British Film Institute

Presented by: Richard Paterson (Head of Research & Scholarship, BFI)


When I was invited to present this case study, I had recently briefed a colleague who had just joined BFI to develop what’s called the BFI-player. I was giving her a history of what the BFI’s engagement with the digital had been. And its hardly ‘new’ as these developments go back to the early-1990s. From a theoretical standpoint, it was interesting that Science, Technology & Society (STS) studies were referenced a moment ago, as basically that’s the context within which I want to consider this whole area; as one in which introducing a technology to an organisation relates to all the factors, networks and agents around it. This is the approach I have used previously to analyse the way television made its way into the BFI from the 1950s.

But let me first briefly summarise the current work of the BFI. It is important to recognize that the BFI today is a very different body from the BFI twenty years ago, when we first encountered digital. We have recently become the lead agency and lottery distributor for film in the UK. This role merges a new, more industrial, approach with that of the longstanding activities as a cultural, archival and educational body. For this event, it is our archival collections that are critical: we hold a million films and television programmes, about two million stills alongside related materials (scripts, designs, personal and company papers etc). We own rights in very little of this material but always observe copyright in making material available to different audiences across all platforms.

When digital emerged, it was obvious that what had previously been a rule of thumb at the BFI, basically that preservation was for posterity, because the cost of making material accessible was usually prohibitive, was no longer relevant. Posterity could now potentially be today. We would be able to provide access to material much more readily than we had ever done in the past and given the amount of public money that had been spent on conserving film in environmentally correct conditions this seemed to be a priority. When the BFI published its forward plan, BFI 2000, in 1996, digital transformation was at its heart. The BFI was very London-centric in its operations, but wanted its collections, and the related information which BFI curators could provide, to be made accessible across the whole country. Capturing that knowledge and making it available alongside newly digitized films was now possible.

However, digital technology, as we had found with television in the 1960s, required a new and specific skillset which was absent at that time at the Institute. And of course, rights in this material was an area with many unknowns in terms of providing access. With these gaps, particularly in technology, we went out and looked for partners. We already had a relationship with BT, but also developed a partnership with IBM, and together wrote an application for what we called The Imagination Network to the Millennium Commission (the body that funded the Millennium Dome) for £20 million. This would have enabled us to digitize 4000 films and television programmes and make them accessible in 42 locations across the UK from a central hub in London using BT’s ATM network. In addition we planned a small offering on the then nascent internet which was only just beginning to emerge as the distribution technology of the future. We secured permissions from all the relevant rightsholders and developed a business model to sustain the service but we were turned down by the Millennium Commission, because the application ‘lacked distinctiveness’.

Having failed to secure this investment we had to think in a much more limited way to prove the concept. We secured a grant from JISC and, with the BUFVC, developed a pilot service to three universities (Glasgow, Glamorgan and the OU), using the JANET network. In parallel, we also developed a pilot for a publicly accessible service with the Nottingham Broadway Cinema in partnership with Cable & Wireless. In so doing a skillset began to be developed inside the organization in terms of curatorial issues (knowledge), rights complexity and how to resolve the associated difficulties(copyright), and technological innovation and associated knowledge (encoding, metadata, asset management, usability).

It is now not just aligning technology, rights and knowledge but also about making it work commercially as well as culturally in a very competitive environment.

These projects were paralleled in another part of the BFI by plans to exploit what were seen as the commercial potential of the internet. This was the dotcom bubble period, full of false hopes, and this project, entitled Rosebud, became a casualty of over optimism. However, our cultural and educational interventions were given a major boost in 2001 by a grant of £1.2 million from the New Opportunities Fund, which led to the launch of BFI Screenonline in 2003. Screenonline benefited from the skills accumulated inside the BFI in the previous 6 years and was able to provide free access to fully contextualized British film and television programmes – an online encyclopaedia of British film and television – to all schools, colleges, universities and public libraries in the UK.

Now ten years later the BFI is developing plans for its BFI-player which it is expected will meld together both commercial and cultural online access to the Collections. Digital has become all pervasive and audience behavior has transformed. With the allocation of lottery money to digitize 10,000 films as outlined in the BFI’s 2012 Film Forever plan the challenge now is to secure visibility and distinctiveness for the BFI-player in a world where platforms have multiplied (Connected tv, SVOD etc) and are jostling for audiences’ attention. With technological evolution a new set of organizational changes are needed – the same STS principles apply – but it is now not just aligning technology, rights and knowledge but also about making it work commercially as well as culturally in a very competitive environment.

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