Focal points

Over the last 25 years, FOCAL International has put the needs of the audiovisual media industry front and center, providing members with the tools and the knowledge needed to put their best footage forward. Realscreen spoke to the FOCAL International team to discuss the organization's past, present and future in footage.
January 1, 2010

In today’s accelerated media environment, when every moment offers a new barrage of content, it’s easy to see the moving image as a kind of phantom: ethereal, ephemeral and existing primarily in a kind of meta-space.

Those who work in the archive business know better. Just ask the staff of the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries International Ltd. – better known as FOCAL International. The women who run the UK-based, not-for-profit, professional trade association, which is celebrating 25 years in business this year, have a special relationship with the physical side of audiovisual media: the film reels, videotapes and other tangible formats that hold the world’s huge array of footage. It’s a side of things that’s often unsung, but it constitutes a collective historical record of astonishing scope and importance – and those within FOCAL are some of its most impassioned advocates.

‘It’s an incredible business, and there’s a heck of a lot going on behind it,’ says Anne Johnson, FOCAL’s commercial manager for the last 20 years. ‘People think, ‘Oh, we’ll just get the footage off the shelf,” she says. ‘Well, it’s a bit more than that. Cataloging systems, air conditioning, fire prevention, preserving, restoring…’


If it all sounds daunting, that’s where FOCAL comes in. The company promotes the use of commercial archives and helps make them more accessible, as well as lobbying for their preservation and expediting transactions between those looking for footage and those who have it. Its core services include an online Footage Finder, which allows producers to enter requests for footage that are then emailed to FOCAL member libraries in over 29 countries; a Researcher Finder, that provides the same service for archive researchers; and a Facility Finder, which applies the model to sites and services. (All of the Finders are accessible through FOCAL’s web site at

‘Those that get the emails (through the Finders) contact the client back, and we step away – we don’t take any commission,’ says Johnson. ‘It’s a free service for everyone to use.’

‘The Footage Finder was extremely helpful when we were first getting started (in 2005),’ says Kevin Schaff, CEO of U.S.-based Thought Equity Motion, which supplies online motion content, licensing and professional representation services to various sectors of the entertainment industry. ‘A lot of their main emphasis is on the documentary market, so it’s nice and targeted, and easy to respond to the leads they provide.’


The services are very much in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation that sparked FOCAL International’s inception. The idea for FOCAL was born in Cannes, where a group of colleagues representing commercial audiovisual libraries at MIP got the idea to form an organization that could represent their interests.

‘There was Jill Hawkins, who was the head of library sales at BBC Enterprises, along with SVT, INA, ITN, British Pathe Ltd., Visnews (which is now Reuters), CBC, Archive Films from New York and NBC,’ says Johnson, listing the libraries that decided to come together to form FOCAL, which was officially created in 1985.

The group grew from there, eventually expanding its role in the industry under the strategic guidance of Jane Mercer, an esteemed film researcher with the British Film Institute who was FOCAL’s first executive chair. Mercer died in 2005, and her replacement and current FOCAL chair, Sue Malden, has since instituted a memorial fund and lecture in her honor, to offer, respectively, financial support to those interested in pursuing a career in the archive world, and a rallying point for FOCAL members and others with a stake in the industry.


At present, FOCAL’s membership includes 146 libraries, 18 industry partner organizations, 16 facility companies and 151 individuals. Speak to any of them, and you’re bound to hear not only how FOCAL’s services make their businesses more efficient, but also how the organization is emblematic of the collective passion for the moving image that unifies the whole industry – a relative rarity in the film and TV business, where stiff competition often makes cooperation difficult.

‘You can’t be isolated in this business,’ says Julie Lewis, FOCAL’s general manager. ‘You’re relying on good working relationships with people. It’s one thing to locate a piece of footage, but there are so many other hoops to go through to actually license it to get it to appear on air.’

‘FOCAL provides a way to connect with researchers from around the world,’ says Elizabeth Klinck, who is a member of both FOCAL and the Visual Researchers’ Society of Canada ( ‘[In] just the same way I really know the Canadian collections, it’s better to get somebody on the ground, someone in the UK or someone [elsewhere], who really knows the collections in those countries. You have to have a certain number of credits before you can become a member of FOCAL, so it’s a really great way for me to know that [these people] are legitimate and professional.’

FOCAL’s reach is especially impressive given the relatively tiny size of its staff. In essence, Johnson and Lewis run the whole organization, with Malden as its executive liaison and de facto public spokesperson. Between the two of them, Johnson and Lewis cover database management, marketing and publications, photography, web editing, curation of FOCAL’s annual awards ceremony, and several dozen other jobs that might overwhelm less committed individuals. Its quarterly magazine, Archive Zones, is one of the only periodicals in the world dedicated to covering the archive business. The team regularly lobbies for more recognition and better funding for archives and researchers, and they are currently working on several new educational and development initiatives to foster interest in and support for the industry.

‘We’ve been lobbying for training,’ says Malden, ‘particularly to address the issue of the older legacy formats, and the problem of how we can maintain those archives and make them more accessible, in light of the fact that people who are used to operating the machinery in older formats are beginning to retire.’

To help usher a new generation of archivists and researchers into the business, FOCAL has paired with Skillset (, a UK organization dedicated to maintaining standards in creative media industries, to offer a one-year training course combining classroom activities with industry work placements. (The inaugural course, which began in January, had 170 applicants for 10 spots.) In addition, they’ve created a FOCAL summer school aimed at the international market, and partnered with FIAT/IFTA [] to develop a dictionary of terminology that will demystify some of the language used when licensing material.


Given the scope of its undertakings and the tendency of people to undervalue the archive industry (the words ‘stock footage’ don’t exactly trigger fireworks in many people’s minds), you might think FOCAL’s job is a thankless one. Luckily, it’s covered that angle, too, through the annual FOCAL awards ceremony, which brings together industry professionals to celebrate achievements in all areas of the business.

‘We’re highlighting not just the use of footage, but also the skills that are involved in the industry,’ says Lewis. ‘It’s the whole gamut – the people who restore and preserve the footage, who catalog it, who sell it, the researchers who license it, and the producers who then use it in their programs.’ The awards are hosted by FOCAL’s chair patron, Lord David Puttnam, and this year’s ceremony (scheduled for April 27) will see the event move to a new home at London’s Lancaster Hotel.

‘The awards are a nice chance to celebrate a relatively uncelebrated industry and provide a focus for the year’s work,’ says Jody Winterbottom, London sales director of Framepool (, a FOCAL member for seven years.

‘People feel so good about it afterwards,’ says Lewis. ‘They feel that they’ve been empowered, that it’s all been worthwhile working on these productions. It’s very gratifying.’

The same sense of mutual recognition also pervades FOCAL’s participation at conferences and other industry events.

‘It’s always waving the flag for archives,’ says Klinck. ‘I really think it represents the archive and footage business in a very professional way, and the women who are running it are just lovely.’

‘Even if you’re not talking about work (at FOCAL events), it makes you feel plugged into your industry,’ says Jenny Coan, who runs UK-based library, Clips & Footage ( ‘You make great friends.’


Like many industries, the archive business is feeling the massive changes wrought by technology and economics. Libraries are striving to digitize without compromising their material or their relationships with any client sector, to navigate the briar patch of contemporary copyright laws, and to shoulder the increasing capital investments required to care for older formats. But whether it’s through encouraging debate, facilitating speaking engagements or exploring new initiatives, FOCAL continues to hold down the fort for archives.

‘A lot of these archives don’t know where to start when it comes to technology,’ says Schaff. ‘And FOCAL does a really nice job with the preservation side of things. It really stays true to the roots of what the industry needs done.’

Malden says that while much may change, the passion and beliefs at the heart of the business will endure. ‘We have to think quite rapidly about what kind of business models need to be around to keep archives going – to ensure they’re preserved long-term, but also to ensure that they’re accessible,’ she says.

‘But the bottom line is, all of the people involved in FOCAL love moving images. They think they’re really important, that they need protecting, and that we should be making as much out of them as we can.’

‘You do feel sometimes as though your life’s been taken over by FOCAL… well, a lot of the time, in fact,’ laughs Lewis, reflecting on the variety and volume of the tasks at hand, and looming on the horizon. ‘You’re doing it for the love of it, really.’

Johnson concurs, but says they’ve got the future covered. ‘We’re ready for what’s going to hit us in the next 10 years.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.