A Giant Among Players

Monday, October 7 2013
A Giant Among Players

It’s a Wednesday morning in the heart of London’s West End and away from the bustle of Shaftesbury Avenue, a few floors up in the Century Club, BFI chair Greg Dyke is holding court, unveiling the new BFI Player, the organisation’s new digital video on demand service.

Of course, Dyke has form in this sector – he was, after all, at the helm of the BBC when it launched its own online player, the BBC iPlayer. And, of course, we all know what became of that. So when Dyke says that the new BFI Player, officially rolling out on Wednesday October 9, can “have the potential to do the same for film” as the BBC’s innovation did for television, then you know that maybe you ought to sit up and listen.

As Dyke explains, you can’t quite imagine what life was like in the days before the iPlayer – it “transformed broadcasting”. And with British film currently enjoying what some observers describe as a golden age (forget the fact that, before Cannes 2013, the same people were saying it was in the doldrums), and, thanks to its work with the Hitchcock restorations, “appetite for archive film has never been keener”, then it’s the perfect time to launch the BFI Player.

The thinking behind the BFI Player from his perspective is simple. “When I joined I was concerned that the BBFC wasn’t in the digital world at all,” he says. “It was odd, seeing as we had the best film library in the world…

“The number one priority was to put audiences at the heart of everything we did. We wanted to make as much as we could available to as many people as possible.”

With only seven per cent of screens devoted to specialist cinema – and much of that revolving around the capital and one or two other major cities – the BFI pledged to make itself a truly British operation and move away from the London-centric tag. The best way? To give the public the opportunity to watch the best from the BFI – and elsewhere – at home.

Using the tagline “Great film has a new home. Yours” the BFI Player, it will offer thousands of different options, ranging from free shorts and features, to clips and films you can rent (from £1 or so for the former, to £2.50 for standard and £3.50 for high definition versions of the latter) and even day and date theatrical and video on demand releases. The first two to fall under this banner, each priced at around £10 a pop, will be the wonderful Epic Of Everest, this year’s gala restoration from the BFI due to make its bow at the London Film Festival and another LFF biggie, Artificial Eye’s The Selfish Giant.

The latter is funded by the BFI’s Film Fund and Ben Roberts, who heads it up, sees what the new BFI Player can offer independent, homegrown films: “There’s limited potential for films to reach their true audience potential, the cinema space for film is limited.

“Existing TV and video on demand channels are dominated by more mainstream films. Dedicated platforms [like the BFI Player], particularly in the US, are beginning to grow audiences.”

The BFI Player is broken down in to seven different sections at launch; a number that is certain to expand as the service is added to (the October 9 launch is effectively just a “soft” one).

London Film Festival Presents – previous winners and biggies from the LFF (think, for example, Beasts Of The Southern Wild), other acclaimed films that have aired before, as well as the earlier outings of directors making noises at current festivals (think The Arbor from The Selfish Giant’s Clio Barnard). There will also be, as BFI creative director Heather Stewart notes, a “great selection of films from around the world that could not find distribution in the UK” – just look at the number of films that have a platform at LFF that fail to get distribution if you want a flavour for how big this could become. There will also be, more likely as free options, the likes of “red carpet action” as well as masterclasses and more.

Inside Film – interviews, profiles, historical elements and more from behind the scenes.

Gothic: The Dark Heart Of Film – a selection of titles from the current big BFI season, this too is broken down into its own categories.

Sight & Sound Selects – film classics hand-picked by the BFI’s in-house film journal. As was noted by Dyke earlier in the presentation, it’s not merely for BFI material either. “It’s not just BFI content, we have big ambitions for the Player.” It will take in everything from Apocalypse Now to Seven Samurai.

Backed By The BFI – Another non-label specific look at films, this time taking in those films that owe their production in no small part to the aforementioned Film Fund. Allowing the film to be aired on the BFI Player won’t, Roberts says, be a pore-condition of funding, in each instance it’s down to the distributor or rights-holder, but it is a platform for their films. “There are a lot of different models for releasing films,” says Roberts.

Edwardian Britain – A vast selection of some of the earliest filmed footage from around the country. Totalling 28 hours in all, it’s from the Mitchell and Kenyon archives, the most recent is more than 100 years old, while consumers can view it via regions, giving it a real local feel.

Cult Cinema – Built around the BFI’s Flipside imprint (one of our favourite labels in the business), this will offer a weird and wonderful world of films from the UK and beyond.

Mention of the Flipside, of course brings us on to the existing BFI operation. Where, we ask, does the BFI’s video arm fit in with the Player? Do they think it will cannibalise sales?

“We don’t think so,” says head of digital, Ed Humphrey. “We’ve not seen any evidence to suggest that video renal makes any difference to ownership of DVDs. It’s a very different purchase decision.

“Of course the two can co-exist side by side.”

Sales have, he notes, not been damaged by BFI product appearing on other vod platforms. And, of course, the BFI video arm’s sales are definitely holding up as its annual report shows. Furthermore, Humphrey states, the BFI Player can act as a showcase for some of the label’s wares.

The October 9 launch is being supported by marketing through the usual BFI channels, as Humphrey tells us later. Its traditional website boasts 10 million visitors a year, it speaks to 100,000 users via Twitter, a trailer will appear in front of BFI screenings and other similar routes. “We’re really going to focus on getting the message out,” he says. You can expect to see the BFI Player logo on adverts too, showing its availability on the player at the same time as retailers or theatres. Humphrey says he is keeping an eye on the UltraViolet and digital copy arena, and, while it was a bit “away” from working closely with them, he would “love” to be involved in this kind of arena too.

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