It’s been a long, hard slog, and the deal has collapsed more than once along the way. But Fox Searchlight and U.K. lottery franchise DNA Films are within touching distance of concluding their 50/50 joint venture for the production and worldwide distribution of British movies.

After tortuous three-way negotiations lasting several months, the Film Council (which oversees DNA’s lotto coin) finally seems to have resolved its major problems with the alliance, which will make DNA the conduit for all Searchlight’s U.K.-based production and acquisition activities. Roadblocks thrown up by the Film Council caused Searchlight to walk away last fall, but talks have since been pulled back on track.

Under the five-year deal, the two companies expect to co-finance a $100 million slate of eight to 12 pics, with a maximum budget of $24 million apiece.

DNA, run by producers Andrew Macdonald, Duncan Kenworthy and new partner Allon Reich, has around $25 million left to spend from its lotto franchise. Searchlight will match that coin, with revenues being reinvested in the joint venture.

The deal will secure a future for DNA beyond the end of its six-year franchise in early 2004. Having originally promised to make 16 movies in that period, the company has made just six to date, and has greenlit nothing for more than a year while Macdonald devoted his energies to finding a long-term studio partner.

BATFAs speak with American accent

For the first time this year, U.S.-based members of the British Academy of Film & TV Arts, who make up 33% of the overall membership, were able to take part in the opening round of polling for the BAFTA Awards, thanks to the introduction of online voting.

And did it make any difference? Seems so. Insiders on the BAFTA film committee report a heavy American block vote which skewed the long list of contenders, published Jan. 15, toward the big Oscar frontrunners and away from smaller British films.

So Ken Loach’s magisterial “Sweet Sixteen,” a prize winner at Cannes and the British Independent Film Awards, failed to make BAFTA’s list of 20 candidates for best film, as did “24 Hour Party People” and “Morvern Callar.” Brit pics that did make the long list, notably “Dirty Pretty Things” and “The Magdalene Sisters,” did so almost exclusively with votes from Blighty.

Yet BAFTA’s overseas legion has a disproportionate adoration of familiar Brit thesps, which may explain why Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith made the cut for their minor contributions to “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” respectively.

Stateside voting helped to push pics such as “The Hours,” “Chicago” and “The Pianist” to the top of the polls. In this context, it’s all the more significant that “Far From Heaven” failed to make the top 20, betraying a softness in its American support that’s an ill omen for its Oscar campaign.

Jordan, Woolley take a break

Irish auteur Neil Jordan and his longtime producer Stephen Woolley are working apart, at least temporarily, for the first time since Jordan shot “We’re No Angels” in 1989.

Jordan is attached to direct ancient Greek drama “The Return” for producer Uberto Pasolini, while Woolley is lining up his directorial debut with a biopic of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones.

The duo were hoping to shoot Jordan’s $55 million epic “Borgia” this year, but could not raise the financing. They are still trying to mount the pic for 2004.

“The Return,” rewritten by Jordan from a screenplay by Edward Bond, deals with the homecoming of Odysseus to his island kingdom of Ithaca, 20 years after he left for the Trojan War. Michael Kuhn is set to bankroll the $18 million project.

Meanwhile, Neal Purvis and Rob Wade are nearly ready with their Brian Jones script after eight years in development. Several directors were previously attached, but Woolley says he has become too deeply immersed in the material to give it up to another helmer.

Jordan and Woolley’s production shingle Company of Wolves has two pics for release this year, “The Actors” and “Intermission.”

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