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Film: Lights go out at the BFI

No new British arthouse movies for two years? What's going on?
WHEN CHRIS Smith announced that the British Film Institute will give way to a "Film Council" next year, with an increase in total spending on film in this country, it seemed like a brave new cinematic world was in the offing. In fact, the BFI has been working against the interests of our most promising film-makers for the past six months.

I'll come clean here: I'm one of several people who have found their script funding frozen by the BFI - since last February, in fact. Just after I came on board to co-write a feature being developed by Adam Roberts about the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, the curtain effectively came down on BFI feature film funding when they instituted their own spending review and decided to cancel funds for all the films being made or developed under their aegis. Now it seems that the lights have gone out and everyone has gone home, too. Along with several other film-makers including Steve McClean, whose feature When the Music Stops was cancelled in pre-production, we have been left in the lurch.

In the last week or so, experienced film journalists have tried to grapple with the complexities of the Government's position. Generally speaking, a cautious welcome has been extended. The Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, proudly announced an increase in total film spending last week, but the BFI produced a "we're giving up making feature films" document entitled A Time of Change. Virulently anti-intellectual, anti-London and otherwise displaying all manner of dated John Major-ish notions, it proclaimed the desire for "doing less but doing it more efficiently": as if doing nothing well was a fabulous achievement. It's an especially poignant moment since, with the international success of films like Andrew Koffing's Gallivant and the upturn in quality exemplified by the forthcoming Francis Bacon Love is the Devil biopic, the BFI was finally getting its film-making sorted out.

It seems this organisation may be called the "Film Council", may have pounds 72m to spend, and may be up and running by the end of 1999. But with British Screen losing its remit next April, that's it for small budget films. The BBC and ITV companies have made it clear that they are only interested in bigger budget movies. They all want a "Full Monty".

If you consider that funding for art house movies in this country effectively ceased last February, and will only resume by the end of next year, you are talking about two years in which arthouse movies - difficult, challenging, hopefully groundbreaking small movies, often by first-time directors - will not be made or developed in Britain. All to save pounds 1m (BFI Production's annual budget).

Some might say that two years is not long to wait, and production will obviously resume in some form. But what does it say about any organisation - Chris Smith's department or the BFI management - that it suspends business while a review is carried out? Imagine closing the NFT and the RSC while Whitehall chews over the exact sums to give theatre. Imagine closing Heathrow for the duration of the Terminal Five Public Enquiry.

It may sound odd but it's actually very hard to write a script with no idea who you're going to pitch it to: any film-maker worth their salt has a clear idea not only of their audience but of their funding.

Previously, if you were making a small-budget movie in this country, you would have a chance to pitch at the BFI, British Screen and the Arts Council (lottery money) - all of them with slightly different styles. Now the giant Film Council is the only port of call, toeing only one line. And no one even knows what that line is yet.