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Often the first point of call for U.K. filmmakers seeking to get projects off the ground, the British Film Institute has long been a mainstay in the local industry, backing scores of titles each year. In Toronto, it has no less than 10 films coming from established names like Claire Denis (High Life) and Mike Leigh (Peterloo) to rising talent such as Tom Harper (Wild Rose) and William McGregor (Gwen). Ben Roberts, 43, serves as the director of BFI’s film fund, which comes backed by the British government alongside lottery money and has been set at £79.5 million ($102.5 million) for the 2017-22 period. Speaking ahead of Toronto, the former Protagonist Pictures CEO describes the prioritization process, measuring non-financial success and the power of getting films made without a distributor on board.
Does 10 BFI-backed films at Toronto make for a particularly good year?
I’d say it’s probably quite representative of where we normally get to in TIFF. The beauty of Toronto is that it allows for films of different complexions to get into various different spots. It’s a festival where you can have quite of lot of prominence given to a first feature, like a Gwen, and also prominence to a broader, more populist piece like Wild Rose. And there is still room, thanks to the platform strands, for the more esoteric work that we tend to like supporting.
How do you prioritize which films should get funding?
It’s quite a good time to ask that question, because we’ve recently introduced to our decision-making five priority areas that we focus on: early careers; risk, which includes creative risk within material and commercial risk; impact, looking at what impact it’s likely to have culturally, politically, socially; perspective, which looks at the specificity and diversity of perspectives; and the fifth area is an aim to increase the number of projects generated outside London. It’s not about spend in a region — it’s about who are the filmmakers, what’s the story and where they are coming from. Those are the five “likes,” and we’re looking for projects to light as many likes as possible.
How do you measure success for BFI films?
As a funder with that particular remit, we don’t measure all our success in financial terms, and I think it would be problematic if we did. We put a lot of emphasis on developing talent and supporting early careers, so I would say our greatest measure of success is what our support for a filmmaker has afforded them in terms of their forward trajectory as a filmmaker. Take Gwen, for example. It’s a great debut film by William McGregor, who’s been working in TV and forged quite a successful career for himself. But in terms of film work, does Gwen establish him or at least suggest to the industry that he is a filmmaker that should be noticed, in the same way as, in recent years, Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), Will Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), Dan Kokotajlo (Apostasy) and Rungano Nyoni (I Am Not a Witch) have all benefited?
Are there any attempts from the BFI to help films and filmmakers get noticed?
That’s probably the more unsung area of our work. We have money to support work to reach an audience and also make sure they’re having an impact — to reach audiences who might not otherwise hear of them. But in our role as broker, a little-known fact is that we have supported and greenlit debut films without distribution attached. We took the view that look, we know these films are good, let’s back the filmmaker and allow them to make the purest version of their work. Take them to market, use the festival environment to introduce those filmmakers to more than one distributor. In some instances, you had debut filmmakers who have found themselves in auction environments.
Many British filmmakers make their first film and then run off to the U.S. Are there any efforts to keep them in the U.K.?
I don’t think we want to take anyone’s passport away. But in truth, if you break it down, it doesn’t happen as much as you think. There are some that land with a big noise and they attract the attention of U.S. agents with bigger projects in their sights. And a lot of these filmmakers want to make bigger projects, and our role is simply to support them in making possibly only their first film and then they’re on the career path that they want to be on. Whether that’s Yann Demange (White Boy Rick) or Paul King (Paddington), so be it. I think that’s absolutely fine.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 9 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.
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