The pivotal scene in sci-fi classic The Matrix stars Neo, the man prophesised to save humanity, who is given a choice by rebel-warrior leader Morpheus. He can either take the blue pill and ‘the story ends’ or he can take the red pill and he ‘stays in Wonderland’ and sees ‘how deep the rabbit-hole goes’.
Tough choice for Neo, but one which, unfortunately is not available to Jeanette Wilkins, an ardent Matrix fan and recently appointed finance director of the British Film Institute, the organisation tasked with preserving Britain’s film heritage and sharing it with the generations to come.
For Wilkins, 44, a determined and ambitious management accountant who learnt her trade at the Granada empire, must swallow both the red and the blue pill. She must help to deliver a commercially sound organisation that at the same time fulfils its full artistic remit, that in her words ‘adds to the cultural repertoire of the country’.
Just a couple of months into the job, Wilkins is not daunted. In her career to date she has not easily been fazed, quickly moving out of auditing while at Ernst & Young, describing it as ‘cheap labour’, preferring to be involved in decision-making early on.
Soon after, she joined the Granada Group and found her way into its media division, rising up quickly to become finance director of its broadcasting arm. She recognises that her time there prepared her for the task at the BFI, which she describes as a ‘great organisation focused on the bottom line’.
Being a female FD in a male-dominated finance world has never daunted her, although she says having a female boss in BFI director Amanda Neville is very different and makes her job much easier.
‘These differences are really highlighted in a work organisation where there are pressures and stresses. Sometimes it is difficult to know where the opposite sex is coming from,’ she says.
Wilkins adds, in her cool, off-hand manner: ‘A woman anything in a male-dominated anything is always going to be a problem.’ Wilkins employs all her experience, when she works alongside Neville where her disciplined and strategic thinking will be most welcome.
She takes charge of the finances of an organisation that last year had an income approaching £30m. Almost half that money came from the Film Council, as well as a £1.6m lottery grant and other donations.
The remainder of the revenue is generated out of subscriptions from its 24,000 members, and its year-long programme of classic films running at National Film Theatre on the South Bank and the Waterloo IMAX cinema.
The BFI also publishes the influential magazine Sight & Sound, which has a circulation of 300,000, as well as many other publications, videos and educational programs.
It also hosts this month’s annual London Film Festival, which is running from 22 October to the 6 November. It is a major event on the British film calendar, and one that garners considerable media attention, showcasing more than 300 films from 45 different countries.
Barry Norman, the veteran film critic calls the festival ‘the only important showcase for international cinema in Britain’. Last year, 110,000 people attended screenings around London including more than 600 film industry delegates and 580 journalists from the international press.
On top of all this, there is the National Film and Television Archive, which is the biggest of its kind in the world. It holds more than seven and half million items in its vaults in Berkhampsted, Hertfordshire, including 50,000 feature films, many of them rare and priceless.
Wilkins sees her job as being two-pronged – to strengthen the current finance team and to be part of the driving force to bring about strategic change. On the finance side, she promises to bring a ‘fresh eye’ to the BFI and says she will help Neville drive the strategic change throughout the organisation, ‘bringing people on board with the management skills at her disposal’.
‘I have always challenged and asked simple, basic questions and I am known for pushing back the boundaries and for being a simplifier,’ she explains.
On the second front, she says that a major obstacle to overcome will be marrying the cultural remit of the BFI – encouraging the development of cinematography and promoting the study and appreciation of film – with funds that are ‘already spread very thinly on the ground’.
‘The challenge, as I see it, is bringing the commercial aspect to leverage what is already here. If more risks are taken and extra revenues are generated, that could reduce the need for funding.’
Like many charities, the BFI is dependent on government funding. But if Wilkins can take commercial leaps ensuring alternative sources of funding, then government funding is likely to remain. ‘The commercial revenues generated would then allow us to fulfil the full cultural and educational remit and improve what we do to a wider audience,’ she says.
Clearly, Wilkins believes there is much more that can be done, but says the approach required is very different to the box-ticking, money-making strategy that was successful at Granada.
It will not be easy marrying the cultural with the commercial. As an example, the cinemas of the National Film Theatre last year had healthy admission figures of 226,000, but these were heavily subsided. They also do not sell popcorn or beverages or screen film trailers, as part of the NFT’s unique appeal to film students.
‘Some films may be pulled out of the archive for a festival and then are not shown again for 15 years, whereas films in normal commercial cinemas come out and are flogged and flogged. We are a lot more specialised,’ explains Wilkins.
Despite the need to maintain its artistic function, she is most definitely in favour of expanding the reach of the BFI and reaching more audiences.
It’s a difficult balancing act, but she intends to bring in changes and says there is plenty of scope to improve controls. However, she is quick to point out that there is already ‘tremendous quality, expertise and know-how at the BFI’.
Changes will likely be welcomed by both the government and those involved with the activities of the BFI. A recent all-party House of Commons report called on the BFI to take the lead within the UK film and television archive community and to champion the whole sector.
She will have an ally in Neville, who has stated publicly that the BFI is taking a ‘completely new look at all its activities, including the work of the national film and television archive’.
Since June, a review of the organisations activities has been undertaken by Neville and BFI chairman Anthony Minghella, the award-winning director of the English Patient, and The Talented Mr Ripley. This should ensure improvements in organisational structure, performance and value for money.
Governance and financial controls appear to be sound. The BFI is a registered charity and, according to Wilkins, accountability and corporate governance at the BFI are just as important as if it were a public company.
Reporting is also rigorous – audit meetings are held monthly and annual accounts are published and made available on the BFI website, signed off by the recently rebranded auditors Deloitte. In addition, an audit and governance committee considers all external and internal audit reports, while a remuneration committee determines separately the level of pay to directors.
Based on her observations so far at the BFI, Wilkins says ‘thinking and professionalism’ are already there, but not the ‘criticalness of timing of decisions’, and she confesses that bringing about cultural change in this area ‘will be quite a challenge’.
Another area of concern and one that clearly encapsulates the dual nature of her job is the preservation of the National Film and Television Archive, the jewel in the BFI’s crown. A recent study undertaken by the National Audit Office called for a review of the way the archive was run to ensure that irreplaceable movie footage was not ruined.
Wilkins is fully aware of the value of the archive. ‘It is a tremendous national heritage. You only have to go and see it to realise how important it is to the nation. But it costs money to keep it open to everyone who wants to deposit their films within its vaults, to keep them in pristine condition and make them available at any point in time to anybody who wants to view them.’
Films do deteriorate, and it is a costly business to maintain them. For Wilkins it will be a question of working out ‘how to allocate funds that are available to the archive to ensure that the right films are preserved to the right quality’. This is not an easy task when the nation’s film heritage is at stake.
Wilkins knows her tenure at the BFI is going to be a challenging one.
But in this may lie the ultimate enjoyment for someone who says she loves Casablanca because it is romantic, but does not have a happy ending ‘which to some extent reflects life’.
Smiling, she admits that prior to taking on this new role, she was not really a movie buff. ‘Ask me that question in two years time and I most certainly will be. What I have seen in my short time so far at the BFI is a tremendous array of films that have passed me by over the years.’
And with such bold predictions, Wilkins has clearly taken her first firm steps into the BFI’s matrix.
The BFI has garnered its fair share of press over the past few months as it strives to fulfil its cultural remit. Here’s what some influential people in audit, the government and film have had to say about it:
‘The development of a clear strategy for the national film and television archive is a high priority, particularly to manage the risk that irreplaceable film might decay before today’s public and future generations have an opportunity to see it’
Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, which undertook a review of the BFI’s film archive in April 2003
‘The BFI is a public service that broadens opportunities for access, knowledge and inspiration about film and television. In a period where there is increasing difficulty for audiences to enjoy world cinema and important films from the past in an informed context, the BFI’s advocacy is a critical one. We want this review to help us formulate a plan to deliver our full potential, reaching out to the widest audiences across the UK.’
Anthony Minghella, film director and BFI chairman, in May 2003 following the decision to launch a strategic review
‘The BFI’s assets and expertise have educated and entertained many. But this invaluable national resource could be enjoyed by many more. So I welcome the review. I am confident that, following it, Anthony Minghella’s impassioned leadership will enable the institute to reach its full potential’
Culture secretary Tessa Jowell, also in May 2003, following the decision to launch a strategic review
‘In recent weeks, the BFI has completed a five-year heritage lottery-funded project, which will enable much more of our archive material to become accessible to the public. Thanks to the project, numerous films and television holdings have been identified, catalogued or made available for viewing for the first time’
BFI director Amanda Neville, following the House of Commons report into the British film industry, in September 2003
‘Preservation and restoration on this scale is an expensive and detailed process. Conserving hundreds of thousands of items of material, which is volatile and delicate, and whose formats change frequently, is a financial challenge’
Adrian Wootton, former acting director of the BFI, speaking about the film archive in April this year.
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