The British Film Institute - Company Profile, Information, Business Description, History, Background Information on The British Film Institute

21 Stephen Street
United Kingdom

Company Perspectives

Inspired by enthusiasm for the moving image and a spirit of adventure, we will seek to inspire others. We will celebrate creativity and encourage innovation and excellence. We will contribute cutting-edge critical perspectives and champion wide-ranging debate. Engaging people all across the UK, we will extend the beneficial reach of film and television, especially among children, young people and socially and culturally diverse audiences. We will seek new ways to improve media literacy and enrich appreciation and understanding of our past, present and future heritage, while fostering lifelong learning and enjoyment. We want to be amongst the UK's leading cultural advocates as well as an influential friend of film-makers and audiences around the world.

History of The British Film Institute

The British Film Institute operates under Royal Charter to promote understanding and appreciation of film and television in United Kingdom. The organization maintains one of the world's largest archives of films, television programs, and related materials; operates the three-screen National Film Theatre and an IMAX large-screen theater; releases classic films to theaters and on video; publishes books and the monthly film journal Sight & Sound; and organizes the annual London Film Festival and London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Other activities include providing an information service for researchers, sponsoring educational programs, and selling copies of material from its archives to film producers.

Early Years

The British Film Institute (BFI) was founded in 1933 by the British Board of Trade to promote, study, and help educate about film in the United Kingdom. Its creation had been prompted by a report commissioned several years earlier by the British Institute for Adult Education's Commission of Educational and Cultural Films.

In 1934 the organization received its first annual grant of £5,000 from the Cinematograph Fund of the Privy Council, and it also took over the two-year old quarterly publication Sight & Sound and inaugurated the Monthly Film Bulletin. During the year staff member Ernest Lindgren started a book and periodical library, which in 1935 began to house films. Within three years the National Film Library's collection had grown to 300 titles, some of which were for lending and others for preservation only. The BFI had by this time also begun sponsoring a summer school and public film screenings.

During World War II the organization's film collection was moved from London to a stable in Rudgwick, Sussex, for safekeeping, and its headquarters in Great Russell Street was damaged during the Nazi blitz. After the war a new location was secured on Shaftesbury Avenue, where the BFI was relocated in 1948.

At this time a study was completed that recommended several changes in the agency's operations, and its educational mission was subsequently shifted to the recently formed National Committee for Visual Aids in Education, while artists and technicians were encouraged to attend the new British Film Academy. The BFI would focus on running the National Film Library, providing an informational service documenting British films, and promoting film appreciation on a national and regional basis.

In 1949 Denis Forman was named director of the organization, while Sight & Sound became a monthly publication edited by younger film critics like Gavin Lambert and Penelope Houston. In 1950 the BFI began a series of film showings at the Institut Francais, and a year later a facility called the Telekinema was built for the Festival of Britain to show three-dimensional and experimental films. When the temporary exhibition in London's South Bank was about to close, Forman proposed that the Telekinema building be converted into a facility called the National Film Theatre (NFT).

In 1952 the NFT opened with filmmaker Karel Reisz serving as its first programmer, and the BFI's Experimental Film Fund was established to provide assistance to new filmmakers. In 1955 Denis Forman resigned to join the Grenada production company and was replaced by James Quinn, while the organization renamed its film library the National Film Archive, underscoring its efforts to preserve early British films. The following year a free program, "60 Years of Cinema," was presented in conjunction with the Observer newspaper and drew 200,000 viewers.

London Film Festival Debuts in 1957

In 1957 the BFI built a new NFT auditorium under London's Waterloo Bridge near its existing site. In October the new theater hosted the first London Film Festival, which would go on to become one of the organization's signature offerings.

In 1960 the BFI moved its headquarters to a new location on Dean Street, and took possession of 400,000 donated still photographs from the closed Picture Show magazine. The following year a new quarterly magazine, Contrast, debuted, marking the organization's expansion of its scope to include television.

The BFI had long been funded by the British Treasury, but in 1965 this task was shifted to the Department of Education and Science, which increased its stipend by one-third. The following year was a busy one as the organization, under director Stanley Reed, bought a new site in Berkhamsted to serve as a preservation center, established its first regional theater in Nottingham, and revived the defunct Experimental Film Fund to promote young filmmakers.

In 1967 the BFI distributed a controversial film called The War Game, which the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had refused to show on television. A year later the new National Film Archives facility opened and the John Player lecture series was started at the NFT.

In 1970 BFI added an auditorium to the NFT which enabled it to increase the diversity of screenings offered there. One year later Mamoun Hassan was named head of production for the organization and started a program to sponsor low-budget feature films. Then, in 1973 BFI established two new departments, Film Availability Services and Information & Documentation, as well as a new governing structure that utilized advisory committees for each area of the Institute which were chaired by governors who reported to the organization's director.

Nitrate Film Copying Project Begins in 1975

In 1975 the BFI implemented a 24-year plan to duplicate some 200 million feet of nitrate film stock held in its archives. The chemically unstable, highly flammable nitrate film had been the industry standard prior to the 1950s, and the organization wanted to copy its collection (including vast amounts of unique newsreel footage and the negatives to many classic films) onto stable "safety" film to preserve it for future generations.

In 1977 the BFI's information department moved to a new location on Charing Cross Road, where the organization's headquarters were soon relocated. The Guardian Lecture Series was begun in 1980 and would be taped for broadcast on the BBC.

In 1981 famed British filmmaker Sir Richard Attenborough was appointed governor chairman of the BFI. The organization was facing a decline in funding at this time, and during the next several years it struggled to maintain a full level of service.

In 1982 the first in a series of co-productions with new public broadcaster Channel Four was released, filmmaker Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract. The copying of nitrate film was continuing as well, now at the rate of seven million feet per year. The latter consumed more than a quarter of the organization's budget of £8 million.

On the BFI's 50th anniversary in 1983 it was granted a Royal Charter, which attested to its importance as a cultural institution. The organization also granted its first honorary fellowships to legendary filmmakers including David Lean, Satyajit Ray, and Orson Welles, and began publishing an annual directory, the BFI Film and Television Yearbook (later Handbook).

In 1984 the BFI established a video unit at its archives to tape television programs off the air for preservation purposes. With funding from broadcasters Channel 4 and ITV it would record some 60 hours per week for posterity. Two years later a season-long program of films on gay and lesbian issues was held at the NFT, which subsequently became an annual event called the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

In 1987 the BFI's headquarters were moved to a newly-purchased site at Stephen Street in London, while a new conservation center opened near the organization's archives in Berkhamsted. Each was funded in large part by American expatriate billionaire J. Paul Getty II.

Museum of the Moving Image Opens in 1988

The year 1988 saw the opening of the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in London's South Bank, which would house a collection of film-related artifacts and interactive displays. It had been funded entirely by private donations from the likes of J. Paul Getty II and shipping magnate Sir Yue Kong Pao.

On November 1, 1988, the BFI used a network of volunteers to record the activities of film production companies, television studios, and at viewers' homes around the United Kingdom, as well as taping all broadcast programs for 24 hours in an event called "One Day in the Life of Television." The year also saw Wilf Stevenson appointed director of the organization to replace the departing Anthony Smith, who took the job of president of Magdalen College at Oxford.

In 1990 the BFI partnered with Argos Films to sell videotapes of classic films through Connoisseur Video. A year later Sight & Sound absorbed the Monthly Film Bulletin and was made over with an eye toward newsstand sales. The BFI Film Classics book series was inaugurated in 1992 by the firm's publishing department, while the long-running annual British National Film & Video Catalogue bibliography was mothballed.

The BFI also expanded its educational offerings during 1992 by starting a graduate program in film and television studies at Birkbeck College; formed the London Film and Video Development Agency to promote production, training, and exhibition in that city; and reached an agreement with French Champagne maker Piper-Heidsieck to create new copies of classic films for a touring exhibition. In November the British government announced a three-year freeze of the organization's annual £15 million grant, after which its distribution/exhibition and production divisions were merged and other costs were cut across the board, including grants to regional theaters and film boards. About half of the BFI's operating budget came from the government, with the rest coming from donations and proceeds from video sales, publishing, and other income generating operations.

Attendance at the NFT and MOMI were in decline, and during 1993 several key personnel left the theater unit. The year also saw veteran film producer Jeremy Thomas take the job of BFI chairman from Sir Richard Attenborough. In 1994 the organization's stipend from the British government was raised from £15 million to £17.1 million, and the BFI also announced it would begin to add video games to its archive.

In 1996 a new strategic report called BFI 2000 was prepared, which laid out a road map for future growth. Plans included moving the NFT to a new site in London's West End, expanding the MOMI, adding a large-screen IMAX theater, and digitizing and expanding access to the BFI's collections via a fiber optic network to universities and arts centers around the United Kingdom. The plan also called for cutting about a quarter of the organization's staff of 520, which helped its already low employee morale sink further. During the year the London Film Festival's director left and its management was shifted to the NFT.

In October the BFI was awarded £15 million to build the proposed IMAX theater. The organization was facing strong criticism in some quarters for the plan, as well as for emphasizing recent popular films and "cult" titles at the NFT, and tilting the MOMI's focus toward entertainment and children's activities rather than history.

In February 1997 a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of nearly £14 million was awarded to the BFI to boost its efforts to preserve films and television programs. Copying of nitrate film had fallen to three million feet per year, while the archive had grown to include 300,000 titles dating from 1894 to the present.

The year also saw director Wilf Stevenson and chairman Jeremy Thomas depart, to be replaced by industry lobbying group head John Woodward and Fame director Alan Parker, respectively. The organization faced another funding crisis when the British government announced it was lowering the BFI's stipend to £15.1 million, after which it cancelled funding for feature film production, ended its U.K. Media Desk sponsorship, and cut 40 of its staff of 487. A simultaneous restructuring created four operational departments: Production, Collections, Education, and Exhibition. Also during this time, a new unit called BFI Films was created to sell copies of footage from the organization's archives, and the Film Café restaurant at the NFT was opened.

BFI Comes Under Wing of Film Council in 1998

In 1998 a new administrative body called the British Film Council was formed to oversee the activities of the BFI and sister agencies the British Film Commission and British Screen, funding them with taxpayer and National Lottery monies. Chairman Alan Parker and Director John Woodward were named to run the new umbrella organization the following year, with journalist Joan Bakewell and deputy director Jon Teckman taking their respective places.

In 1999 the BFI's new £20 million IMAX theater debuted while the money-losing MOMI was closed, though plans were announced to reopen it later in a new building. A major new addition to the archives was the recently discovered cache of 800 Mitchell and Kenyon "actuality" films from the turn of the century. The nitrate negatives constituted the best collection of its type ever found, and over the next several years they were copied to safety film and a popular television special about them was aired.

In 2000 the Film Council took over the BFI's film production activities, and in 2001 a £1.2 million lottery grant helped fund BFI Online, which would make many items from the archives available on the Internet. In 2002 the organization was again restructured, this time into three departments: Culture and Education; Development and Communication; and Planning and Resources.

During 2002 Jon Teckman left the director's post, and the BFI announced that the MOMI would not reopen as planned. Its space would be taken over by a library, where some former display items were to be shown. Many donors and former board members were furious with the decision, complaining that the earlier announcement of a temporary MOMI shutdown had been disingenuous and questioning the organization's commitment to its historical and educational mission.

In 2003 a new chairman, English Patient director Anthony Minghella, was appointed. He vowed to lead the troubled organization back to a focus on education, while also maintaining the activities of the archives, which still had some 110 million feet of nitrate film to copy. Soon afterwards the BFI announced it would eliminate the regional film program that made prints of classic titles available to independent theaters, leaving the job to the Film Council. In June Amanda Nevill was appointed BFI director and another study was undertaken to determine future priorities.

Expansion Scaled Back, Commercials Archive Added in 2004

Completed in early 2004, the review recommended that previously announced plans to build a new £35 million Film Centre on the South Bank be shelved for ten years, with a scaled-down version constructed in the vacant MOMI building instead. In the fall the Coca-Cola Company gave the BFI funding to build and preserve a collection of filmed advertisements, while also donating its own materials and urging other firms to follow suit.

In 2005 the BFI joined with Channel 4, the BBC, and the Open University to launch the Creative Archive Licence Group, which would put archival material online for free use by filmmakers and educators. It was subsequently expanded, while the organization also began preparation of an educational film download site called Screenonline.

At the start of 2006 the recommended £4.5 million expansion to the NFT was begun, with completion anticipated by the start of the London Film Festival in October. It would include a new research and study area, a small theater, and a gallery.

More than 70 years after its founding, the British Film Institute continued to perform many of the same duties it had originally been charged with, while seeking to more clearly define its mission for the future. Now under the wing of the Film Council, it was taking a conservative approach to expansion while continuing to preserve and make available its rich film and television archives.

Principal Divisions

National Film and Television Archive; BFI Publishing; National Film Theatre; BFI London IMAX Cinema; BFI National Library; BFI Education.

Principal Competitors

La Cinemateque Francaise; The Library of Congress; Museum of Modern Art; George Eastman House; UCLA Film and Television Archive.


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