“Most of us in Hollywood don’t understand the Baftas,” confessed one studio chief visiting London last week, as this year’s nominations were unveiled Jan. 19.

So much for the absurd claim in the London Times that Oscar voters now choose from the BAFTA shortlists.

“If anything they matter less than in previous years, because the nominees were announced two days after the Oscar ballot closed,” snorted one campaigner.

That hasn’t stopped the studios and their satellites spending heavily in Blighty to promote their candidates. But no one really knows if it’s money well spent.

“We’d love to know how many of these people that we invite to screenings and send material and tapes to actually vote,” says one publicist. BAFTA won’t say. About 80% of eligible Oscar voters normally return their ballots, but BAFTA’s reticence does nothing to dispel the suspicion that its turnout is less impressive.

That, along with the three-stage voting system mixing membership polls with juries, the 80/20 split between British and American-based voters, and the mythic crossover of membership with AMPAS, all contribute toward Hollywood’s perception of the Baftas as an arcane British ritual that certainly means something, but nobody is quite sure exactly what.

In truth, the Baftas are a mass of contradictions, and no less entertaining or important for that. They are characterized by a mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation that’s uniquely, well, British.

The org wants its awards to be a bellwether for the Oscars but also to be valued in their own right as equal or superior to an Academy Award.

Hollywood sometimes seem to be leading BAFTA voters by the nose, only for them to shy away and pick “The Pianist” as best picture, a genuine shock that silenced the room at last year’s ceremony.

Even though “Cold Mountain” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” top this year’s nods, they could still be pipped by a dark horse such as “Lost in Translation,” the only film nominated across all the “big” categories — film, director, script, actor and actress.

BAFTA also has a reputation for partisanship, but the voters are just as capable of kicking deserving British talent in the teeth in their eagerness to honor the icons of Hollywood or global cinema.

British helmers get particularly short shrift. In the past seven years, Brit-directed movies have taken the best film prize five times, voted by the membership. Yet none of those auteurs won the David Lean Award for best direction, where the winner is chosen by a jury of fellow British directors.

What that says about their level of professional rivalry and/or self-loathing would take a skilled Freudian to decode. Perhaps they just think that no one (or at least, no one else) is fit to inherit Lean’s mantle. Anthony Minghella, twice a losing nominee in this category, probably knows not to get his hopes up.

Brits nix Scorsese, French say ‘Oui’

After being turned down by the U.K. Film Council, Martin Scorsese has struck a deal with StudioCanal to develop an adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1948 novel “The Heart of the Matter.”

Brit scribe Don MacPherson (who adapted Greene’s “Brighton Rock” for Terrence Malick to produce at Intermedia) will pen the screenplay. Producer is Gotham-based Barbara De Fina.

Set in western Africa during WWII, “The Heart of the Matter” is the story of a decent colonial policeman nearing retirement who stumbles into infidelity and corruption when investigating a diamond smuggling ring. “It’s a very dark story, but Don has found a way of making it less dark,” says an insider.

Scorsese and De Fina approached the Film Council to back their British script, but were rejected on what FC development chief Jenny Borgars calls “creative grounds.”

They had already contacted StudioCanal to option the remake rights to the 1953 movie of Greene’s novel. Out of that conversation grew the idea that StudioCanal would finance the development.

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