Today’s article contains new data that the BFI have released to me. Following research I carried out about UK Film Council / BFI funding of short films, I wondered what the success rate was for feature film funding applications and put in an enquiry. The National Lottery is the second largest source of public funding for films in the UK, and in 2012/13 totalled £65.4 million. (Incidentally, the largest source is HMRC, who gave £206 million via the UK film tax relief). The vast majority of Lottery money is awarded by the BFI, and filmmakers are invited to apply for grants within development, production and distribution strands. In summary…
- In the past three years, the BFI has received 2,505 applications for funding.
- Of those, 720 were successful, equating to 29% of applications.
- Almost half of all applications to the BFI for development funding in 2012/13 were successful.
- In an average year, the BFI receives 353 applications for development funding, 403 for production funding and 79 seeking support for distribution.
Development BFI funding
In the graph above, the numbers for ‘applications received’ include the few which were later withdrawn. The figures for development applications cover film development, pilots, pre-production, supplementary funding applications and awards. Between 2012/13 and 2013/14 the number of applications fell by 16%, leading to a higher overall success rate for the remaining applications.
Production BFI funding
These figures are inclusive of production, first time directors, completion, documentary, enhancement applications and awards. The steep rise in applications in 2013/14 led to just 13% of applications being successful.
Distribution and promotion BFI funding
Many filmmakers are familiar with the BFI’s development and production funding schemes but not many are aware of their long-running support of distribution, helping independent films reach cinemas and audiences.
I’m grateful to the BFI for releasing these figures as I’m sure they will be of use to many filmmakers considering making an application. Before its demise, the UK Film Council was subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but the BFI isn’t. Which means that even though the BFI took over all of the UKFC’s activities it has no legal obligation to share information on its work. Despite this, the BFI (in their words) “voluntarily comply with Freedom of Information Act principles in respect of those of our activities which are of a public nature”. In practice this means that they are remarkably open with their data and statistics.
Did you get this information through a FOI request?
I approached the BFI with a FOI request to find out how the lottery funded films have performed. They used the excuse of the data being in the accounts split across all the years from the UK Film Council to present and therefore in the public domain to refuse my FOI request. They do keep a running total of how films perform, but clearly want to keep that a secret.
However on going through the accounts, as they suggested, I immediately found gaps in the information. I went to the Information Commissioner to seek assistance and the ICO contacted the BFI, but the BFI put forward an excuse that they are not subject to the FOI, in the ICO’s words:
“The BFI does not consider that it is a public authority for the purposes of FOIA. It is listed on the .gov website as an executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). It is also a registered charity governed by a Royal Charter. The Charity Commission is registered with the Charity Commission under registration number 287780. Its income appears to come from voluntary means, charitable activities and a very small percentage from investment.
As the BFI is a charity it is independent to its public body, whilst it does obtain a grant-in-aid from DCMS this does not make it a public authority for the purposes of the FOIA. It is an executive body. The BFI has explained that as of 1 April 2011 it assumed the national lottery film distribution functions of the UK Film Council. Discussions took place with DCMS to determine the status of the BFI in relation to the FOIA at this time. It is acknowledged that the situation with the BFI is difficult as it has public and private functions and as such the BFI agreed to voluntarily comply with the FOIA in relation to what was considered to be its public functions until a decision could be made on whether the BFI was formally subject to the FOIA.”
Although surely the awarding of film production grants is a public function? So if they voluntarily agreed to comply with the FOIA on public matters, why have they done a U-turn when it comes to disclosing the financial performance of lottery backed films? The lottery has funded about a quarter of a billion pounds of film production grants since the Arts Council started to allocate funds. Why shouldn’t the public have a right to know how those films performed financially?
How the FOI Act relates to the BFI is certainly an interesting situation. In principle, all bodies awarding National Lottery funded grants *should* be subject to Freedom of Information and that was how the UK Film Council was set up. However, because the UKFC was shut down with such by the new government, no thought was given to details such as FOI. This means that technically the BFI is not required to respond to FOI requests.
However, it’s my guess that internally they realised that if they refused to fulfill any FOI requests then there would be mounting pressure to amend the legal structure under which the BFI operates. Therefore, they are voluntarily choosing to comply with some requests (via http://www.bfi.org.uk/form/freedom-information-enquiry). In my opinion, this is a smart way for them to keep control of what information they disclose and to avoid any binding obligations.
To date, I’ve not heard of any FOI requests that the BFI have rejected without good reason, although this is obviously just my experience.
Thank you for clarifying. They did not give any reason other than that the FOIA did not apply to them. At first the BFI implied I could have had the information but because it was already in the public domain I’d have to dig it out for myself, even though they acknowledged they had the totals to hand (ie awards made and total income for each film). Then as soon as I flagged up that the data was incomplete on appeal to the ICO the BFI changed their argument to not being subject to the FOIA. They might say matters relating to their public function, such as awarding public funds, are dealt with in compliance with the FOIA, but I have found that not to be true. Also the pre-BFI data, from the Arts Council, Lottery Franchises and UKFC eras, is presumably not subject to the BFI’s get out argument anyway?
It just comes across like they want to keep the information secret, yet all their funds are essentially public contributions (lottery players and tax payers). One thing I did establish from the accounts, which as they made clear are public, is that the senior staff take home a tidy sum from the public purse!
A general question (slightly off topic): I just watched Brighton Rock. Box Office Mojo records it’s production budget at $12 Million and total world sales at $1,829,020. Being a BFI/National Lottery/BBC films production how does such a massive loss like this affect the overall budgets being awarded? It seems a regular occurrence. Who foots the bill for this, and does it ever effect departmental change? 🙂
Nikolai, all questions welcomed, off topic or not!
There are a number of complicating factors to consider in your example. Firstly, the “world sales” figure you quote is just the cinema box office. Most films make money from other sources, and in fact television rights actually bring in more money for British features than cinema. (That top spot used to be DVD revenue but it’s falling fast compared with other income streams). I would suggest that films like Brighton Rock would make a higher than average amount of its money via TV and DVD, compared with a cinema-friendly movie, such as a Hollywood blockbuster.
Secondly, Box Office Mojo may be missing many smaller territories. Free online box office data is rarely complete.
That said, even with high TV and DVD sales and a few more territories added, it very unlikely that Brighton Rock made a profit. The BFI use a crude rule of thumb to measure profitability; if the the worldwide box office was at least twice the production budget then a film is likely in profit. From your numbers, it looks like Brighton Rock is falling far short.
So now we have to consider if it matters. Many argue that the aim of public funding of art should be for arts sake. Others point out the value to the industry of such projects, regardless of how much they return after release.
There is always a tension in public funding of the arts over whether they should be seeking profitable films or conversely seeking worthy projects that would not otherwise get funded. One could argue that they should fund the projects which cannot get private investment – ie the riskiest ones. What’s the value in the Lottery providing money that is also on offer from private sources?
The last time David Cameron spoke on the topic he said that public funding should serve both art and industry/ profit.
It’s not an easy question, not one that will likely ever draw consensus.
Thank you for the reply, Stephen. It IS a tricky question, and I specifically am abstaining from the argument of artistic merit, since that can be purely subjective.
But it is just so difficult to judge the methodology of the funding distribution with the BFI when they neither seem to actively support more Art House projects nor internationally viable commercial ventures.
It is a mystery as to how to help improve the situation from the outside, and to get on the ‘inside’ is still a further conundrum.
Private funding and a good business plan still seems the best option available.
Hi, Stephen. One of the more interesting aspects of this article for me is what would seem the low number of applications for development funding to the BFI. In New Zealand we have two government bodies that provide development funding for drama projects: NZ on Air (TV) and the NZ Film Commission. There are no other real alternatives apart from miniscule private investment. I believe the film commission alone attracts around 2 – 300 development funding applications each year. NZOA, a small number for drama. Does the BFI’s low application rate reflect the fact that there are other avenues for development funding available in Britain?
That’s a good point. I also thought that the numbers would have been higher.
If I were to wear my ‘cynical British filmmaker’ hat (they give them out in the UK tent in Cannes) then I would suggest that the vast majority of British filmmakers don’t apply because they are, well, cynical! The assume that public funding is a close shop and there is no point in bothering to apply.
I don’t think that there are many, if any, development funding schemes outside of Lottery money (i.e. BFI and the regional screen agencies) which awards significant development funding to independent filmmakers.
However, this is all conjecture as the stats don’t reveal the answer.
It’s pretty clear to anyone that has been through the arduous process of applying for BFI funding, that there is a distinct lack of transparency and unneccessary bureaucracy. There is also a lack of feedback, support and worse still, accountability.
I also question whether those in a position to initially approve projects actually have the skillset or possess the love for film to be able to do so. We compare it to the Vatican! 🙂 I despair that diversity still is very much lacking in their outlook and worse still, BFI fail to support those filmakers who need representation the most.