The British Film Institute first dipped a cautious toe in the murky waters of film finance with the creation of its Experimental Film Fund in 1952. Although this went on to back early work by Ken Russell, Ridley Scott and Peter Watkins, the sums involved were tiny, with the entire operation run from two grants totalling £22,500 plus the proceeds of film sales (which amounted to just £7,018 by 1960). As a result, the Fund was typically only able to put a few hundred pounds into individual films, and there was little question of it backing feature-length efforts - the one exception is discussed below.
Following the election of Harold Wilson's Labour administration in 1964, and specifically his appointment of Jennie Lee as Arts Minister, the BFI received substantial increase in its grant. The Experimental Film Fund was renamed the BFI Production Board and explicitly charged with backing work by new and uncommercial filmmakers. Though the majority of its output would continue to be short films, it also started backing features, with the aim of recouping at least some of their cost on the independent 'art-house' cinema circuit.
In fact, the BFI Production Board's first feature, Herostratus (d. Don Levy) had begun production in 1962, backed by the Experimental Film Fund, the BBC and former BFI director James Quinn. The inexperience of both filmmaker and backers meant production took five years, but the film was eventually completed in 1967 and screened both in Britain and internationally. This was an encouraging start, but the Board was then in no position to fund features on a regular basis: the second, Loving Memory (d. Tony Scott), wouldn't be made until 1969, and even then its running time was only 57 minutes, limiting its circulation. The BFI also put a small amount of completion money into Mike Leigh's feature debut Bleak Moments (1971).
In 1971-2, the Production Board received a substantial increase in its funding, thanks to a large increase in the BFI's government grant, and income from the Eady levy (which ploughed a percentage of ticket sales back into the industry). Some of this money was specifically intended for the BFI to fund low-budget feature-length films on a regular basis, alongside Loving Memory-style "featurettes" running up to an hour, and shown in double bills at sympathetic venues. Films made under this scheme include Bill Douglas' My Childhood (1972) and My Ain Folk (1973) and Terence Davies' debut Children (1976).
Budgets were still very low, the Production Board having to strike an agreement with the ACTT (the film technicians' union) to allow crews to be paid below agreed minimum rates in exchange for a share in the profits. Although these proposals were welcomed by many filmmakers, objections were raised: the BFI's Members' Action Committee accused the Board of "imitating Wardour Street" (the Soho-based heart of the commercial film industry), though the Board's incoming Head of Production, Mamoun Hassan, said that the intention was to nurture an alternative British art cinema.
The first full-length feature under the new scheme was Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's Winstanley (approved March 1972, released in 1975), while others included Moon Over the Alley (d. Joseph Despins, 1975), Requiem for a Village (d. David Gladwell, 1975), the openly avant-garde Central Bazaar (d. Stephen Dwoskin, 1973), Pressure (d. Horace Ove, 1975) and A Private Enterprise (d. Peter K. Smith, 1974) and - the last two being, respectively, the first British Black and Asian features.
In 1974-5, under the leadership of Barrie Gavin, the Production Board also began funding feature-length documentaries, including Juvenile Liaison (d. Nick Broomfield/Joan Churchill, 1974), Ireland: Behind the Wire (Berwick Street Collective, 1974), Welcome To Britain (d. Ben Lewin, 1975) and Occupy! (d. Gael Dohany, 1976), though since 1975 under various heads including Peter Sainsbury, Jeremy Isaacs, Colin MacCabe and Ben Gibson the Board tended to favour fiction or more experimental narrative forms. BFI-backed features from the late 1970s and early 1980s include Radio On (d. Chris Petit, 1979), The Song of the Shirt (d. Sue Clayton, 1979), Maeve (d. Pat Murphy, 1981), Burning an Illusion (d. Menelik Shabazz, 1981) and Peter Greenaway's A Walk Through H (1978) and The Falls (1980).
1982 saw a major breakthrough when Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract became a modest but genuine commercial success. More significantly, it was also the first co-production between the BFI and the newly-established Channel 4, which gave the BFI a regular television platform and correspondingly greater exposure for its work. Behind the scenes, C4 also became a significant contributor to Production Board funds in general as well as specific individual works. Other films that benefited from the collaboration included The Gold Diggers (d. Sally Potter, 1983), Nineteen Nineteen (d. Hugh Brody, 1985) and Ascendancy (d. Edward Bennett, 1983), the last of which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
This was the start of the Production Board's golden era. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s it continued to nurture the careers of major British auteurs, including Peter Greenaway (A Zed and Two Noughts, 1985), Derek Jarman (The Angelic Conversation, 1985; Caravaggio, 1986; Wittgenstein, 1993), Terence Davies (Death and Transfiguration, 1983; Distant Voices Still Lives, 1988; The Long Day Closes, 1992) and the husband-and-wife team of Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen (Riddles of the Sphinx, 1977; Crystal Gazing, 1982; the Wollen-only Friendship's Death, 1987), while also establishing mechanisms by which their successors could be discovered.
The New Directors scheme was a good example of the latter, funding short films by Patrick Keiller (The Clouds, 1989) and Chris Newby (Relax, 1991) before the Production Board backed their early features (Keiller's London, 1994, and Robinson in Space, 1997; Newby's Anchoress, 1993, and Madagascar Skin, 1995). Other outstanding one-off titles include On the Black Hill (d. Andrew Grieve, 1987), Young Soul Rebels (d. Isaac Julien, 1991), Blue Black Permanent (d. Margaret Tait, 1992), Small Time (d. Shane Meadows, 1996), Sixth Happiness (d. Waris Hussein, 1997), Under the Skin (d. Carine Adler, 1997) and Speak Like A Child (d. John Akomfrah, 1998).
But by the 1990s, the industrial and political climate had significantly shifted. A major financial downturn, coupled with Channel 4 being required to sell its own advertising, meant that the BFI had fewer opportunities to co-finance productions with like-minded organisations. From 1992, it was reliant on the patronage of the Department of National Heritage, whose stated priorities were aimed at sustaining a more commercially viable film industry. Accordingly, when the then Conservative government announced that a share of National Lottery revenues would be given to various British film funds, this was conditional on producers obtaining matching funds from other sources. This inescapably led to a tendency towards greater commercial appeal, and the number of Lottery-funded arthouse films was correspondingly small.
Though examples included the quasi-documentary Gallivant (d. Andrew Kötting, 1997) and the adventurous Francis Bacon biopic Love is the Devil (d. John Maybury, 1998), plans for a Lottery film fund specifically aimed at the 'cultural sector' never came to fruition. There was a certain amount of optimism when a new Labour government was elected in 1997 (it had, after all, been another fresh Labour government that had expanded the BFI Production Board's activities), but its fondness for buzzwords such as "cultural industries" suggested a commercial element was paramount, which proved to be the case with its policy proposals. The end came in April 2000, when the BFI Production Board was abolished and its function absorbed into the newly-created UK Film Council.