What Is the BFI + Why Should You Care?

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Welcome to Decoded, a regular series that deciphers different corners of the UK performance landscape. This week, Backstage decodes the British Film Institute (BFI), the UK’s main institution for dealing with all things film. It’s been around since 1933 and still going strong. We look at why that might be and why you might want to get involved.

Dont Say: “BF-why?!”

Do Say: “Film in the UK relies on the BFI. It’s a vital part of keeping film on the cultural agenda and will be for years to come.”

What is it?
The British Film Institute, usually known as the BFI, is the UK’s main film-related public body. Established in 1933, it has its filmy fingers in all manner of cinematic pies–from running one of the world’s largest film archives and the glitzy London Film Festival to doling out lottery money to grateful UK producers and promoting film in schools. If it’s British and film-related, chances are the BFI has a hand in it. 

Why should I care?
This is an easy one. If you’re into film, want to act in a film or just want to see something other than Muscled White Man in Tights III then the BFI matters. Firstly, it backs British films and filmmakers by distributing lottery funding to productions that might not otherwise be supported. That means jobs for new talent–jobs for people like you!

Also, part of its remit is to educate–so you may have already benefitted from its backing of film and media education in schools, or skills-based training programmes. Then there’s the annual glitzfest that is the London Film Festival, organised by the BFI, which showcases the work of new British talent and hosts events where newbies can meet and learn from visiting international filmmakers.

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If you live in London and love film, the BFI Southbank is a brilliant place to hang out, learn and get nerdy. Four cinemas show old films, new films, short films and foreign films–and there’s also the BFI’s IMAX, showing new releases on the biggest screen in the UK. It’s a mecca for filmmakers too, regularly attracting top names to its SE1 auditoriums. Plus, the slightly shabby entrance has been rebuilt, giving the BFI a swanky new riverside approach.

If you don’t live in London, congrats on being able to afford a flat, but also being able to see BFI-backed films due to its distribution arm. Classic films, reissues, and movies that wouldn’t otherwise get screened are seen in cinemas across the country thanks to the BFI. And they’ve made a commitment that by 2022, a quarter of all BFI production funding will be devolved to decision-makers based outside London.

How do I get involved?
Getting involved with the BFI is a brilliant way to build the skills and knowledge you’ll need to enter the film industry. If you’re aged 16–25 the BFI’s Film Academy offers courses, masterclasses, and networking for aspiring film professionals.

Plus, the monthly Future Film Labs offer the chance to mix online with fellow aspiring filmmakers – you never know what contacts you’ll pick up. There are scripting, casting, funding, and careers surgeries, and they’re all free – all you have to do is register.

Have a browse of the BFI Network website, which organises events across the country for emerging filmmakers and showcasing new work. Crucially, they also fund new films ­– and there far too many opportunities to list here, so get clicking.

What else do I need to know?
The BFI gets most of its funding from the government, but in a time of economic uncertainties, it has also had to increasingly rely on its commercial projects, grants, and sponsorship. Big, ambitious plans for a new £130m National Centre for Film and TV on the South Bank site were scrapped and, as with many cultural institutions, the BFI has had to consider afresh what its future might look like. Just like the BBC, critics have argued that the BFI needs to up its game when it comes to representation and relevance – targeting younger audiences, scouting for bold, diverse talent outside the capital and adapting to an ever-changing (and post-Covid) film landscape.

More in our Decoded series:

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