‘If we get most of our information from screens, integrity matters’: meet the most important man in British film | Film industry
Three weeks after Ben Roberts began a new job as chief executive of the British Film Institute – so becoming one of the most powerful people in the British film industry – the movie business abruptly collapsed. It was spring 2020: the Covid lockdown. Almost overnight the industry shut down: shoots were cancelled, cinemas were shuttered, meetings postponed indefinitely. “I went on bit of a journey,” he says.
The impact of those early lockdowns were profound – but in retrospect gave Roberts breathing space to develop what he calls a “reset” of the giant body he had just started to lead. “We’re a complex organisation. Some people know us for one thing, some people know us for something else. I thought: how can we better articulate who we are and who we’re for?” These days, you are as likely to know it for the giant screens hastily built last week to show archive films of Queen Elizabeth II to those queueing to see her coffin as for its cutting-edge programming.
Today, the BFI is publishing the fruits of Roberts’ work: a 10-year strategy document entitled Screen Culture, which seeks to consolidate and distil the BFI’s core values, on the same day it publishes its plans for the funding it receives from the national lottery. So what are those values?
Roberts, 47, says: “It’s all about transforming access. Transforming access to our programmes, to film industry jobs across the UK, and to screen culture more broadly.” It includes what he calls the “pure economics” of film-making: “When we published our Skills Review, one of the headlines was really just the sheer number of jobs that you could take working in the industry, everything from working in accounting, to construction, to being a greens person.” Then there’s the “community cohesion” – screens, he says, are “a form of entertainment, combatting loneliness, supporting wellbeing, information delivery”.
Even to the most casual observer, the BFI has changed out of 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 towards the commercial mainstream. Roberts himself is evidence of that: a veteran of Britain’s distribution and finance sector, he was a vice-president at Hollywood studio Universal before becoming CEO of sales outfit Protagonist Pictures in his 30s. He joined the BFI in 2012 as head of its production fund, and it is clearly his mission to make the organisation and its 700-plus employees more nimble and responsive to the wider world.
Covid, of course, presented numerous challenges – not least because it underlined the film industry’s increasing reliance on digital technology to reach its audience.
This was where the BFI’s streaming platform came into its own – “We were very grateful to have it going into lockdown” – not least because the organisation could switch its programming content on to it, and BFI Player’s reach means it is a central plank of Roberts’ access strategy, via an upgraded streaming offering called BFI+. He talks of creating “a digital universe that is more than just watching films”, adding what he calls “nonlinear content”, such as BFI-generated journalism, live events or educational material, to enhance the experience.
There is a personal dimension too: Roberts suggests BFI Player can help with the more curatorial, activist aspects of the BFI’s mission. He mentions the LGBTQIA+ festival Flare, which was forced out of BFI Southbank, its cinema complex, on to the streaming platform by Covid. “Flare runs a programme that speaks to a marginalised audience, some of whom aren’t able or comfortable to access queer content in cinemas, either for practical or personal reasons. The LGBT content on Player is always incredibly popular. I understand why, because it’s providing a channel to content that I would have got on late-night Channel 4, for example.”
Even a partial list of the BFI’s current activities is dizzying in its variety; no corner of the UK’s film industry appears to be untouched by its influence. It hands out funds to film-makers (from the national lottery); it runs venues including BFI Southbank and its neighbouring Imax cinema; it administers the National Archive, which holds a world-renowned collection of film and TV materials; it publishes venerable magazine Sight and Sound; creates initiatives to increase cinema attendance across the country; runs its own streaming platform; certifies film productions for tax relief; operates diversity standards; researches and compiles statistics for the benefit of the industry; stages the London film festival; and maintains the BFI Network, a national organisation devoted to sourcing new film-making talent. On top of leading all this, Roberts has to press the flesh at government level, representing the industry’s views on policy and resources.
But there is a wider philosophical aim underlying Roberts’ ambition: to amplify and enhance the cultural status of the moving image, whether it’s film, television or TikTok. “We quite deliberately use the words screen culture, because I would say that as someone who loves it and who has been involved in it all my adult life, that screen culture is not really valued publicly by stakeholders, educators and parents in the same way as other areas in the arts and culture sector are.
“And yet we all know screens are the universal cultural space, we’re all engaging with them every day, and there’s massive benefits and gains to be had. I really think it matters that, given we are at a moment when we derive most of our information from a screen, we are able to interpret what we are receiving, that we understand notions of authorship and integrity.”
This, Roberts suggests, ranges even as far the “interesting storytelling” that has developed around TikTok: “Young people are even communicating through small films they are making and posting online. It’s a visual language and grammar.”
He is also keen to draw attention to the BFI’s role in holding the industry together as everything ground to a halt, including distributing cinema’s allocation of the Culture Recovery fund. “We do a lot of relatively quiet work with government, which I don’t think anyone necessarily needs to see, but it happens significantly on a daily basis in the background.”
The BFI’s commitment to diversity – which includes the groundbreaking rules it established in 2014 to qualify for production funding from the lottery – is longstanding, and is something of a hangover from its earlier years. Its position as the centre of the British film industry is bizarrely recent, having acquired many of its powers in 2011 after the summary abolition of the UK Film Council in the “bonfire of the quangos”.
Before that, with a history stretching back to its foundation in 1933, its focus had been largely archival and educational, with a tradition of funding low-budget, experimental film-making that had garnered it a reputation for painful political virtuousness, and attracted much criticism from more commercial film-makers during the UK’s film-making doldrums in the late 70s and 1980s.
Now the boot is very much on the other foot: the BFI represents the mainstream while still making its presence felt in more radical circles. As the organisation seeks to flex what Roberts calls its “commercial muscle”, he is mindful of conflicts that might arise. It’s true, he says, that the BFI buys commercial rights to films but “we absolutely make sure we are not interfering in the market”.
The BFI does need to earn some of its own money – “We are expensive, and we are not fully funded by government: we’ve got a shop, we sell tickets, we fundraise” – and points out that two recent successes, After Love and Bait, were “available, and we stepped in with modest resource”.
“We understand our place in the market,” Roberts says with a smile, “but it’s complicated.” Running a cinema as mainstream as the Imax, which has shown everything from The Dark Knight Rises to Skyfall, would not have been acceptable a decade ago; in fact the BFI has only just taken control of its programming from Odeon, who had been in charge of bookings since 2012.
Even as the BFI is riding high, and Roberts must on many measures be one of the most powerful figures in the British film industry, it surely must be hard to forget what happened to the Film Council, an apparently successful organisation that was shut down on what still appears to be a political whim. Does it keep him awake at night? Roberts laughs. “I guess I feel sincerely that the work we do to support the sector is valuable, and I do believe the government recognises that. So I move forward with confidence – until I don’t.”