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Soft focus, hard choices

WilfStevenson.jpgWilf Stevenson on the problems facing those trying to create a UK film culture

Is UK cinema truly an art form on par with music and theatre? A colleague from my BFI days used to say that you could tell how the British ranked cinema as an art form by looking at the buildings on the South Bank. The glass palaces for the orchestras at the South Bank Centre and the new brutalism of the Royal National Theatre; and the National Film Theatre – hidden away under Waterloo Bridge.  

Last night, the Lords debated what government could do to create a cinema culture in the UK. In introducing the topic I drew on my experience as a former head of the British Film Institute (BFI), and my worry that for two decades the issues affecting cinema policy have not changed significantly – with a continuing split between those who view film as “industry” and those who see it as “culture”. What then can we do about it?

Like many people, I disagreed with the way the present government shut down the UK Film Council. But I do feel that having one body, independent of the government, is the right way forward. I am also delighted that the BFI now occupies this role, with a mission to ensure film is central to our cultural life, as it says, “by supporting and nurturing the next generation of filmmakers and audiences”. 

It is axiomatic that a successful film industry depends upon a flourishing audience culture, and vice versa. Indeed, in this digital era the two are more interdependent than ever before. And out of that combination ought to flow a vibrant cinema culture. Will the BFI be able to do what is required? That depends on its plans, and the willingness of the government to support it. 

In simple terms, everyone should have a chance to access a wide range of cinemas and types of film. They should be able to see these films in comfortable surroundings, as part of a mix of contemporary films and DVDs; and we need a successful industry making films that appeal to a wide range of tastes and audiences. We also need to prepare young people for jobs in the industry; along with a properly organised and funded archive to retain this material for scholarship and study. 

The BFI has a five year strategy for supporting UK film – ‘Film Forever’ – which includes much of this as core priorities, and seems to me to fit the aspirations we have for a cinema culture. But the question remains as to whether the funds are there to deliver it. At a time when most other arts institutions have been asked to find cuts of 5%, the BFI has been asked to find a cut of 10% in 2015-16. And this of course comes on top of funding reductions of 18% over the last two years. 

It strikes me that we do not yet have the capacity or commitment to create a cinema culture for the UK. This is partly becuse film never quite makes the grade as an art form but also because it’s seen primarily as an industrial process; and sadly, the combination of the two make it easy for government to view cinema as a soft option and easy target.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow DCMS Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @Missenden50

Published 3rd April 2014

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