The great British lottery circus reaches its climax at 5 p.m. today when the Arts Council of England announces the award of up to four film production franchises funded by national lottery money.

It’s the most dramatic moment in the recent history of the British film industry. Just about everyone in the U.K. biz is involved in one or another of the 37 bids, along with several major international players such as Alliance, Pathe, Canal Plus and Summit.

The lucky winners will get privileged access to as much as £39 million ($64 million) each over six years for co-financing British movies. More importantly, the money is being used as a magnet to attract greater levels of private finance to British movies, with the aim of creating mini-studios combining distribution and production.

The rumor mill has been working overtime with speculation on the likely winners, but nobody is even certain how many franchises will be awarded — two, three or four.

Absolutely everyone seems convinced that the Film Consortium bid, which unites Scala, Skreba, Parallax, Greenpoint and Virgin, is a sure bet for one franchise. Andrew Macdonald and Duncan Kenworthy’s DNA Films would also be a popular victor. One outsider that has been attracting a surprising volume of rumors is the Children’s Film Foundation.

The main board of the Arts Council was making its final decision Wednesday.

Whoever wins, the yearlong process of putting together bids has already had a beneficial impact on the British film industry, encouraging producers, distribs and sales companies to talk to one another more seriously than ever before, and getting Britain’s hand-to-mouth filmmakers to develop long-term business strategies.

Many of the partnerships created for the franchise bids will survive in some form even if the bids fail.

But many people in the British film industry are also deeply worried about the inflationary damage that the sudden injection of lottery cash could wreak on Britain’s fragile production economy. Channel 4 film chief David Aukin has warned that the rapid increase in production volume could mean that the virtues of painstaking development would fly out the window.

Many observers question whether the U.K. distribution infrastructure will be able to cope with an extra 30 local movies a year, especially given a worsening logjam of Hollywood blockbusters hogging the multiplex screens.

Privately, many of the highest-profile bidders question the wisdom of the lottery franchise concept, and some of them are secretly hoping not to win, partly because they can’t stand the idea of having to sit in the same boardroom as their bid partners for the next six years.

The one thing for certain is that after today, the British film industry will be playing a whole new ballgame.

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