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Culture in Recovery? 

A challenge for the BFI in uncertain times.

As a society, the last few years have focussed and sharpened our attention on what we value the most and how we choose to spend our time. For the film industry and audiences, the idea of our local independent cinemas no longer being there after the pandemic was unthinkable.

We couldn’t be more protective of the role that independent cinemas, which make up 40% of the UK exhibition sector, play in bringing a variety of audiences to big screen culture, stimulating the imaginations of our future filmmakers and so much more.

All of us who work in the sector are acutely aware this is a very challenging economic environment to be operating in. The cost of living crisis, along with a number of other sector specific factors, are putting significant pressure on these vital venues. Many are simply struggling to survive, and we’ve already lost some. 

We’re saddened, angry and frustrated to see the recent closures of independent cinemas, or announcements of their intention to close. This is because we are personally connected to these cinemas through our work, and we know what they mean to their communities. But also because we are not able to provide these venues with emergency support to prevent these closures. 

With COVID, there was a major issue facing the cinema sector – closure and loss of business – now, there are many; inflation, interest rates, energy prices, cost of living, inconsistent release schedules, changing audience behaviours, home viewing choices, infrastructure issues. Each cinema closure we’ve seen recently has ultimately been because of a variety of those issues, and each as a result of its own specific circumstance. 

If it were available, emergency, short-term funding might act as a bridge to future stability, but – in truth – it would not address all the issues or be able to replace the significant drop in long-term revenue that many indie cinemas are facing. 

As the lead body for film, we absolutely understand our responsibility to the exhibition sector. This ranges from commissioning research to not only ensure our support is data-led, but also to share findings that can be utilised by the wider sector; collaborating with industry partners to make an impact that is larger than the sum of our parts; and working closely with Government to ensure they understand the full scope of the economic, social and cultural value of our industry. 

On this very complex, and quickly evolving issue, we are actively engaged with Government, so they are aware of the acute difficulties our sector is facing.

To do this effectively we are constantly in touch with cinemas across the UK, and face many of the same challenges ourselves in managing BFI Southbank, so we’re not operating in a vacuum. We also recognise many of these challenges are being felt across much of the wider cultural sector.

Early in the first lockdown with the support of our partners such as the Film Hub’s within the BFI Film Audience Network (FAN) – our National Lottery funded collaboration of eight film hubs, managed by leading film organisations and venues around the UK – and the Independent Cinema Office (ICO), we were able to present crucial data, evidence and modelling to ensure independent cinemas were part of the DCMS’s Culture Recovery Fund. The devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also all recognised the potential huge loss to each individual community in their nations and ensured that support for independent cinemas was available. 

The Culture Recovery Fund, which we are administering on behalf of DCMS, is the biggest single fund we have ever managed, with £34.4 million awarded to 209 cinemas. It came together at great pace, in the face of huge uncertainty and achieved what it set out to do, which was to ensure eligible cinemas were able to survive the pandemic and the periods of closure and reduced business in restarting caused by it. 

But the funding achieved much more than that; it was an investment in the infrastructure of these cinemas, an opportunity to optimise the offer to audiences, support for their business organisation and governance, and above all to show audiences that they are recognised as vital cultural places within in their communities. 

To see cinemas such as Depot in Lewes (winner of the Screen International Green Screen award for its environmental sustainability practices), the Ilkley Cinema (named Screen International’s Cinema of the Year (for 24 screens and under)), plus other indies such as JamJar in Whitley Bay, the Plaza Community Cinema in Crosby and Parkway Cleethorpes sitting proudly on the list of Culture Recovery Fund recipients alongside cultural giants such as the Tate, the Royal Opera House and the National Theatre was absolutely right, because these cinemas play a hugely important role in their communities all across the country.

In terms of the exhibition sector, we have never played a role as far reaching across our industry before the Culture Recovery Fund. When not in the exceptional circumstances of COVID, the funding we regularly have for the sector, is from the National Lottery and although it remains vital, it is modest in comparison.

For me, one absolute positive of the otherwise awful period of COVID was the strength found in networks and partnerships. Personally, I feel the National Lottery-funded BFI FAN came into its own during that period, with members finding new benefits in knowledge sharing and keeping in touch with the Hubs and managers for advice and intel.

Our new 10-year strategy, Screen Culture 2033, looks to build upon the work of the BFI FAN, the new connections we developed through the Culture Recovery Fund and our previous strategies around audience development. After an extensive consultation with public and industry, these were found to be fundamental pillars of where our National Lottery funding has the potential to make a much needed and hugely positive impact. Therefore it continues to be a clear priority for us in our new strategy. 

Within our National Lottery funding plan, we will award £27.6m to support audiences over the next three years, to continue the vital work of the BFI FAN, developing independent cinema’s output and offer and ensuring more audiences can attend them via the new Open Cinemas initiative (which will open in 2023). We are also inviting cinemas to consider and identify the deficits in their audiences, in order to grow new audiences via the National Lottery Audience Projects Fund, a fund which is flexible and can provide multi-year funding. 

The BFI’s National Lottery funding has – and always has had – a wide range of responsibilities in supporting public benefit activity. Cinemas, festivals, distribution, programming seasons, marketing initiatives, Video on Demand, to name a few audience-facing activities, need to be supported by this funding and usually work together to maximise the impact and result for audiences. Funding has always had a good cause remit and always needs to be for time-limited projects, rather than structural core funding. 

For now, keep supporting your local independent cinema and know that we’re doing what we can to ensure they continue to be here for the long term.

For information about BFI National Lottery funding for audiences, including the Audience Projects Fund, which is open for applications for activity taking place from April 2023: Bring film to a wider UK audience