In his 80th year, the indefatigable Lord Attenborough (Dickie to just about everyone) is trying to put together his 12th movie as a director.

“Closing the Ring,” scripted by Peter Woodward (son of actor Edward), is a love story set in Belfast and North Carolina, flashing back from present-day to 1942.

Attenborough is hoping to start shooting the $20 million project in May, at Belfast’s new Paint Hall Studios and in Canada. Producer Jo Gilbert is in talks with Capitol Films, the Film Council’s Premiere Fund and Invicta Capital to raise the bulk of the financing.

“This will be the biggest movie ever shot in Northern Ireland, and hopefully we’re going to make it mostly with British money,” she says.

All, however, depends on casting. Shirley MacLaine is already set, and Gene Hackman is being courted to play opposite her, but the pic also requires an ensemble of bankable young stars who have yet to be cast.

The script was inspired by the fact that Belfast was the base for a U.S. Air Force squadron during World War II. When a B-17 bomber crashes near the city, the dying rear gunner gives his ring to the local who pulled him from the wreckage. Half a century later, another young Irishman comes across the ring and resolves to return it to the airman’s former fiancee back in America. It turns out she married the dead man’s best friend, but the ring stirs long-buried memories.

Attenborough, who is producing as well as directing the movie, is one of the few living filmmakers who can bring first-hand experience of the WWII setting. He served as a rear gunner in the Royal Air Force.

This will be his first directorial outing since “Grey Owl” in 1999. He won the best picture Oscar for “Gandhi” in 1982, and also helmed such classics as “A Bridge Too Far,” “O, What a Lovely War” and “Shadowlands.”

Attenborough turns 80 this August but shows no sign of slowing down. He’s still one of the industry’s most active and influential lobbyists, and he is also spearheading the Dragon Studios project to build a mammoth production facility in south Wales.

BAFTA rethinks 2004 voting

BAFTA is considering some significant changes in the way it runs the voting for its 2004 film awards. Having moved next year’s ceremony two weeks earlier (to Feb. 8 instead of Feb. 22), in response to the date switch by the Academy Awards to Feb. 29, the British org will face an acute deadline crunch to get its polling completed on time.

One option under discussion is to abandon the first round of voting and cut straight to the nominations. Currently, members start by selecting 12 choices in every category, which produces a long list of up to 20 contenders. Members then vote again to pick the five nominees. This year’s first deadline was at the start of January, but next year it would have to move before Christmas, making it all but impossible for distribs to get all the big contenders screened in time.

After this year’s experiment with online polling, BAFTA also is thinking of giving up paper ballots entirely next year and doing the whole thing over the Internet. That would allow a few extra days for voting, and avoid the chaos of this and last year, when the paper ballots had to be tallied by hand because the counting machines couldn’t read them accurately, delaying publication of the long lists by two days.

The big question is whether these changes would make any difference to who gets nominated. It’s impossible to know for sure, but abandoning the long lists certainly would alter the dynamic of the campaign. Under the current system, for example, it’s not unusual for an actor who tops the first-round poll to miss out entirely when it comes to the nominations. Many of the big Oscar contenders arrive too late to make an impact before the first deadline, and voters clearly like to rethink as the race evolves. But if there’s only one quick stab at getting it right, the intensity of the campaign will be magnified dramatically.

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