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BFI at TV Connect: using OTT to tell the history of cinema

Edward Humphrey,  director of digital,  the British Film Institute,

Edward Humphrey,
director of digital,
the British Film Institute,

“We’re licensing rather than owning rights, and we have around about 45 deals now with third party distributors,” explains Edward Humphrey, director of digital for the British Film Institute, and a keynote speaker at this year’s TV Connect. “If you wanted to launch a video on demand service that was commercial, you’d probably only need the six studios plus another ten distributors and you could have a pretty comprehensive service.”

The BFI Player, however (the British Film Institute’s trailblazing video on demand service), is not aiming for the same things as Netflix or blinkbox. The British Film Institute is a charity, committed to expanding the British palette for cinema: as such, its approach is distinct.

“We select the titles first and then go and do the deal. It’s about what films we want to bring back to the audiences and shine a light on. We are working our way backwards through time, to make sure that there is a strong enough story.”

The concept of a ‘story’ is incredibly important. While part of its remit is to promote underexposed world, documentary and independent cinema, the BFI is specifically a curatorial organisation. As Humphrey points out, the concept of ‘curation’, in the digital world, is rather overused. “There’s much more to curation than just putting together a list.”

Indeed, the BFI’s film programmes, screened at its iconic London Southbank venue, are world renowned explorations of genre, directors, actors and themes.

Any film festival, however, is a necessarily temporary event, and forgotten classics must quickly – sometimes too quickly – return to the darkness from which they were exhumed.

What the BFI Player allows, however, is for these titles, and these seasons, to enjoy an extended availability to interested cineastes. As such, it represents an imaginative expansion of the potential of OTT services, pointing to a future where more tastes are tailored for – and experiences delivered – than the narrow selection of mainstream, contemporary fare currently available on the dominant OTT platforms.

Humphrey says that an expansion of this approach is in the works…

“So one of the things we’re prepping, which is not live yet, is the idea of putting together short curatorial lists. So people within the BFI – for example it could be our creative director, it could be our director of festivals, who an audience could immediately identify as someone who has a very rich point of view about film – or someone from outside the BFI – an actor or director or someone from a completely different cultural world – can come onto BFI player and say, ‘I’ve found a really interesting collection of films here.’”

Such lists and programmes, however, cannot be renewed indefinitely. I ask Edward if the BFI Player plans to ultimately build something more comprehensive, and lasting.

“We’re absolutely trying to tackle the idea of digital scarcity,” he confirms. “The BFI has for a long time, pre-digital, been a place where we would try and keep films or return films back to the public eye. Historically that would be through theatrical and DVD distribution, and we still do those two things, but now we also have video on demand and we can also go through that, so we are very keen on bringing films to the market that don’t exist in other places legitimately.” 

In particular, the BFI hopes to build up a thorough and accessible selection of British directors; “we want to be able to find the essential Carol Reed, Hitchcock, Pressburger, Mike Leigh, etc., to create an on demand destination that is the broadest in the UK.”

For 2015, however, the focus is on accelerating the BFI’s devices strategy. “At the moment the BFI Player is a web-only experience. We’re looking to move onto smart TVs, we’re looking to move onto set top boxes, and we’re looking to develop our apps. The message to your readers and the people I’m going to meet at TV Connect is that wherever possible we’re looking to talk to partners about putting versions of BFI Player on as many appropriate devices as we can. And hopefully device manufacturers and pay-TV networks will see the benefits of having our platform on their suites.”

Edward Humphrey will be appearing at this year’s TV Connect. For booking and more info click here.

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