As BAFTA goes Hollywood, BIFA claims Blighty's indie heartland

TIP SHEET
What: British Independent Film Awards
When: Nov. 30
Where: Hammersmith Palais, London

The British Independent Film Awards’ annual kudofest, one of the earliest gong-giving ceremonies of the season, has long been a favorite industry bash due to its informal atmosphere.

In the past, a liberal supply of booze and preholiday season high spirits have led to energetic heckling from the audience and an occasional thrown bread roll. That’s not the sort of thing they do at the British Academy of Film & Television Arts bash, Blighty’s older, posher, strictly black-tie event.

Now in its eighth year, BIFA will hand out prizes Nov. 30 at the Hammersmith Palais, a glitzier venue than the nightclubs and hotel function rooms the ceremony used to take place in. For the fifth year running, Variety will be the name sponsor of the U.K. Personality of the Year award, which is going to Keira Knightley, star of “Pride & Prejudice.”

Ironically, “Pride & Prejudice” is not considered sufficiently independently produced to qualify for BIFA noms, given its production company, Working Title, is backed by Universal.

That commitment to strictly defined notions of independence and Britishness has helped the BIFAs gain in stature and importance over the years. “It’s a sign the awards are getting more significant that people are calling me when their film doesn’t get nominated now,” observes Elliot Grove, the BIFAs’ founder. “Before the nominations, I get lots of lunches. After the nominations I get lots of coffees.”

One reason the BIFAs pack more punch is that BAFTA is increasingly positioning itself as an international ceremony, whose nominations for film awards look increasingly similar to Oscar’s lineups, but with a few Brit-specific categories thrown in.

“BAFTA and the American Academy are all-inclusive, whereas the films BIFA considers is a much narrower group,” explains tenpercenter Steve Kenis, topper at Steve Kenis and Co., a member of both BAFTA and the BIFAs advisory board, which draws up the long list of noms that the final jury whittles down to five mentions in each category and a winner.

Film editor for Heat magazine Charles Gant, a close observer of kudo contests worldwide, notes that BAFTA’s international focus has created “a great opportunity for a rival set of awards focusing on British films, and it’s for that reason that the BIFAs has transformed in a short space of time from being a left-of-center award scheme to what they are now — a primary awards for British film in the U.K.”

Nevertheless, as Gant reckons, “With any awards scheme you’re only as good as this year’s movies. The year 2004, for example, was a particularly good one for the BIFAs because in the best British independent category there was ‘My Summer of Love,’ ‘Vera Drake’ and ‘Shaun of the Dead’ competing. I don’t think 2005 has come up with an equivalently strong lineup. Two — ‘A Cock & Bull Story’ and ‘The Constant Gardener’ — are very strong. ‘Mrs. Henderson Presents’ is a nice movie, ‘The Descent’ is a good genre picture and I’m glad it’s been noticed, but I personally think ‘The Libertine’ is a bad film.”

In fact, Johnny Depp starrer “The Libertine” ties with previous BIFA helmer winner (“Dirty Pretty Things”) Stephen Frears’ “Mrs. Henderson Presents” for the most-nominated film this year.

“We just picked the best movies and the strongest candidates,” states advisory board member Ollie Madden, who works for Intermedia Films. “It’s a happy coincidence that the nominations represent the range of British movies these days.”

Neil Hunter, co-writer-director (with Tom Hunsinger) of “The Lawless Heart,” which won screenplay in 2002, takes a different view. “When we were nominated it was still in a climate when the smaller films were more prominent in the nomination lists. It’s more about bigger films now,” he says. “Certainly the event has gotten jazzier since our day. And I understand the catering has improved as well.”

BIFA producer Johanna von Fischer points out that the achievement in production gong is tailored precisely to honor those “smaller films,” even though “every film is an achievement in production,” one way or another. Nominees for this category include “Guy X,” “Gypo,” “It’s All Gone Pete Tong,” “Song of Song” and “The Business.”

While “Libertine,” “Mrs. Henderson,” “Constant Gardener” and “Cock & Bull Story” dominate the nominations, there’s noms in the less prominent categories for other British pics such as Danny Boyle’s “Millions,” black comedy “Festival” and thesp-turned-helmer Richard E. Grant’s “Wah-Wah.” B.O. fortunes don’t seem to have swayed the advisory board or the jury’s minds given that laffer “Kinky Boots,” which cumed $4.5 million, won only a few noms, while soccer story “Goal!,” with a cume of $3.6 million, netted zilch.

Wendy Ide, a film critic for the London Times, remarks that “what is positive about the BIFAs is there are some outsider films that are getting nominated. I don’t expect we’ll see ‘The Libertine’ on many other lists, or ‘The Descent,’ which I thought was a great film.”

Some might argue that the uncertainty wrought by the recent revision to the U.K.’s tax laws, which nearly closed down “The Libertine” in pre-production, has had a negative effect on the quality of British movies this year. “The strong films this year were very strong,” remarks Kenis. “But I don’t think there was quite the breadth and range of strong films this year that we’ve had in years past. We’ve had better and we’ve had worse.”

There’s little surprise that Guy Ritchie’s near-universally panned “Revolver” failed to secure any noms, but some prominent titles have been overlooked, including experienced producer Steve Woolley’s helming debut, “Stoned”; the Quay brothers’ experimental “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes”; and quirky tube-to-big screen transfer “The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.”

Von Fischer won’t discuss reasons why certain films failed to make the cut, but laments that “some are so close and you might wish some would just scrape in. Even though I produce these (awards), part of me just hates awards because every film is someone’s baby and should be given an award.”

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