Brits turn up pre-Oscar heat

LONDON — The British Academy of Film & Television Arts is making its bid for the big time by moving its movie awards right into the heart of Oscar season. Rather than taking place two weeks after the Oscars in early April, the Orange British Academy Film Awards — better known as the BAFTAs — have claimed the prime real estate of Feb. 25, exactly a month before Hollywood’s grand prize-giving.

It’s a bold experiment to turn the heat up under an event that already has gained some sizzle since it was split off from BAFTA’s television awards three years ago.

“In the past, the BAFTAs were a pleasant postscript to the awards season,” says Simon Relph, chairman of BAFTA. “But we’ve seen enormous benefits already from the switch. The whole attitude and approach of distributors has changed, not just here in London but also directly from Los Angeles.”

“With the awards moving in front of the Oscars, I’m seeing a lot more interest in the BAFTAs,” says Don Haber, exec director of BAFTA Los Angeles, who received a barrage of calls from studios execs who were double checking BAFTA nods the day before the Oscar nominations announcement. “There’s a perception that the BAFTAs are going to become an indicator for the Oscars.”

The British Academy’s 4,000 or so members — 3,000 in Britain and the rest in L.A. and New York — are basking in their new popularity as the film companies lay on a barrage of screenings and inundate them with videotapes.

For some films, the BAFTA campaign is being run by the American distrib, not the British one — Universal for “Erin Brockovich” and Miramax for “Chocolat” — a sure sign that the Hollywood studios now see the BAFTAs as part of their Oscar campaign. Directors and stars who have hosted special London screenings include Curtis Hanson and Michael Douglas for “Wonder Boys,” Geoffrey Rush for “Quills,” and Joel Schumacher for “Tigerland.” Kate Hudson was only persuaded to attend the London Film Festival premiere of “Almost Famous” back in November when it was pointed out that this would put her in the eye of BAFTA voters.

Such schmoozing is all the more necessary because the delay between U.S. and U.K. release dates means many of the main contenders don’t open in Britain until well into the BAFTA voting cycle. Only a handful of the main contenders have been brave enough not to send out tapes — notably “Traffic” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Their distribs gambled successfully on the fact that both films are being released with maximum publicity just as BAFTA voters go to the polls. Both scored multiple nominations in major categories.

“Traffic” helmer Steven Soderbergh received two nods for direction (the other for “Erin Brockovich”) — the only BAFTA category that exactly mirrors the Oscar nominations.

It’s too soon to tell whether the date switch will dramatically increase the star wattage of the ceremony itself.

“We’ve always done pretty well at getting the talent over,” Relph says. “This year I’m worried that with the strike looming, there may be an availability problem, because everyone is working. But from what we’re being told by the studios, the whole marketing and publicity machine is intent on bringing us the talent.”

Aside from the date change, the emphasis for this year’s ceremony is continuity. For the first time, the awards are being held in the same venue as the previous year — the Odeon Leicester Square, the U.K.’s flagship cinema, right in the heart of London’s West End. It’s a location that proved a huge hit last year, as crowds gathered outside to gawk at the limos sweeping into the usually car-free piazza, and scream at the tuxed and gowned stars as they stepped forth. Kevin Spacey, for one, was effusive about the atmosphere, likening it to holding the Oscars in Times Square.

The post-event gala dinner, however, has been moved from the nearby Cafe Royal, where guests were uncomfortably segregated on several floors, to the grand Grosvenor House hotel, a mile away on swanky Park Lane. The British Academy will send out 60 luxury buses to ferry the 1,800 guests between locations.

Pre- and post-gala soirees include the Feb. 24 TALK magazine bash at the St. Martin’s Lane hotel — where the Miramax revelers will hold court — and the InStyle bash, which will be held after dinner at the Grosvernor to celebrate the BAFTAs as well as the mag’s launch of a British edition.

The show is in the hands of the same TV production company as last year, Initial, and the same live broadcaster, BSkyB, which is two years into a three-year deal. The urbane and popular Stephen Fry has replaced last year’s lame Jack Docherty as the host.

Relph is hoping that if the event proves a success in its new slot, there will be a U.S. broadcast deal next year. That’s certainly essential if the BAFTAs are to become a true steppingstone for the Academy Awards.

The biggest reservation expressed by Hollywood execs is that the BAFTAs are simply too British in taste to have much relevance to the American awards season. Yet about a fifth of BAFTA voters live in America, and a significant minority — no one knows the precise number — also are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Golden Globes, by contrast, are voted by approximately 90 foreign journalists.

It’s true that the British Academy likes to single out British talent for kudos — but it also is capable of startling objectivity, such as last year, when hometown favorite and Oscar winner Sam Mendes was overlooked for the best director award in favor of Pedro Almodovar (“All About My Mother”).

The jury voting system favors such quirky decisions. The membership is polled twice to whittle down from a long list of 15 to a short list — which this year, for the first time, will contain five rather than four nominees in all categories. Then expert juries pick the actual winners of all the awards except five — the four acting prizes and best film, which are voted by the entire membership.

Another BAFTA oddity, which prevents the event from mimicking the Academy Awards too closely, is the regular inclusion of some films from the previous year’s Oscar running, because of the difference between U.S. and U.K. release dates. This year’s long list for best film included “Magnolia,” “Toy Story 2″ and “Boys Don’t Cry,” with the latter receiving a best actress nod for Hilary Swank.

But BAFTA’s pre-Oscar switch this year has prompted international distribs to take rethink their U.K. releases.

“The move does affect the marketplace from a distribution point of view,” says Rick Sands, Miramax’s chairman of worldwide distribution. “We had to take into account that the BAFTAs were earlier, so we had to make a conscious decision about the release date.”

Miramax’s “Chocolat” won’t open in the U.K. until March, but Miramax and distrib BVI took a calculated risk by sticking to that late release, says Sands. The pic qualified by being released for one week before Feb. 1 and its general release date falls before BAFTA’s Mar. 16 deadline.

(Sharon Swart in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)

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