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British invasion at Edinburgh fest

EDINBURGH — British pictures won the hearts and minds of judges and auds at the 51st Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival, which closed Sunday with a gala screening in a 70mm print of the John Huston cult classic “The Man Who Would Be King,” in the presence of stars Michael Caine and fest patron/local hero Sean Connery.

Winning the Director’s Award, voted by fest topper Lizzie Francke and Channel 4 execs, was Gary Oldman’s helming debut “Nil By Mouth.” Carine Adler’s feature bow, “Under the Skin,” copped the Michael Powell Award for best new Brit pic, decided by a five-member international jury. Audience Award to a movie in a gala slot went to “The Full Monty,” rated as “excellent” by 97% of the 1,000 respondents.

Audience approval

Runners-up in the Audience Award were British pictures “Shooting Fish,” “Mrs. Brown” and “Face,” plus Swedish relationships comedy “Adam & Eva,” which ranked second.

Also prized were “Flatworld,” by Daniel Greaves, as best toon, and the Russian “Wednesday 17.7.1961,” by Viktor Kossakovsky, in the fest’s new docu section.

New program head Francke, who’d pulled a lot of good will and connections from her days as a film journalist, was rewarded with a 10% B.O. boost to more than 30,000 tix sold, and considerable buzz around the British pix on display. Fest was effectively the first major showcase for the so-called British Renaissance, with some 11 world preems among the 19 local titles on display, many of which are set to unspool at Montreal, Venice and Toronto.

‘Wilde’ preem

Preems included costumer “Wilde,” starring Stephen Fry; Antonia Bird’s gangland drama “Face,” with Robert Carlyle; Adler’s female sexual odyssey “Under the Skin”; Roberto Bangura’s spry comedy “The Girl With Brains in Her Feet,” Stefan Schwartz’s scam comedy “Shooting Fish,” and Rob Rohrer’s tough Glasgow dramedy “Bumping the Odds,” all of which garnered considerable kudos. Other world preems included “Regeneration,” “The James Gang” and “Photographing Fairies.”

A host of other British product, from microbudgeters upward, also screened in the New British Expo industry sidebar, which drew reps from Miramax, Fine Line, Fox Searchlight and October Films among the approximately 270 delegates. New British Expo head Mary Davies reported a lot of talent spotting, with the videotheque booked solid by buyers during its six-day run.

Clearly buoyed by her first year in the hot seat, Francke, who’s on an open-ended agreement as program head, told Daily Variety, “I really believe the festival can take off as a U.K. version of Sundance or Telluride.

“Cinema is alive and kicking, and I’ve been lucky this year there’s been a lot of important and challenging British work. All we need now is a major commercial sponsor to make the leap.”

In other news at the festival, the BBC said it would roll out this fall the first three of several planned pay television channels as part of its joint venture with U.S.-controlled program supplier Flextech Plc.

The first three channels will be arts-based Arena, natural history programming on Horizon and a Style channel, featuring cooking, gardening and leisure shows.

Also at the festival, British Channel 5 chief exec David Elstein said the fledgling station will compete aggressively for sports rights as it seeks to establish itself.

“Sky (BSkyB) are not going to have it all their own way,” Elstein told reporters.

Launched last March as Britain’s fifth terrestrial channel, the commercial broadcaster has had to endure criticism of poor reception and poor program quality.

Elstein, a former BSkyB executive, has responded by sealing deals to screen forthcoming European soccer matches involving English clubs Arsenal, Aston Villa and Chelsea.

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