Lockdown lessons: BFI CEO Ben Roberts on UK film and the Covid crisis

With the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down the film industry, we surveyed a range of organisations to gauge the impact on film culture in the UK, and to learn what the future holds. Here, BFI CEO Ben Roberts explains what the institute is doing to help across every stage of the film business – and how the crisis might change the BFI.

4 June 2020

By Isabel Stevens

Ben Roberts
Sight and Sound

The British Film Institute is the UK’s lead organisation for film, television and the moving image. It curates a public programme of world cinema for audiences – through its cinemas, festivals and online. The organisation cares for the BFI National Archive, and is the distributor of National Lottery funds for the film industry.

This Q&A and 15 more also appear in the bumper Summer 2020 issue of Sight & Sound, available now in print and digital.

What is the impact of Covid-19 on film production and what is the BFI doing to help?

At the moment the crisis hit, we were dealing with a record level of film and high-end television production in the UK. Our largely freelance workforce were hit hardest and quickest – we think around 20,000 freelancers were not eligible for the various government schemes. Our immediate response was to see what funds we had to make available.

The Covid-19 Film and TV Emergency Relief fund that the Film and TV Charity is running and we supported was pretty much the first thing out of the gate. But they had about £5 million worth of requests for about £3 million worth of funds. We’ve got to think in future about the vulnerability in our workforce, whether it’s people working on crews, whether it’s the artists, the writers, the directors and producers, whether it’s cinema workers and the cinema business itself.

We put out a Resilience Fund for independent cinemas, to support some smaller venues. We have also repurposed some production funds to support independent films facing increased costs. The cost of remounting production is going to be a challenge.

What is the impact of the crisis on the BFI beyond the Film Fund – on cinemas, festivals and other activities? The organisation can’t apply for the Lottery funds that it gives out.

We are funded in part by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and in part by the income we make. Most of that commercial income stopped the moment lockdown began. That’s a serious financial challenge. The BFI Southbank closed, our LGBTIQ+ festival Flare moved online. On the flipside, I think we reacted brilliantly to carry on giving audiences a programme of films and education packages and engaging the public through our . It’s an incredible opportunity for us to grow our audience and grow an understanding and appreciation not just for cinema, but for our cultural heritage.

Can you tell us anything about what guidelines might have to be in place for film production to start again? And also what about cinemas and festivals?

The Screen Centre Task Force is looking at necessary health and safety measures for film production and cinemas. We’re working quickly to make sure those health and safety protocols have been approved by the industry, the government and Public Health England so that people working on film sets and audiences going to cinemas can feel safe.

It’s going to cost to introduce all those measures on set. And it’s complicated because you need to look at every aspect – makeup, locations, transport, accommodation, catering. The rules have to be scalable for the smallest independent film and the largest studio film. Productions are probably going to take longer. You’ll need to quarantine people if you’ve got talent travelling. How are you going to make sure they’re safe and the entire crew is safe?

On the cinema side, work is being done to understand what will need to be in place – staff training, PPE. Cinemas are going to have reduced audiences for some time while social distancing measures are in place. How will they change booking systems? How do you serve food and drink? What will seating arrangements look like?

How will the crisis change the BFI? Where do you see the organisation in a year’s time?

In a year, we’ll be back on our feet. We should be operating at relatively normal levels and I hope audiences will be back too. What I don’t want to do is go back to normal: we’ve learned too many things about ourselves that we have to take forward. Fundamentally, that’s about our digital relationship with audiences and readers and filmmakers. Digital isn’t supplanting other relationships, but I see it as an amazing opportunity for us to grow our relationship with audiences, and be truly national.

What will happen to the theatrical window?

It’s too early to know whether these alternative models are financially viable, but it’s got everyone thinking very differently. There will be a new paradigm for independent cinema. The BFI needs to make sure that our independent sector is robust and able to adapt to change.

There has been huge emphasis on diversity and opening up access to the film industry recently. Is that under threat?

We’re so focused on it at the BFI, and that’s not going to change. It’s about equality of access to cinema, to programmes, and equality of opportunity to be a storyteller. The digital opportunities that we’re now seeing help ensure equality of opportunity and access. But if you’re a freelancer who’s been hit by this crisis really hard financially, that doesn’t say much for the viability of a career in film. We have to make sure that we recognise and mitigate all those vulnerabilities so we continue to build an inclusive film community that people can afford to be in.

If I’ve got a worry, it’s that as a planet and as a country, we are going to be stretched financially. But I am one of those people who think that the world is going to emerge thinking differently about what matters and what’s important.

Top lockdown watch

I’ve been watching every Hitchcock, as chronologically as possible. I was watching Vertigo (1958) the other night and thinking, “I love this film but I wish I was watching it in the cinema.”

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