Brits joining Oscar gold rush

BAFTA moves awards from April to February

LONDON — The Hollywood kudos season, which kicks off with the National Board of Review in early December and climaxes with the Academy Awards in late March, has always been an all-American affair. But now the Brits are trying to crash the party.

The British Academy of Film & Television Arts has shifted its film awards to Feb. 25 from its old April slot, in a bold bid to redraw the map of the Oscar campaign.

Slap bang between the Golden Globes (Jan. 21) and the Academy Awards (March 25), the Baftas are pitching themselves as a stepping stone toward the ultimate prize. Although the awards are technically named the Orange British Academy Film Awards, in deference to their sponsor, everyone calls them the Baftas. (The org abbreviation is BAFTA in all capital letters.)

So will Hollywood embrace the interloper, or give the cold shoulder? Much, say studio sources, depends on whether this year’s Bafta ceremony proves itself worthy of their long-term support.

But big American players are already pouring far more cash and effort than ever before into wooing BAFTA’s members — 3,000 industry insiders in Blighty and approximately 800 expats in Los Angeles and New York.

“We’ve had a fantastic response from the studios and big independents,” says Steve Woolley, chairman of BAFTA’s film section, who visited Los Angeles in September with chief exec Amanda Berry to talk up the date switch.

Not only are there far more special screenings and more videos being sent out this year, but studios and talent are bending over backward to press the flesh.

Geoffrey Rush (“Quills”), Michael Winterbottom (“The Claim”), Joel Schumacher (“Tigerland”), Michael Douglas and Curtis Hanson (“The Wonder Boys”), and Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit (“Almost Famous”) have already graced screenings at BAFTA’s Piccadilly HQ in London.

And since BAFTA, unlike its U.S. counterpart, encourages campaigning, a host of screenplays, glossy brochures, CDs and other goodies are heading the way of its members.

“We have a larger budget and more leverage to get the talent over,” confirms Richard Napper, managing director of Columbia TriStar U.K.

“Everyone is looking at it as a stepping stone,” adds Andrew Cripps, president of United Intl. Pictures, which reps Universal and Paramount.

With no U.S. TV coverage lined up this year at least, Woolley admits the BAFTAs are not going to be competing with the Golden Globes for public impact. The one-two Globes to Oscars punch is a proven prescription for Hollywood marketeers, and that’s not likely to change easily, especially given the perception of the Baftas as — in the words of one top studio exec — “nothing more than a free trip to London.”

But with a significant minority of BAFTA members also signed up to AMPAS, the Brit event could offer the industry a real clue about the way the Oscar winds are blowing.

And if the British awards do eventually establish themselves as a more accurate Oscar predictor than the Globes, whose track record in the past couple of years has been decidedly mixed — well, there might not be too many tears among those who chafe at the power of the 90 journalists who comprise the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

Not everyone is convinced the new Baftas will suddenly be so much more important than the old. David Livingstone, Universal’s London-based president of international marketing, plays down the Oscar link.

“I do like the Baftas, but I don’t think they pave the way for the Academy Awards, albeit that they are now on the way,” he says. “It’s of less significance than I would hope it to be. In reality nine out of 10 people in Hollywood don’t know the Baftas exist. Its level of significance may have gone up 25%, but what was its level before? Negligible.”

U’s “Billy Elliot” could well sweep the board at this year’s event, but Livingstone suspects such a British victory could be discounted in Hollywood merely as evidence of hometown favoritism.

It’s true that BAFTA has a tradition of honoring Brits, whether in local or Hollywood movies. But it is also proud of its support for American or other foreign talent overlooked by U.S. prizegivers.

A couple of years ago, “The Truman Show” won consolation prizes at the Baftas after its Oscar shutout, and last year Pedro Almodovar surprisingly beat Sam Mendes, the British-born Oscar winner, for the director award.

The delicate question is how far BAFTA’s quirky independence will be compromised by its desire to become a bell-wether for Academy Awards.

BAFTA has already built a certain, ahem, flexibility into its qualification rules to ensure that all the main Oscar candidates are also in the running for its awards.

Many Oscar films that are released Stateside in December don’t find their way to British cinemas until February or March.

So BAFTA admits any film released up to March 16, as long as it gets a one-week qualifying run somewhere in Britain by the end of December. Last year, over half of the Bafta noms went to films released after the end of 1999.

BAFTA’s nightmare would be to find films ineligible for Oscars scooping up awards. This year there are two top-quality contenders that could spoil BAFTA’s party: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia” and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.”

The former was eligible for 1999 Oscars; the latter will open in the U.S. next year.

Woolley freely admits that the re-positioning of the Baftas is an “experiment.” But success should help iron out such anomalies in future years, as distribs make greater efforts to tailor release dates to the ceremony.

For the time being, BAFTA’s priority is to prove it can lay on a splashy bash this year to impress Hollywood.

But above all, it’s BATFA’s hope that the raised profile of its awards will encourage more of the British film industry’s bright young things to join an organization that tends to be seen as an old boys’ network.

“There is an appalling gap in our demographic,” says Woolley. “If people know they are going to get lots of videos, maybe we can bring the average age down a bit closer to the 20s than to the 60s.”

(Claude Brodesser in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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