Category: BFI

Reviews in Sight and Sound


This prestigious magazine from the British Film Institute has suffered ravages in recent years. At one time there was the Monthly Film Bulletin which dealt with theatrical releases and S&S which addressed issues, theories and discussions. In the early 1990s they were amalgamated. Then, a few years back, the practice of providing complete production details was lost. More recently it seems that not every film that has a theatrical exhibition in the UK is covered. The magazine has added the video formats in a Home Cinema section [another oxymoron], but often at the expense of theatrical releases. I wrote expressing some concerns to the Letter Page:

I want express my concern at the increasing imbalance between reviews of films released into cinema and films made available in some video format. In the August edition we had a review of a new UK feature, The Legend of Barney Thompson. The review was only slightly longer than the plot synopsis and appeared to be shorter than every one of the Home Cinema reviews. A number of these referred to the techniques and style in their features: an aspect missing from the cinema release review. And quite a few of the Home Cinema reviews were of films already reviewed at an earlier date in S&S or the Monthly Film Bulletin.

Moreover the video reviews allow far more space for critical comment than they do for description on the technical aspects, such as the quality of the transfer. They also offered a minefield in terms of aspect ratios: 2.4:1, 1.85:1, 1.78:1, 16:9, 1.66:1, 1.33:1, and 4:3. But rarely did a review actually explain if this ratio matched the original release.

A similar fate to Legend befell the UK release North v South in the September issue. However, the treatment of aspect ratio has improved: a sound film is correctly given as 1.37:1. The disc information was fuller, but not uniformly so.

Given that S&S now relies heavily on the digital version and the library of previous editions, space could be saved by referencing original reviews in earlier issues. Then we could have proper reviews of features and adequate space for commenting on the actual disc quality of video releases.

The letter did not make it to the published October edition. Fair enough. However, the practices highlighted were still apparent. There were at least three films; from Australia, India and the USA; where the review was shorter than most of those in the Home Cinema section. There was a fourth theatrical release with no apparent country of origin. And the confusion over ratios continued . We had sound films listed as being in 1.33:1, though another was correctly given as 1.37:1. And then there were films released since the advent of widescreen film given as 16:9 – the European Television ratio.

Among the drawbacks of this approach is that it is just fuel to the mistaken view that watching films on video equates to seeing them at the cinema.

BFI Member Governor Election 2015

Ballot copyright free.

Readers will include members of the BFI and subscribers to Sight & Sound who have an entitlement to vote for a representative on the Board of Governors of this institution. They should have received an electronic communication regarding this event and there is a page on the BFI website: it is not clear if any communication has been sent out in other formats. Some of you, like myself, may be confused as to what exactly is taking place. In earlier posts I have drawn attention to the vacant post for a national representative and added to this the extension of the regional representative post without any consultation or discussion. Which is on offer here is a moot point?

” One BFI Governor is elected to serve a four-year term in office by BFI Membership and Sight & Sound subscribers. Due to an upcoming vacancy, we’re seeking nominations for candidates for a Governor Election.”

If you follow on and reads the Rules for Electing … you find,

“Where one member Governor is ordinarily resident in London and the southeast, to be eligible for the vacant post members must be ordinarily resident outside that region (‘ordinarily resident’ means both their primary residence and their usual place of business or employment, if any). Where two member Governor posts are simultaneously vacant, one of them must be reserved for candidates ordinarily resident outside London and the southeast. A member Governor originally ordinarily resident in one region may be considered ordinarily resident in another if in the opinion of the Board Secretary the facts justify such a change.”

Thanks to the indefatigable Mark Newell I have found out that buried in the BFI Annual Report and Financial Statements for 2014 – 2015 [on page 52] is what appears to be a change to Member representation:

“The Board of Governors reserves one place on the Board for a Member Governor. The Member Governor is nominated and voted for by the BFI membership throughout the United Kingdom. This appointment is also subject to approval by the Board of Governors.”

The Board and the BFI seem to have been careful not to draw attention to this change or to the extension from three to four year service. There are no relevant minutes available that record either the discussion or the agreed changes.

Of course, this is ‘par for the course’ for the way the Board addresses representation of the ordinary members and readers who not only actually use the BFI but also pay for it. Presumably the Board feel that the low turnout in recent elections means they can carry on in this cavalier fashion.

A week of daily emails to the Board Offices and staff have failed to elicit a single word of explanation. I wonder if this is witting or unwitting?

Interested parties should note another Rule for the Election:

“Balloting shall be by freephone or internet voting. The failure of a small number of candidates to receive balloting materials shall not invalidate the election. Solely at the Board Secretary’s discretion, a replacement ballot may be issued (e.g. to an elector who presents a signed statement that they have not received the original ballot) but they may at their discretion decline to issue a replacement ballot once the total number of replacement ballots issued is, in their judgement, in danger of becoming significant in the context of the total number of ballots likely to be cast.”

Distribution and Critics: How has reviewing changed since the 1960s?


Some time ago I acquired four copies of Monthly Film Bulletin (MFB) from 1969. MFB, published by the BFI, was incorporated into Sight and Sound (S&S) in May 1991. My own subscriptions to both MFB and S&S go back to 1971/2 and it is clear that both publications changed quite significantly at the start of the 1970s. Current digital subscribers can access archive copies of Sight & Sound and MFB going back to their origins in 1932 for an extra subscription fee.

This glimpse into the films reviewed in 1969 reveals several interesting changes in both distribution policies and critical attitudes. 1969 represents one of the last years in which the UK could still be described as a territory in which cinemagoing was a ‘mass media activity’ with 215 million admissions for the year. (In 1959 there had been 580 million and in 1949, 1.4 billion). The UK ‘studio system’ (Rank and ABPC/EMI) was on its last legs and the ‘inward investment’ of Hollywood money into the UK and elsewhere in Europe was beginning to dry up. Film studies was not yet established in UK universities but the first hints of a new generation of film scholars who would eventually challenge the rather cosy world of the 1950s/60s ‘critics circle’ were just beginning to appear. I want to try to explore what the most important changes might have been in both distribution and critical standpoints.

The number of titles

The first surprise is the relatively limited number of films released in the UK in 1969. MFB once prided itself on being a ‘journal of record’ – if a film was released in the UK it should be included in MFB. That hasn’t really been the case for several years now (e.g. most Indian and Turkish films released in the UK don’t appear in S&S) and in the July 2015 edition of S&S editor Nick James admits it is impossible to review everything. In 2014 there were 712 films released for a week or more in the UK and Republic of Ireland. In May this year in the UK there were between 15 and 20 films being released weekly. In four months in 1969 MFB reviewed a total of 160 films of which around 20 were ‘short films’ (fiction and non-fiction, including animations). MFB also published comprehensive listings of short films released, only some of which were in the reviews section. With only an average of 30 feature-length films released each month, 1969 saw fewer films on release than 2014 although there were more cinema sites and bigger audiences than in 2013:


Only a handful of cinemas had more than one screen in 1975 – but of course the average cinema auditorium was much bigger, often over 1,000 seats. Today the average screen has less than 400. (The  programme of ‘twinning’ and ‘tripling’ existing cinemas began in the UK in earnest in 1969 and surviving circuit cinemas were mainly converted in the 1970s.)

The sample

I looked through all the reviews for February, April, May and August 1969. I classified each film as ‘Foreign Language’ (noting dubbed and subtitled releases as two separate categories), Hollywood, UK, ‘Other English language releases’ and shorts. Here are the totals across the four months:

Foreign language (subtitles)    35
Foreign language (dubbed)      19
Hollywood                                   37
UK                                                 30
‘Other’ English language          18
‘Shorts’                                         21

I think there are some interesting figures here that need explaining. In 1969 the ‘American independent cinema’ we know now did not exist in the same form. The figures for ‘other English language films’ refer generally to American exploitation films (mainly horror) not distributed via a Hollywood major. But the figures also include several European films (mainly French-Italian co-productions) released in English language versions. These films were often relatively big budget films with European stars made sometimes with Hollywood studio support. They were effectively multiple language versions  and would be dubbed in the local language for release in the four big European markets (France, Italy, West Germany and Spain). There were no Australian or Canadian films in the sample (the Australian New Wave features came later in the 1970s). I haven’t analysed the shorts in detail but a significant number of these films were also foreign language productions. Overall, it is fair to say that nearly half of all the films reviewed were produced outside the UK or US.

I’m relieved that the figures confirm my personal memory of the number of dubbed films on release. In the sample these include thrillers, sex films, spaghetti Westerns, horror films etc. I was surprised to discover several subtitled films that were unknown to me. This was the period when Czech New Wave films were appearing in the UK alongside Swedish and Danish sex films (which were subtitled whereas German and Italian films were dubbed – perhaps reflecting the dubbing traditions of those countries?). This was also the period when auteurs such as Truffaut, Chabrol and Godard appeared alongside Buñuel and Miklós Jancsó.

It’s always difficult to distinguish between ‘British’ and ‘Hollywood’ films and the modern ‘UK/US’ identifier does not figure here so some films might be incorrectly included as ‘British’, but even so, there is evidence that what remained of the UK industry could still produce enough films to nearly match the Hollywood majors, at least in numbers of releases.


Critical practices

The most striking aspect of these 1969 reviews for me is the distinction between the long reviews in the first half of each MFB issue and the ‘shorter reviews’ in the second half. These shorter reviews are deemed to be less important and each is graded according to a dismissive set of criteria: ‘I’ Good (of its type); ‘II’ Average and ‘III’ Poor (these are the exact words used). The shorter reviews are not credited – allowing the reviewer to be as negative as they wish. The longer reviews are reserved for mainstream ‘quality films’ from the US/UK and auteur films. These are not graded in the reviews themselves but each month a selection of films is graded by a group of nine critics from the ‘quality press’ titles (including Sight & Sound). These films are not necessarily the same as those in the MFB reviews for that month since the latter will be reviewed in advance of the release and the former published in the week of release and then collated retrospectively. Even so, it is noticeable that this selection (around 20 titles) includes titles featured in both longer and shorter MFB reviews. The nine critics rate the films using 1 to 4 stars or with a large black dot to represent ‘critical antipathy’. Exactly the same process is still used by Screen International in its collation of critics’ views of the films in competition at Cannes each year. Something similar appears in UK newspapers, although not in so much detail. I’ve made reference to Sight & Sound here and I should point out that at this time (my earliest copy is Autumn 1971), S&S appeared quarterly and included several substantial reviews in each issue plus a single page of thumbnail reviews of around 34 titles, some given 1 to 4 stars.

The critics

Most of these reviews in MFB and Sight & Sound are by the same handful of distinguished film journalists – professional film critics such as David Wilson (MFB editor), Jan Dawson (MFB assistant editor), Penelope Houston (Sight & Sound editor), Tom Milne, Richard Roud etc. At this point, few of these writers were themselves film academics or had necessarily engaged directly with the kinds of theoretical work just beginning in some educational contexts – though there was already some tension between them and the new writers in a journal like Movie, begun by Oxford graduates in 1962 (see Victor Perkins’ comments in this tribute to Ian Cameron, Movie‘s prime instigator). The MFB reviewers were not all the same and new names were beginning to appear. The real changes would start just a few years later, especially when new recruits to BFI Publishing and other departments then began to write for the Institute’s publications. Part of the change in personnel would also be linked to the range of film titles covered.

The films

The 139 titles in 1969 referred to above had several glaring omissions when viewed from 2015. In the four issues sampled there are no films from Africa or the Middle East or Australia/NZ and only one from Latin America (Memories of Underdevelopment 1968, the first of several Cuban ‘New Cinema’ films to get a UK release). Besides a handful of Japanese art and exploitation films, the only Asian title is an Indian film by Tapan Sinha (Atithi/The Runaway, 1965). MFB does not give the language, but the director worked mainly in Bengali. European films are much more in evidence, including Czech and Polish as well as Swedish, Danish, German, Italian and, of course, French. One other oddity is that there are at least a couple of American ‘made for TV’ films given a UK cinema release. This practice carried on for several years into the 1970s when Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1972) and Michael Mann’s The Jericho Mile (1980) got UK cinema releases despite being shown only on US television.

Overall it is clear from the distinction of long/short reviews that MFB’s editor felt more comfortable dealing with well-known auteurs or other directors connected to a ‘new wave’ already validated such as the Czech New Wave in 1969. BFI members and UK cinemagoers generally would have to wait a few years for exploitation films and popular genre pictures to be treated as worthwhile subjects for discussion. To give just a couple of examples, Mario Bava’s Diabolik is given a short review and graded ‘III’ (presumably as a dubbed film it was instantly relegated in this way). The UK comedy Till Death Us Do Part, an early entrant in the cycle of TV comedy spin-offs which kept British film studios working during the 1970s, was similarly dismissed (Category ‘II’) but the children’s epic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was given a long review. I haven’t seen either film but I believe both were popular with audiences and I suspect a certain kind of snobbery was involved in treating them differently. There is also some slippage in defining ‘short films’. Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert and Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story are respectively 45 and 60 minutes long. They went out together as a double bill in 1969 and are given separate ‘long reviews’. Chris Marker’s Cuba Si! is a 55 minute ‘personal documentary’ and is reviewed (unsigned) as a Non-fiction/Short Film. Yet Marker was also a celebrated auteur – but presumably not as much in favour as the other two.


What does this mini-research study tell us? It does reveal the extent of dubbing in 1969 in the UK cinema market. Dubbing has remained important across the FIGS (France, Italy, Germany, Spain) countries but has virtually disappeared in the UK. Without it, European films in the UK get less exposure. The overall balance of UK/Hollywood/Europe that existed in 1969 has now gone but on the positive side we do now get a wide range of (mostly) subtitled South Asian films plus films from Latin America, East Asia and occasionally Africa. Shorts have disappeared from mainstream reviewing and programming.

Film reviewing has become more ‘democratic’ and less narrowly focused. Academic film studies has informed reviewers who now have a wider perspective on global cinema. Whether the reviews are now ‘better’ – better written, more entertaining, better informed – is a different question. It could be argued that the film exhibition sector in the UK now has a much wider range of venues and a much wider range of films on offer. In reality, however, the choice for most cinemagoers, especially outside London and a handful of big cities, is much more limited. The 2015 offer seems to me both more ‘bland’ in the mainstream and more ‘niche’ for the arthouse/specialised sector. Many people who want to watch films will find what they want online or on DVD rather than in cinemas. The UK exhibition has been relatively static in terms of admissions for several years now (despite a significant increase in the population over the last ten years). 2015 looks like pushing admissions up from last year’s 157.5 million but probably not over the 175.9 million of 2002, the highest total of recent years.

I hope that this will the first of several mini case studies of UK exhibition and distribution. What this sample wasn’t able to show is how admissions in 1969 were spread across all titles screened. My hypothesis is that in the 1960s, because films were released to two distinct ‘circuits’ (Odeon and ABC), each mainstream release received more or less the same promotion and that there was a much smaller gap between the most popular and least popular release in terms of admissions.



The lifetime of the Governors?


The Board of Governors for the BFI is supposed to include two members who represent the ordinary users. As regular readers will know there is currently only one representative, and for some of us there is not much sign of representation by him. Action on this is overdue.  In informing interested people the Board appear to follow the well-worn tactic of bureaucracies, stonewalling. Since a fresh election is overdue I have emailed a number of requests to the Board office asking for explanation. There has been a paucity of replies: this might be down to someone having read my earlier postings. However, a colleague has had the same problem, so I don’t think it is just personal.

Now, at last, the Board Secretary has sent me a response: the main information is as shown below:

I refer to your query in relation to any possible arrangements for the election of a Member Governor in 2015.
In September 2014 the DCMS published the results of the first BFI Triennial Review since BFI became the lead public body for film in 2011.   The report was a strong endorsement of the work of the BFI.  It acknowledged the important contribution the BFI makes to supporting and enabling the UK film industry and it recognised the benefits that come from bringing the cultural and commercial expertise for film under one organisation. The Review proposed changes to the process of appointment of the Chairman and Governors.  While the BFI considers the new process of appointment for the Chair and Governors, including the implications for the Royal Charter, the Board in consultation with DCMS, has extended the term of the current Member Governor, Peter Kosminsky, for one year.

This response begs quite a few questions. The Triennial Review actually stated the following:

Governance and Appointments

  1. The BFI Chair is appointed by the Secretary of State and that the appointment is regulated by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments (OCPA).

  2. The BFI Board members are appointed by the Secretary of State and the appointments made in accordance with OCPA principles, to be implemented as vacancies arise on the Board (with the exception of the Member Governor post(s)).

Clearly proceeding with changes stemming from the Review does not necessitate postponing the election of Member Governors. Apart from any prejudices among the Governors and management, there is at least one other possible factor. Revisiting the Review I noticed the following:

5.15 Cabinet Office guidance on good corporate governance recommends a majority of non-executive Board members come from the commercial private sector, with experience in running complex organisations. In the BFI’s case, such expertise would not need to be limited to the creative sector.

As far as I can make out this process of Triennial Reviews was introduced in 2011. So it clearly bears the hallmarks of the current political illusion that ‘commerce’ always knows best. The period of austerity has actually demonstrated that this social group is driven by self-interest than any commitment to wider interests

Moreover this line conflicts with other pronouncements regarding the BFI and its predecessor The Film Council. These would include supporting British independent filmmaking: supporting young filmmakers: supporting diversity: supporting films of aesthetic or documentary value: supporting access to the wider world cinema. Indeed the Review document contains such contradictory statements. The BFI and DCMS review the size and make-up of the Board with a focus on increasing the diversity of the Board through future appointments. They mention women and ethnic minorities. There appears to be no mention of working class representation or audience members. The current Board members listed on the BFI Website are: [note, amount of detail varies for individuals]

Greg Dyke became Chair of the BFI in March 2008. Formerly Director-General of the BBC, Greg is also Chairman of the Football Association and Chancellor of the University of York.

Josh Berger is President and Managing Director, Warner Bros. Entertainment UK, Ireland and Spain.

Pat Butler is a partner at the Resolution Group and an expert in corporate and business strategy, operations and performance improvement.

Charles Cecil is a video game designer and co-founder of Revolution Software. In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for services to the computer games industry.

Alison Cornwell is Group Chief Financial Officer of Vue Entertainment International. She qualified as a chartered accountant in 1990 and spent 5 years in corporate finance before joining Disney’s International TV business. At Disney, In 2005 Alison left Disney to become CFO of private equity backed Sparrowhawk Media which acquired the international assets of Crown Media Holdings. In 2008 Alison was appointed CFO of the international film distribution company, Alliance Films.

Pete Czernin lived and worked in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years for a number of production companies and studios. In 2005 he partnered with Graham Broadbent and set up Blueprint Pictures, a London-based feature film production company.

Ashley Highfield is CEO of Johnston Press. Previously he has held high-level posts at Microsoft and the BBC.

Tom Hooper is an Oscar-winning film director. His features include Les Misérables, The King’s Speech and The Damned United.

Matthew Justice is currently Managing Director of Big Talk, the multi award-winning film and television production company.

Oona King, Baroness King of Bow, is a member of the House of Lords. She is a writer, broadcaster and political campaigner and a Diversity Executive at Channel 4.

Peter Kosminsky is an award-winning writer and director behind some of the most important and revelatory television of the past three decades.

Timothy Richards is the CEO of Vue Entertainment, which boasts over 66 million annual admissions from 1319 screens in 145 state-of-the-art cinemas worldwide.

Jonathan Ross OBE is a mainstay of British television and radio, rarely off the airwaves either as a presenter or as a host of his own distinctive style of celebrity guest interviews.

Lisbeth Savill [Deputy Chair] is a partner in the law firm Latham and Watkin’s London office in the firm’s Entertainment, Sports and Media Practice.

Andrea Wong is President of International Production for Sony Pictures Television (SPT) and President of International for Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE).

One of the least diverse sections of British society is found in the leadership of the commercial sector, as women’s and ethnic groups frequently point out. Moreover by definition when one becomes a leader in commercial enterprise one ceases [if one ever was] to be working class. The list indicates that it is only from the higher end of this sector that appointments are made. So there are no representatives from the Trade Unions or from the UK Film Societies, who actually have a national presence. Senior Managers attend Board Meetings: note though there is no reference to a representative of the BFI staff.

This emphasis follows on from another recommendation:

One of the key recommendations made in this Review is the development of a Business Development Strategy, focused on establishing a new commercial model which will optimise the value of the BFI’s various assets, and identify new ways to increase income from private sources. Once established, this Strategy should help reduce dependency on Grant-in-Aid Department for Culture, Media & Sport.

This seems to me a staging post on the way to privatisation: though this view was roundly criticised at a recent Film Society Federation meeting. But the example in other sectors, including in the arts and culture, suggest that this is part of just such a process.

What makes the situation worse is the apparent inactivity of the current representative. With the honourable exception of Cy Young, these elected representatives have never appeared that interested in representation. Evan so Peter Kosminsky would appear to put his predecessors in the shade. As far as I can make out he has not issued a single report during three years to the people who elected him. He will only accept communications through the Board office. And he does not reply even to these communications: certainly not either to me or to a colleague who I checked with. And I have searched the minutes in vain for some comment by him: only his name in the list of attendees.

A colleague helped by unearthing his statement and manifesto for the 2011 election. In fairness to him it should be admitted that he makes no mention of representation at all.

But I think it is fair comment to point out that in the UK ‘representation’ is normally assumed to being open to the views and comments of those who elect the representative. He did write that

I would do everything in my power to protect the BFI from outside interference and from the erosion of its education and commissioning budgets

Unfortunately he does not seem to have had much success in this. He also wrote re the Regional representative post

As a confirmed non-South-East of England resident, I’m putting myself forward for election as a governor in that category. [i.e. Regional Representative].

I have to say I was surprised to find that him state in an interview that he lives in Wiltshire: not the inference I drew from his statement. Taken together with the listing of other Board members it appears that there is no representation from north of Watford – which includes the Midlands, the North of England, Scotland and Wales!

Unfortunately there seems to be little pressure either on the Board or on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to rectify this situation. Readers might give this some thought.

And note that Peter Kominsky also wrote in his statement that he regularly attends screenings at the National Film Theatre/Southbank. If someone sees him there perhaps they could ask him to tell them about his three years service on the Board: and whether he intends to give the electorate the opportunity to decide if they wish him to represent them for a further year.

PS Mark Newell advised me that there is now a notice regarding the extension of the Regional representatives term in the BFI newsletter and on the Website – presumably someone read this posting!

And there are some news sets of minutes up as well.