Screen culture – the meeting point of audio-visual storytelling and the digital revolution – has become the defining cultural phenomenon of our time, and is hugely influential in society.
As an expressive art, screen culture is still young, dynamic and expanding. The first moving images were created just over 100 years ago. Today, screen culture encompasses film, TV, digital media and video sharing, extended reality (XR) and video games. It has become the dominant means of communication and information for Gen Z and beyond, and a powerful means of expression, knowledge sharing and international soft power.
As an industry, the UK screen sector is a large and fast-growing employer that draws on a huge range of skills and disciplines to produce and distribute a vital form of entertainment and enrichment.
But despite its universal appeal and impact, screen culture is not afforded the same value in society as other cultural forms. It’s not taught widely in schools, and doesn’t benefit greatly from philanthropy at the same level as other artforms. Instead, the screen sector has been valued more as a creative industry than for its contribution to arts and culture.
At the BFI, we’re here to promote and grow the full value of screen culture: to celebrate its positive impact on society; to transform access and ensure its continued economic growth; and to keep a record of the evolution and impact of our evolving artform in the BFI National Archive.
So, we’ve proudly claimed Screen Culture as the name of this new ten-year strategy that will steer us through this period of evolution and innovation and towards the BFI’s centenary year in 2033.
We’re producing this strategy as societal, cultural and economic factors are having a profound impact on the screen sector, on the independent sector, and screen culture as a whole.
While there are evident challenges, this also presents us with opportunities.
For example, the UK’s screen industries have more than doubled in size since we published our last strategy in 2017 and make a significant contribution to the UK economy. Production spend alone has risen from £2.2bn in 2017 to £5.6bn in 2021 and is projected to reach £7.3bn by 2025. It’s vital that we capitalise on this growth and ensure that the opportunities to work in the sector are available to everyone.
Meanwhile, convergence is building in the screen sector – in terms of skills, technology and consumption. This presents an opportunity to work in close collaboration with industry, government, screen agencies and experts to scale up the UK’s creative and economic potential.
We have seen how in the early stages of the pandemic lockdowns accelerated the shift in how audiences consume film and TV. UK adults spent nearly a third of their waking hours watching TV and online video content in 2020. The streaming market continues to evolve, and we don’t yet know the ‘new normal’ for theatrical exhibition and distribution.
Whilst signs of recovery are positive for major releases and repertory cinema, we need to anticipate new models for how screen culture is consumed. Our recent Economic Review of UK Independent Film revealed a domestic industry in flux.
We have confidence. The screen sector – and the BFI – were on the front foot during the early waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. Together, we were quick to respond to production challenges. We used the BFI’s powerful policy and evidence resources to coordinate effective solutions. Working between government, the industry, national screen agencies and the wider cultural sector, we secured the Culture Recovery Fund for Independent Cinemas and the Film & TV Production Restart Scheme.
Our role in creating the right conditions for industrial growth and cultural development has never been more important. We need to be fit and ready to lead with confidence and stability.
A BFI fit for the future
The pandemic has cast a long shadow on our own financial health as an organisation. Despite the incredible performance of our people and the support of government, our audiences, members, patrons, donors and sponsors, we have a significant gap in our projected finances. If we don’t take the appropriate action now, we will have a growing financial challenge for years to come. We receive 2.7% of the National Lottery’s income, but the size of the overall National Lottery pot has fallen and we have to do more with less.
Much of our cultural activity and our work for industry is funded through continued grant-in-aid support from the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. However, we rely on a variety of income streams to deliver the full breadth of our charitable mission – as governed by our Royal Charter. The fundraising landscape is challenging, and both our physical and digital estates need investment. To deliver on our vision from a place of stability, we’ll need to grow the income that we generate ourselves. We must also consider how the industry can better support our cultural work and the services we provide to the screen sector.
We feel the varying patterns in audience behaviour as a cinema and a streamer. We operate five screens – from our 30-seat Studio to the biggest IMAX screen in the UK. We’ve seen a strong demand for BFI Player, with double the number of subscribers since 2019. Similarly, our Britain on Film screen heritage has had 90 million views via our digital channels.
Digital access to our programmes – and our digital revenues – are critical. But they need high levels of sustained investment to meet the raised expectations of more demanding online audiences.
So, to realise our vision and fulfil our mission, we know we must evolve into a digital-first organisation. The potential to deliver more of our work digitally presents us with a huge and transformative cultural opportunity. We can build a more diverse BFI than ever, have broader reach and engagement with audiences, and unlock a major source of future income.
This means building a more innovative organisation. One that is representative of and relevant to the public, is a credible lead body for supporting the industry’s development and growth, and advances our commitments to net zero. To stay at the forefront of screen culture, we’ll embrace change and evolve as a resilient, sustainable, digital-first and diverse organisation with a plurality of voices.
You’ll see this approach woven throughout our strategy.
Ben Roberts, Chief Executive