“It’s a defining moment in the BFI’s 80 year history,” said chairman Greg Dyke as he unveiled the BFI Player today.

A new video-on-demand platform, the BFI Player aims to do for British film what the BBC iPlayer has done for television.

“The BBC iPlayer launched six years ago and it’s one of those technologies that you can’t imagine what life was like before it,” said Dyke.

Dyke added that the BBC VOD platform was a public service intervention that had enriched the lives of millions. “The BFI Player has the potential to do the same.”

The BFI Player launches as an online only platform on 9 October, offering a curated mix of free and pay-per-view content from the BFI archive.

Initially, about 1,000 items will be available to view (of which about 60% will be free to view), but the number of films is expected to grow significantly in 2014. It’s likely that, in time, the BFI will also roll out the BFI Player onto TV and games platforms too.

Clio Barnard’s Cannes competitor The Selfish Giant will launch on the BFI Player simultaneously with its UK theatrical release on 25th October, and the BFI restoration of The Epic Of Everest (1924) will be available on the same day as its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival and UK cinema release on 18th October.

Day and date releases will cost £10 to view, while pay per view titles will be charged at £2.50 in standard definition and £3.50 in HD.

At the launch event today, BFI executives were bullish about the possible impact of the BFI Player in the UK, stressing that it would help open up its archive, boost audiences throughout the country for specialised and archive films, and also be a valuable source of VOD revenue for those producers and distributors who exhibit their films on the platform.

“When I became chairman, I was concerned the BFI was not in the digital world at all,” said Dyke, adding that the organisation’s extensive archive library was only really open to academics and researchers.

He placed the BFI Player launch in the context of the BFI’s five-year Film Forever plan, published last year, which saw the funding body pledge to focus its resources on boosting film education, audience choice and unlocking UK film heritage.

Dyke has long made it clear that he thinks the BFI has been too London focused (“I think you are the London Film Institute”, he told the panel interviewing him for the job). At the launch today, he cited a stat that only 7% of screens outside London were dedicated to specialised films.

So he was keen to emphasise that the BFI Player would allow anyone with a broadband connection to watch archive and specialised British films – no matter where they live in the UK.

The head of the BFI Film Fund, Ben Roberts, told Televisual that producers and distributors could choose if they wanted their films to appear on the BFI Player.

He stressed that films backed by the BFI’s £26m annual production fund would not have to air on the service as a condition of funding.

But Roberts said that the producers and distributors he had spoken to had reacted warmly to the idea of the BFI Player. “In all the conversations with distributors of films we’ve had about this, I don’t think we’ve had a single negative reaction.”

Roberts clearly views the BFI Player as an important additional distribution platform for specialised British films, at a time when many are struggling to find the time and space to reach audiences.

That’s partly because the number of British films being produced and released is rising – but cinema screens are not. Four British films are being released this weekend alone – Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now, Dexter Fletcher’s Sunshine on Leith, Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril and Sophie Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

Meanwhile, TV has squeezed film to the edges of its schedules, DVD sales are falling and existing VOD platforms like Netflix or Lovefilm are geared very much towards blockbuster Hollywood releases. “If you go to existing VOD platforms to find truly specialised options, they are either not there or they are dominated by the studios,” says Roberts.

Robert notes the emergence of specialised VOD platforms in the US, from the likes of Magnolia Pictures and IFC Films, have helped drive up audiences for films in areas that are not well served with specialist cinemas.

It means that distributors are now earning more money from VOD revenues. And this money is, in turn, being fed back into production, as distributors are paying more for rights in the knowledge that they can recoup via VOD.

Which means that the BFI Player could, ultimately, prove to be a significant boon for audiences – and a shot in the arm for the UK film production sector.

* A few days after this article was written, Curzon Cinemas announced the launch of its own VOD service – Curzon Home Cinema. It’s launched on the BT Vision platform, offering independent and world cinema releases on the same day as their cinema release, as well as curated seasons and filmmaker retrospectives. Like the BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema will screen The Selfish Giant on October 25. 

Tim Dams

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