Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office, told Parliament today that opportunities for film access and education provided by the Film Council’s £14.5 million grant to the bfi – such as seeing a film at the National Film Theatre, participating in educational events run by the bfi, or buying a bfi DVD or video – were taken up on almost two million occasions overall in 2001-02, 25 per cent higher than five years earlier. But take up varies widely across the bfi’s activities, and whilst the bfi is working to broaden its appeal there is more to do.
Audiences seeing films have increased, particularly for bfi films screened at regional and independent venues (up by 59 per cent) and for bfi Videos and DVDs (up 169 per cent). The bfi’s two major cinemas, the National Film Theatre and bfi London IMAX® cinema, both face challenges in maintaining or improving audience numbers. Audience numbers at the NFT in 2001-02, although not at the levels seen in the early 1980s, were 13 per cent higher than in 1997-98. The bfi London IMAX® has contributed to a big increase in numbers seeing films since it opened in 1999 but audiences fell in 2001-02 and it failed to meet its audience targets. The bfi attributes this in part to the terrorist events of September 11th. The number of visits to the bfi National Library has declined. But use of the bfi’s website has increased dramatically. Falling attendances at the Museum of the Moving Image led to its closure in 1999.
The bfi is aiming to extend access beyond specialist cinephile audiences and people in the South East, and is looking to widen the audience for its formal education products. The bfi is implementing a three year cultural diversity strategy and there is a particular push to reach a wider regional audience, for example the bfi’s celebration of South Asian film, ImagineAsia, involved partners from across England and from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the bfi promotes touring festivals. The bfi needs to enhance its data on current customers and conduct market research among potential customers, especially those groups that are under-represented in the take up of access opportunities, such as young people.
The National Film and Television Archive is one of the oldest and largest in the world and receives £3.5 million a year in public subsidy from the Film Council. It holds the national collection of British-produced or British-related film and television and includes about 150,000 fiction and non-fiction films and 250,000 television programmes. A limited proportion of access and education opportunities draw on the Archive. There are substantial backlogs of material waiting to be accepted into the collection and, of the film material that is catalogued, less than half (an estimated 46 per cent) is in a readily viewable condition. There are additional backlogs of preservation work, with films at risk of being lost as a result. The Film Council should oversee a fundamental review of the purpose of the Archive, working in partnership with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the bfi, and should ensure the bfi has a firm costed strategy in place for addressing the backlogs.
The bfi expects to subsidise most of its activities using grant in aid funding from the Film Council, although DVD and video sales, and commercial sales of rights to show films or clips on television are generating net income. The sheer diversity of the bfi’s activities and the widely differing public subsidy required underlines the importance of the work the Film Council is doing to reassess priorities. The Film Council should work with the bfi to ensure the objectives of the two organisations line up, and that sufficient information is collected by the bfi on the impact of its activities and how its grant in aid is spent.