A Celebration of Cinemas – How the BFI Southbank Champions Cinema

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Cinemas are otherworldly. They wield a magical spellbinding power to captivate us, as we melt away in our seats and disappear into the fantasyland of the silver screen. Millions of people come together in these cinema spaces to celebrate an art form, connecting over the marvelous illusion of the moving image. Cinemas have the power to reanimate the most dormant soul, to spellbind the greatest of cynics, and inspire every single person that enters its doors.

A Celebration of Cinemas seeks to spotlight some of the Filmhounds team’s greatest and most adored cinemas, to champion these spaces and uplift them as cultural beacons of brilliance. For our initial piece, I’ve chosen the BFI Southbank as one of my favourite cinema spaces of all time. It’s a cultural landmark of filmic brilliance, where beautiful artefacts of film intersect with bold, ambitious new additions to the ever-growing lexicon of film. I adore it with all my heart.

Throughout the pandemic, the BFI has been working closely with the industry including on the Cultural Recovery Fund. As of this week, the total CRF funding allocated by the BFI to independent cinemas in England on behalf of DCMS is £27.6 million, supporting a total of 209 individual cinemas. The fund has supported cinemas in every part of the country with 87% of the funding going to cinemas located outside London. Further funding has also been allocated by Arts Council England to independent cinemas which operate as part of mixed art venues.

I got the chance to speak to the BFI’s Head of Programming and Acquisitions, Stuart Brown, about the BFI Southbank’s May 17th re-opening plans, the skillful balancing act of programme creation and how Ewoks and Nicholas Cage ignited a passionate adoration of cinema into him.

Some people reading this will have never been to the BFI Southbank before, so in your own words, could you give them an idea of what it’s like and what it stands for?

Well, it was formerly known as the National Film Theatre – we retained ‘NFT’ through our cinema screen names, and we did that because of the power of that heritage. ‘National Film Theatre’ has a very direct sense of meaning that people understand, and in a way it aligns us with the National Theatre and the National Opera; it tells you you’re in a place that’s for the nation, and that it’s different from other cinemas. It’s not just a cinema, it’s a cinematheque.

National cinematheques are like centers of excellence for the art form – the Southbank is a showcase of film as an art form, it’s where it lives. The Southbank is different from other cinemas because we are funded and supported to exhibit the history of cinema, and that’s what our core programme is built around. We interrogate that history, celebrate it, but most of all we’re endlessly trying to excite new audiences, like with the 25 & Under scheme – we want to give younger people that discovery of a rich history to the art form and that there’s a place where you can see it on the big screen. Anyone can sit at home and dive into the history of cinema themselves, but to actually see the history on the big screen in the way the artists created them to be experienced is really important to us.

That’s the foundation for the Southbank – going to witness cultural artefacts with the best projection, the best sound, in a space dedicated to preserving and exhibiting them.

I go a lot and I really love the Southbank, but you still made me go “Wow, that sounds really good…”

You’re the Head of Programming and Acquisitions. What goes into creating the Southbank’s programmes; why do you do it?

When it comes to creating programmes, I see myself and my team kind of like chefs, as cheesy as that might sound. We’re always trying to get the programme mix just right, to create something beautiful and balanced – it’s quite a challenge to create monthly programmes where you’re saying something about the history of cinema as well as championing contemporary cinema, ensuring that we’re exhibiting a diverse range for your audience; just like a chef, you’re trying to get all of those ingredients just right so that what comes out of the oven is strong, tasty and lovely.

We’re trying to create programmes that’re slightly elevated, just like a Michelin-star restaurant. We try and engage a dialogue between the film culture of today which is informed by the history that’s built it, and it’s what makes the BFI Southbank so special because it can do that. We’re able to present very robust and comprehensive landmark retrospectives, so we can say to you “Come and see The Lighthouse by Robert Eggers, it’ll blow your mind” and then we can accompany that with a history of film artists who worked in black-and-white to give you context around Eggers’ work. It’s a key strategy for encouraging that exploration of film in younger audiences – just as we demonstrate filmmakers’ own recognition of film’s history and interrogate, so do our audiences.

Is there a particular cinema memory you’re fond of?

My first epiphany moment for cinema was when my dad took me to see Return of the Jedi – we were on holiday and my dad didn’t often do stuff like that, and I hadn’t even seen Star Wars so I had no idea what to expect. It just blew my mind; I came out of it not knowing where to put myself – I immediately began a hardcore Star Wars fan for life. As a kid for which cinema wasn’t a regular aspect of their lives, to go and see those special effects, to be submerged into that world of Ewoks and Wookies and Stormtroopers was completely fucking mind-blowing.

When I was older, I used to visit my favourite aunt in London with my mum. She took me to what I think at the time it was a UCI, but now it’s the Picturehouse in Greenwich, and we watched Leaving Las Vegas. It was a similar feeling to Return of the Jedi because I had no idea what to expect, but just seeing that film and Nicholas Cage and Elisabeth Shue’s performances was another mind-blowing experience. Actually, in the green room at the Southbank, we’ve got a Leaving Las Vegas poster signed by Mike Figgis – we’ll have refreshes of the posters from time-to-time but I’m always adamant that we keep that one there.

I also wanted to ask you about how the BFI Southbank’s been doing through the pandemic, with the lockdowns, and what’re your plans for when you re-open?

Having to close the Southbank in the first lockdown was strangely emotional. We closed the doors the day before BFI Flare was set to open, so that became an online experience through BFI Player, which was a real ‘action-stations’ moment to figure out how exactly we were going to make sure it still happened. Everyone did an incredible job with ensuring that the audience of that festival could still engage with it; it would’ve been easy to just cancel it, but the commitment they showed was amazing, and it really set the tone for the year-round programme creators.

Since 2012, part of our programme strategy has been to have the ‘Blockbuster Programme’, one gigantic project involving as many BFI branches and UK-wide partners coming together under a central idea to create something spectacular, and BFI Japan was 2020’s Blockbuster. We had to make a big decision – we’d invested so much, and had this truly stunning catalogue of Japanese cinema, around 86 films, and we decided to just commit and placed our Blockbuster Programme on the BFI Player, which was a first for such a big project like this. It’s also the only project of its kind in the UK on a streaming platform – and the response to that was massive, (over 365,000 views as of writing across the programme), not only with subscriptions but with our rentals as well.

We set up BFI At Home, which has done over 100 events now – we kept many of the same elements as our most popular event, MK3D with Mark Kermode. We’ve managed to reach a massive audience that we don’t usually reach – our theater holds 450 people, and some of the events we’ve done have reached 140,000 people. So going forwards, we’re going to have a hybrid model where we nurture this online audience just as we nurture the physical audience. The great thing about online is that you have exact data of what people like to see, how long they’ve been on it, how many have engaged with it so it’s going to be a big part of the BFI Southbank moving forward.

What are the Southbank’s plans for when you re-open, do you have any big programmes planned?

We took the opportunity of the lockdown to do a major refurbishment of NFT1 – it’s actually not going to look very different, but it’ll have a new screen, a new wheelchair-accessible stage, a new state-of-the-art laser projector and sound system alongside improved lighting. It’s like we’ve got the same vintage car but we’ve put in a new, souped-up engine. I think when people walk in, they won’t notice a huge difference but when the films start to play, it’s going to feel like a new cinema experience.

When we re-open, we’ve got three seasons: Dream Palaces: Movies Made for the Big Screen, Her Voice: Black Women From the Spotlight to the Screen, and a comprehensive Robert Altman Retrospective.

Dream Palaces is an extension of the Sight & Sound editorial, and I feel it really directly speaks to the moment of re-opening. We asked filmmakers and friends of the BFI which film they would choose to see in our dream palace, the Southbank, and we had a wonderfully eclectic mixture. We rarely explore such a different angle to our programmes, and it’s an exciting combination of works – we go from Peter Strickland’s choice of Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn to Gurinder Chadha’s pick of Car Wash, and when I look at the programme I just want to go and see every choice, and I think it’s that sense of having someone we respect and admire choosing a film they love to share with us all makes us want to go from that curiosity of why they’ve chosen it. My personal choice was Buster Keaton’s The General, and my friend Neil Brand is performing a live piano accompaniment – I realized I’d been missing silent film, so that’ll be a lot of fun.

Her Voice is a celebration of iconic black female vocalists, and we put this in because recently it feels like there’s been a greater celebration of these figures: Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace concert film, the new Tina Turner doc Tina, the Whitney Houston docs, The United States vs. Billie Holliday. It felt like people were re-appraising and wanting to pay tribute to these immensely powerful women, and that’s amazing. It’s been curated by curator, writer and researcher Karen Alexander, so I’m incredibly excited to see that programme exhibited.

Altman is one of the most important directors in cinema history, and the New American Independent era is a personal favourite of mine – he’s got such a lengthy catalogue, and some of it’s uneven but that’s because of how innovative he was, always trying new things. He contributed massively to film grammar and narrative structure, and made more great masterpieces than many directors do in their lifetime. It’s a really strong season for us – we’re actually re-releasing Nashville UK-wide in a brand-new 4k restoration, which is so stylistically ambitious and bold. When I think of Altman, I think of three things: that sardonic wit in his work, the endless critiquing of American society’s frailties and problems, and of course, Shelley Duvall.

She’s magnificent, and probably underappreciated – I hope that people will write about her and her performances; she’s brilliant in Nashville, and everything she collaborated with Altman on.

Those sound like three incredible programmes, but is there a programme or event that holds a particular place in your heart?

I’ve been working for the BFI for 23 years, so choosing one is so difficult.

The biggest one I’ve ever done was in 2009 – it was an orchestral live production of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We worked with the Philharmonia Orchestra, working closely with their conductor and 126 performers we created a new digital cinema package with all the music taken out – it was massive, it was stressful, and it was hard, but we did it! It was an overwhelmingly powerful performance, especially because I was sitting with Stanley Kubrick’s widow and family alongside the Warner Brother executives, just thinking “I really hope this works”, and that they appreciate what we’ve been trying to do. At the end, I was so nervous, but all of Kubrick’s family loved it, they were in tears – and that’s been performed all over the world. So that would be the one thing.

That’s beautiful, what a real legacy moment for you.

To end I wanted to ask what are your thoughts and feelings on the future of cinemas in the UK?

What was really interesting in the course of last year was this increased media interest in cinemas – there were loads of editorials like “what’s going to happen industrially?” To me, that interest quickly morphed into some questionable pieces ringing the supposed “death knell of cinema”, which I thought was a bit sensationalist to put out – cinemas have been around for 100 years or more, and it’s such an involved business model not to mention it’s a huge part of our culture.

So in the last year I’ve actually been thinking about this with other people, one of which is a good friend, Edgar Wright. He obviously did that great Empire article which felt like a call to arms against the sensationalist pieces on the death of cinema. Our Sight & Sound colleagues did their own take on that as well with the Dream Palace editorial, which I thought was very cool.

One thing I’ve written in the guide to the Dream Palace programme is that there’s nothing wrong with loving streaming just as you love the cinema. Hybridity is something we can embrace and experiment with, like with last year’s London Film Festival, we had the films both online and shared with other cinemas across the UK, and that’s been a model that we’ve seen other international festivals adapt as a result of its success. There’s no binary opposition, you can love going to the cinema and watching at home – but then, we have all missed the cinema.

Because going to a cinema is a night out, isn’t it? Sometimes you watch Bergman and sometimes you watch Transformers. You just want to have some popcorn and forget about everything for a few hours. I’ve always felt cinema is extremely durable and robust, and whatever happens next, cinema will survive. It may shift, and it may change – but that’s good.

The BFI Southbank re-opens May 17th with its triptych of programmes, more information can be found here.

 

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Sab Astley

Lover of all things horrifying, dark and satirical - The Rocky Horror Picture Show being one of my favorites makes sense there.

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