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Business As Usual As London Fest Turns 54 Amidst a Challenged British Film Industry

Business As Usual As London Fest Turns 54 Amidst a Challenged British Film Industry

One year ago, then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made his way to the BFI London Film Festival to make a special announcement. There would be “a dramatic transformation” of the British Film Institute via a new film center that Brown’s government was to pledge 45 million pounds toward. At the time, there had been fears that the project, backed by the British Film Institute for many years, would be the victim of the cutbacks from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. But Brown made it clear this will not be the case.

By June of this year, the British government had taken back the offer for funding the new centre. And this came along with a whole series of other cutbacks, most famously the abolishment of the UK Film Council. Now it’s largely anticipated next week’s comprehensive spending review will see the UK government cut 25% of funding to public sectors – including the arts.

In the middle of this storm lies the BFI London Film Festival, the country’s largest film event. Entering its 54th year, it’s hosted by the very institution that’s “dramatic transformation” is potentially no longer, and it’s also a primary showcase for the very cinema the UK Film Council has supported for the past decade or so. And the comprehensive spending review just so happens to be occurring in the midst of it. So one might suspect the festival’s organizers aren’t exactly having a fun year. But that’s not entirely true.

“In some ways I think we’re in a transitional year,” the festival’s Artistic Director Sandra Hebron told indieWIRE yesterday. “In terms of the economic situation of the festival, the corporate sponsorship side is actually very healthy. We knew that our seven-year contract with [lead sponsor] The Times was expiring this year, and we’ve been lucky enough to secure a new three-year deal with American Express. Our ticket sales are good, and our grant-in-aid is actually a relatively small portion of the total budget. And in this financial year that hasn’t been affected anyway. Of course, the tricky thing will potentially come next year with not just arts and film organizations – but everything in the public sector is being asked to model for a 25% cut in aid. At least this is what’s being anticipated in the comprehensive spending review which happens in a few days time.”

If the 25% cut goes through – which seems very likely – the festival’s parent organization the British Film Institute would lose that percentage of its grant-in-aid. How that effects the festival is unclear at this point, but it’s going to be a dramatic situation across all arts organizations in the UK. All Hebron can say for sure is that she and the festival are not feeling any impact this year.

The poster for the 54th BFI London Film Festival.

“There is no direct impact on the festival this year,” she said. “Though there are bigger changes afoot, in the sort of festival micro-world it’s very much business as usual. I don’t know what it will be next year. But I think one of things that is fortunate for us is that a relatively small portion of our income comes from the grant-in-aid. We have a very high proportion that we generate ourselves.”

One thing that is certain, though, is that the festival isn’t expecting a new film centre to house much of its activity anytime soon.

“And part of what we would be able to do there is have some facilities for the festival, including potentially more screens,” Hebron said. “But the size of our festival means that would have never been able to accommodate the whole festival in the new film centre. And in a way, nor would we want to. One of the good things about the festival is that it has screenings all over the city. But it would have meant that the festival could have really been identified with the new film centre.”

As for the festival itself, Hebron is excited for this year’s edition, which kicked off Wednesday with the European Premiere of “Never Let Me Go.” Its 200-film wide schedule includes an exceptional array of British cinema – perhaps the best slate Hebron’s ever.

“Certainly from where I’m sitting – having worked with the festival since 1997,” Hebron said, “I would say hand-on-heart that this is the strongest year that I can remember for British cinema. I think it’s a strong year not just because of the quality of the films but also because of their diversity and their breadth. We have the new films by Danny Boyle and Mike Leigh and Ken Loach… very well known and very well established figures in the UK film industry. But we also have great first-time features by filmmakers like Clio Barnart and Gillian Wearing. And then there’s a kind of re-emergence of the essay film with filmmakers Patrick Keiller and John Akomfrah, who are making this formally different kind of work. And then lots of lots of short films and great documentary features like ‘Pink Saris’… So it’s really heartening not just to see strong British films, but to see that sort of breadth. If you look at one hand at a film like ‘The King’s Speech,’ and then on the other with something like ‘Robinson in Ruins,’ the Patrick Keiller film… They’re both really excellent films but they are such opposite ends of the spectrum.”

While its unfortunate that this kind of work is coming in the same year that the UK Film Council (which helped fund many of Hebron’s examples) became no longer, it gives the organization quite the swan song.

The BFI London Film Festival continues through October 27th. indieWIRE will be on the scene.

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