On the first day of This Way Up 2021, Mia Bays, recently appointed as Director of BFI Film Fund and Stuart Brown, BFI Head of Programme and Acquisitions (standing in for Ben Luxford, BFI Head of UK Audiences), welcomed attendees at the conference for a conversation, rather than a presentation, about the organisation’s approach to the next 10-years of National Lottery funding.
Headlines included understanding the BFI as “an entity you can dip into online and all over the country,” Brown said, eager to emphasise that their Southbank venue was just one of a multitude of ways to access the rich film history, film culture, and talent that BFI work with.
“It’s important that the BFI is working harder to get out of London to have conversations with people from all areas of the industry,” Brown said, and Bays agreed. Splitting her time between London and Nottingham, she is approaching the role with a decentralised perspective, “I’m wanting to do this job in a way these jobs are not usually done. I’m not coming in with a big vision and big mission, but to take the temperature from across the UK, and internationally as well.”
Starting with questions, “What do we need to recover? Everything from before?” Bays sees the post-lockdown strategy as an opportunity, “Probably not,” she said. “Having to stop, in some ways, it’s helped the quality of films.”
Taking risks is also crucial in Bays’ view, especially in light of market failure, which she called “A priority to everyone, as everyone feels they are failing currently.” Both funding and measuring the success of future productions needs to go deeper than evaluating the so-called “commercial success” of a film, Bays said, “Box office is not one of the pillars of success for the fund at all.”
When asked from the floor if change is really happening, Brown admitted that even with greater effort in recent years, it is happening far slower than most of the industry would like, “Change is happening in an accelerated way, but albeit in an institutional way. Institutions are slow, by definition.” He did, however, point to both the long-term staff within the organisation who are doing deep research and pairing this with the introduction of a new working culture under recently appointed BFI CEO Ben Roberts. This includes the appointment of Mia Bays but also of two new Executive Directors; Arike Oke, Executive Director of Knowledge & Collections, and Jason Wood, Executive Director of Public Programmes & Audiences. “But,” Brown noted, “it takes two to three years to change the culture – of how people talk to each other, and how their colleagues respond.”
Plugging the gaps
Communication, Bays agreed, was another key area for scrutiny. Referencing writer and curator Jemma Desai’s recent comments on the Best Girl Grip podcast, Bays talked about the barriers of language, acknowledging “Lots of gaps, and needing to continue to diversify who’s on the screens, who’s behind the scenes, and looking at who’s in the room, [in] conversation.” The work needs to be more focused on reaching out, rather than waiting for what comes in, “Finding the people who are not coming to us… The scope of BFI with network, academy and audience [is huge, but we need] to connect it all up a bit more.”
Brown agreed, also pointing to the opportunities for connectivity, “Talent development is great and producing results but there’s a space between talent development, production, distribution, and exhibition, and we’re not connecting those well enough.”
Between plans to “Look at how we engage with freelancers,” embarking upon what he called, “A voyage of discovery on how to build audiences for XR and VR,” and with “Events as the catalyst for bringing and transforming recovery,” Brown is hopeful for the future.
Bays is, too, “It’s about community…. inviting audience responses to films, changing the way conversations are happening in cinemas… opening the spaces in whatever ways we can, and what we can do is bringing resource to that, and be the connective tissue.”