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Brit Acad unveils new goals and membership

LONDON — Slowly but surely, a revitalized and rejuvenated British Academy of Film & TV Arts is emerging from under its scaffolding.

Just as the HQ at 195 Piccadilly has undergone a major refit to bring it into the 21st century, the org itself is completing several years of expansion and modernization.

The BAFTA membership has risen by 49% over five years to 6,240; the org recently announced it will cap the growth at 6,500. New members are typically younger and more actively employed in the film or TV biz than BAFTA’s traditional core of old-timers.

“The growth in membership is the result of the increased profile of the Academy,” says BAFTA chairman Duncan Kenworthy. “If there was a drive, it was about getting people to join at an earlier stage in their career than they would previously have done. We haven’t lowered the bar. Joining an academy is something people usually think about later in life, and we tried to change that.”

Now, after its expansion phase, the org is moving into a period of consolidation. The membership is being organized into chapters, the rules and structures of its awards are being fine-tuned, and online voting has been successfully introduced.

Most important, the org is seeking a greater involvement in educational activities directed at the cinemagoing public, with a particular emphasis on reaching out to younger auds and regions beyond London.

“Our main remit as a charity is to help improve public taste in the visual arts,” Kenworthy says. “The awards are just one way of doing that. Getting involved in direct education is another way. We have not in the past been very good at getting our membership to do this, for example, to go to a school and talk about their work.”

Over the past few years, the decision to split the film and TV awards, and then to move the film ceremony to a new slot in the build-up to the Oscars, gave the org a dynamic new relevance within the industry and in the eyes of the media.

The consequent proliferation of screeners, and personal appearances by filmmakers and stars soliciting votes, made BAFTA membership a desirable package.

But officials also began to realize that unchecked expansion might dilute the exclusivity from which the org derives its authority. Alarm bells rang when execs started to propose their assistants for membership, and a local trade rag put forward a dozen of its back-room staff (they were rejected).

Hence, the cap on the membership will be imposed. In his recent letter announcing the move, Kenworthy wrote, “Our strength as an Academy comes not just from the collective expertise of our voting members, but also from the ability to have an effective debate within our ranks. We feel that 6,500 is the biggest we should be.”

Once that figure is reached, new members will be admitted only when old ones depart. Entry requirements have already become tougher, with applicants expected to show four years of service plus evidence of a “significant contribution” to the film or TV industry.

The membership is currently split almost exactly between film and TV, although the majority of television members exercise their right to vote in the film awards.

According to Kenworthy, “The cap will allow us to fine-tune our voting membership, with achievement and expertise always paramount, but with more attention paid to areas in which we feel we are under-represented.”

There is also a move toward what Kenworthy calls codifying the org’s standards and practices into more formal rules. Voting in the film awards, for example, has been made mandatory for all members who sign up to receive screeners.

“We’re trying to focus our members on their responsibilities as well as on the benefits of their membership,” explains Kenworthy. “There’s a sense that we mustn’t take advantage of our good relationship with the distributors.”

For the first time, too, BAFTA sent out detailed guidelines on how to vote, including such gems as the advice not to vote for “the loudest film” in the sound category. Kenworthy says this was long overdue, but became necessary partly because of the larger number of recently joined members who are new to the process.

Kenworthy says the impact of this new membership on the org’s personality and its choices is hard to judge. But when he visits 195 Piccadilly or attends screenings, he detects “a feeling of a more vibrant, younger organization, perhaps slightly more engaged.”

In this year’s film voting, he ascribes the fact that “Garden State” made it into the final 15 in the screenplay race to the younger membership. “American independent films aren’t the sort of films BAFTA is known for,” he notes.

This new atmosphere should become more visibly manifest once BAFTA reopens its refurbished clubhouse. Previously stuck in the drab 1970s, the building’s interior will be transformed into something closer to the kind of contemporary members’ clubs where the Soho film crowd generally prefers to hang out.

“It’s going too far to say that it will create new alliances, connections and waves within the Academy, but it’s a start,” Kenworthy says.

That effort to attract a younger clientele may not be universally popular among the old guard who have previously had 195 Piccadilly to themselves. “They say, ‘We’ve always paid 30 pence for a cup of tea, and now it’s £1.50 for a cappuccino, and I don’t like cappuccino,’ ” says one BAFTA insider, wearily.

BAFTA officials would love to rid the org of its tendency toward such trivial and parochial issues. Kenworthy’s explicit agenda in his two-year term as chairman is to focus the org on its larger role as a standard-bearer for creative excellence both within the membership, by providing members a forum in which to enhance their skills and knowledge, and in the country at large.

He is careful to depict the renewed emphasis on outreach and education not as a break from the past, but as a natural evolution of BAFTA’s glorious tradition. Kenworthy explains, “BAFTA has always got to be at its core about excellence. We are never going to take a stand on the issues of the day, but we want to be the repository of the gold standard.”

Or as David Parfitt, a close ally who succeeded Kenworthy as chair of the film committee, puts it: “We are a registered charity, not a club, and we should start acting like one.”

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