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History of the
British Film Institute (BFI)

The British Film Institute (BFI) is one of the oldest and most distinguished government-supported cultural institutions, not only in the UK but also in the world. Founded in 1933, the British Film Institute was to remain, for a number of structural and financial reasons, a marginal educational organisation during its first fifteen years; its most notable achievement in that period was the setting-up in 1935 of the National Film Library (later National Film Archive, and now National Film and Television Archive).

During WW2, Paul Kimberley, who had managed the Thanhouser Films office and formed Imperial Films, was governor of BFI from 1940-1943, leaving in 1943 to manage the making of trailers for National Screen Service.

In the more favourable post-war cultural context, it was rescued by the government-commissioned Radcliffe Report (1948), which laid down the foundations for its radical transformation. The Report demanded in particular that the BFI focus its activities on a more modern approach to film as art, and it gave it the institutional and financial means to implement its new remit.

The National Film Theatre, which opened in 1952, originated from the success of the Festival of Britain’s Telecinema operated in 1951 by the BFI. It then moved to its present site under Waterloo Bridge in 1957, the year the Institute also launched the London Film Festival. The Experimental Film Fund, which later became the BFI Production Board, was set up in 1952.

Beginning in the 1960s, the BFI then sponsored a network of regional cinemas and other activities outside the capital. Its two longstanding magazines, the Monthly Film Bulletin and the quarterly Sight and Sound, were merged in 1991 and became the monthly Sight and Sound, which now has a circulation of 23,000. The BFI has been a publisher of books since the 1970s and more recently of videos/DVDs, and has been playing a major role in moving image education at all levels ever since the early 1950s. It now has a total staff of over 400 and a turnover of £31m. Throughout most of its history it has found itself serving very diverse publics and has been a focal point of debate about the national film culture and often, especially in the 1960s and 70s, the centre of controversy.

AHRC Project on the History of the British Film Institute

Despite its importance in cultural life, little attention has been paid to its history. This project, funded by the AHRC and hosted by the Department of History at QMUL, aims to remedy this gap in historical knowledge. To achieve this, the project will be interviewing major participants in this history, many of them on video. (Among those already interviewed are Sir Denis Forman, Director of the BFI from 1948 to 1954 and Chairman of the Board of Governors from 1971 to 1973, and James Quinn, director of the BFI from 1955 to 1964.) It will also be sorting and examining the BFI’s extensive paper archive.

A substantial audio-visual archive is being assembled, combining the new interviews with existing recordings and film, television and video materials. A website is being constructed on which to present selected audiovisual material, together with a detailed chronicle of major events in the BFI’s history. Then, in time for the BFI’s 75th anniversary in 2008, a written history will be published, telling the story of the BFI from its foundation until close to the present day.

some information from Queen Mary University of London, Department of History



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