Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: British Film Chief Ben Roberts Reveals Biggest Coronavirus Worry, Changes To Indie Financing & What London Film Festival Might Look Like

Ben Roberts, British Film Institute CEO BFI

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.

Ben Roberts became the British Film Institute’s CEO in February, having led the BFI’s Film Fund for six years and served as deputy CEO for a further two. Almost instantly, he was charged with leading the organization’s response to the coronavirus crisis, and the BFI worked quickly to establish initiatives to provide emergency funding for displaced workers, examine the impact of COVID-19 on all facets of the business, and work with government to forge a path forward.

Speaking for the first time since taking the job, Roberts shares a guest column exclusively on Deadline, detailing his first reaction to the unfolding situation, how the organization’s planning for Brexit laid the groundwork for dealing with this unexpected crisis, and how its research has established the scale of the disruption on film freelancers. — Joe Utichi


We’re living in uncertain times. When the Coronavirus outbreak first hit, the initial reaction was one of shock, and I don’t think everybody realized at quite the same moment what the long term effect of this pandemic was going to look like. But at a certain point, one has to move into shock recovery, and at the BFI, we’ve been doing our own version of that.

Daily, I think people are starting to realize just how catastrophic the impact of this has started to become. But nobody that I’ve come across, throughout this industry, has chosen to respond by pulling their hair out and hoping it’ll all go away. The impetus to find a path forward has been there from day one. Each and every one of us is dealing, very constructively, with a crisis that we now know will have a fundamental and long-lasting impact on our business.

One of the BFI’s first priorities was to reconvene a Screen Sector Taskforce, which was born out of a model that was initially put together for Brexit planning. The Taskforce has doubled in size in terms of membership and participation as compared against the Brexit version, and every member has been engaged in trying to solve the myriad issues the pandemic has presented within our industry.

It’s broken down into various subcategories focussed on inward investment, independent film, TV and broadcasting, and videogames. We have more focus groups than ever working with their opposite numbers at the governmental Department of Culture, Media and Sport, who are asking us to contribute to their own planning around the easing of social distancing measures. What we need as an industry is being represented strongly in how the government is evaluating the path forward for the United Kingdom.

We’re starting to understand now what the measures are that will need to be in place to get us back to an equilibrium that would allow the industry to reopen. We have a sense of what the priorities are, and I feel confident that the very specific needs of our industry will be represented in proposals sent to government.

But before that, phase one in my mind has been to address the vast number of freelance workers in our sector whose income dropped to nothing overnight, as productions and cinemas shut up shop. The Treasury has thrown a huge amount of resource at combatting the crisis across the board, and we have to recognize the value of that. But it’s also our responsibility to advocate for those who have not been helped by the relief measures already put into place.

The BFI has partnered with the Film and TV Charity to establish a relief fund, and that has given us a good sense of the scale of the need. We think that there are about 20,000 freelancers who are still not eligible under the existing programs, across the film and television industries. It’s essential for us to look at ways we can meet that need, whether it’s through repurposing or relaxing our lottery funding to get that money flowing and trickling down to those that need it, or through initiatives like the relief fund, and our ongoing conversations with DCMS.

And the DCMS is encouraging that conversation; they just need to see evidenced need. So, we are working with counterparts across the sector to build the evidence they require. We have a research and statistics unit that is working tirelessly to gather all that data.

We are also focussed on the basics of getting back. Getting audiences back into cinemas. Getting films back into production. Getting our brilliant creative talents back to work. That may involve seismic change, or it may not; it’s simply too early to tell. But the key responsibility for the BFI is ensuring that any change is, at the end of the day, a beneficial one for the sector as a whole.

I’m really keen, for example, to see a change in the way the independent sector is financed, supported and operated, because it was already under tremendous pressure before COVID-19. Now is the time to collectively imagine the kind of change that, when put into practice, has a beneficial effect on the independent sector in a long-term way.

And regardless of how this crisis might have changed people’s relationship with their TV sets and streaming platforms, we still want to ensure we get people back into theaters. We have seen, on our own platform BFI Player, how people are yearning for cinema. Subscriptions have multiplied several fold, and activity within subscriptions is at an all-time high. Independent cinema should absolutely be capitalizing on that increased appetite now. People are using isolation as an opportunity to deepen their film education while they have this time at home, and that tells me that they are eager for the opportunity—presented safely, and at the right time—to get back into cinemas.

We are working hard to get films back into production, too. Social distancing will last for a while longer, but when it comes to an end, we’re keen to ensure health and safety is taken seriously on film sets.

The longer-term impacts of the crisis remain unknown, but the way the taskforce has been set up is such that we can anticipate some of the challenges that will present themselves. Let’s say we can get to a place where social distancing measures have eased enough to make film production viable. What, then, will be the impacts on practical things such close contact on film sets, or insurance? Every aspect of the industry has been able to bring its own concerns about the future to the table.

My biggest personal worry about ongoing social distancing is the impact it will have on exhibition, because I have a feeling that it will last longer there than anywhere else. And that might be due to peoples’ personal feeling about health and safety as much as any government-mandated social distancing policy. We’re putting a lot of emphasis on research to establish what audiences’ perceptions of gathering again are likely to be. That’s a topic that is much broader than cinemagoing. But I think society will want, ultimately, to normalize. To get back to the pub; to football matches; to concerts; and, yes, to the cinema.

Festivals are an especially interesting aspect to consider, because the festival experience is so communal. Festivals are all about audiences coming together for a shared experience, and the discussions that happen in audience Q&As and between screenings. They bring audiences together with talent and industry like nothing else. It’s my hope that the fall festivals this year will play an important role in establishing a return to normalcy, because I know many film fans will want a return to that very specific kind of experience.

BFI Flare was among the first festivals in the world to weather the storm of the unfolding crisis. I had been in the job a couple of weeks at that point, and my focus was very much on future strategy. Things changed so fast that, even as little as three to five days before the festival, it seemed fairly plausible that it would run unhindered. Almost overnight, the thinking changed, and it became clear the festival would no longer be viable in its traditional form.

It’s a testament to the resourcefulness of BFI Festivals Director Tricia Tuttle and her team, as well as the digital team at BFI Player, that, 48 hours after we had a conversation about the potential to play some of Flare’s titles online, Tricia was talking to filmmakers and securing a program for just that eventuality. It’s not uncommon for festivals these days to have a strong online component, but for Flare to have secured as many new titles as it did—nine in total—was certainly unprecedented. And we secured a number of live Q&As with filmmakers to go along with the films.

As far as the London Film Festival is concerned, we are scenario planning for many eventualities right now. Everything from it happening in the traditional, bricks and mortar form, to having it run online, and what the landscape might look like for studios and distributors come October if social distancing continues.

I think my job is about looking for opportunities and talking constructively about how we can re-establish some semblance of normalcy as quickly, as safely, and as comprehensively as we possibly can. But in a crisis like this, nobody can afford to be naïve about the scale of the challenge, least of all me. It’s a line I am treading every day, but the way the industry has come together to meet this challenge has given me great cause for optimism.

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