.

There’s also a personal dimension: Roberts suggests that the BFI Player could help with the more curatorial, activist aspects of the BFI’s mission. He mentions the LGBTQIA+ Flare festival, which was moved from the BFI Southbank, its cinema complex, to the streaming platform by Covid. “Flare runs a program that speaks to marginalized audiences, some of whom cannot or cannot access queer content in cinemas, for practical or personal reasons. LGBT content on Player is always incredibly popular. I understand why because it provides a channel of content that I would have on late night on Channel 4 for example.

Even a partial list of the BFI’s current activities is dizzying in its variety; no corner of the UK film industry seems untouched by his influence. Distributes funds to filmmakers (from the National Lottery); manages venues including the BFI Southbank and the neighboring Imax cinema; manages the National Archives, which houses a world-renowned collection of film and television materials; publishes the respected magazine Sight and Sound; creates initiatives to increase cinema attendance throughout the country; operates its own streaming platform; certifies film productions for tax relief; implement diversity standards; research and collect statistics for the benefit of the industry; organized the London Film Festival; and supports the BFI Network, a national organization dedicated to finding new filmmaking talent. As well as leading all this, Roberts has to influence the flesh at government level, representing the industry’s views on policy and resources.

But at the heart of Roberts’ ambition is a broader philosophical goal: to expand and enhance the cultural status of the moving image, whether it’s film, television or TikTok. “We use the words screen culture quite deliberately because I would say that as someone who loves it and who has been involved in it throughout my adult life, that screen culture is not really valued publicly by stakeholders, educators and parents in the same way that are other areas in the arts and culture sector.

“Yet we all know that screens are the universal cultural space, we all engage with them every day and there are huge benefits and profits. I really think it matters, because we’re at a point where we’re getting most of our information from the screen, that we’re able to interpret what we’re getting, that we understand the concepts of authorship and integrity.”

Roberts suggests that this even extends to the “interesting storytelling” that has developed around TikTok: “Young people are even communicating through little movies that they make and post online. It’s a visual language and grammar.”

He also wants to draw attention to the BFI’s role in keeping the industry together since everything has stopped, including the distribution of funds to the cinema from the cultural recovery fund. “We do a lot of relatively quiet work with the government that I don’t think anyone needs to see, but it goes on significantly on a daily basis behind the scenes.”

Roberts (right) at a photocall for The Harder They Fall at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2021 with (from left) producer James Lassiter, stars Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba and Regina King, director James Samuel and festival director Tricia Tuttle.
Roberts (right) at a photocall for The Harder They Fall at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2021 with (from left) producer James Lassiter, stars Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba and Regina King, director James Samuel and festival director Tricia Tuttle. Photo: David M Bennett/Dave Bennett/Getty Images for Netflix

The BFI’s commitment to diversity – which includes the ground-breaking rules it established in 2014 to qualify productions for lottery funding – is long-standing and something of a hangover from previous years. Its position at the center of the British film industry is oddly recent in its acquisition many of his powers in 2011 following the immediate removal of the UK Film Council in the ‘quango fire’.

Before that, with a history dating back to its founding in 1933, its focus was largely archival and educational, with a tradition of funding low-budget, experimental films that had earned it a reputation for morbid political virtue and attracted much criticism from -commercial film makers during the decline of UK film production in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Now the shoe is very much on the other foot: the BFI represents the mainstream while also making its presence felt in more radical circles. As the organization seeks to develop what Roberts calls “commercial muscle,” he is mindful of the conflicts that can arise. It’s true, he says, that the BFI buys commercial film rights, but “we make sure we don’t interfere with the market”.

The BFI does need to earn some of its own money – “We’re expensive and not fully funded by the government: we have a shop, we sell tickets, we fundraise” – and points out that two recent successes, after Love and Bait were “available and we we intervened with a modest resource.”

“We understand our place in the market,” Roberts says with a smile, “but it’s complicated.” Running a mainstream cinema like Imax, which has shown everything from The Dark Knight Rises to Skyfall, wouldn’t have been acceptable a decade ago; in fact The BFI has just taken over of its programming by Odeon, which has been in charge of bookings since 2012.

Although the BFI is highly regarded and Roberts must by many accounts be one of the most influential figures in the British film industry, it must surely be hard to forget what happened to the Film Council, an apparently successful organization which was closed on which still looks like a political ploy. Does it keep him up at night? Roberts laughs. “I guess I feel genuinely that the work we do to support the sector is valuable and I believe the government recognizes that. So I move forward with confidence – until I do.”

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