Brit bookies calculate the odds for Oscar night

Bookmakers see surge for 'King Kong,' but 'Brokeback' is fave so far

LONDON — Three days before Daniel Craig was unveiled as the next James Bond, a woman walked into a branch of William Hill bookmakers in south London asking to have $15,000 in cash at 4-to-1 odds on Craig suiting up as the Brit superspy in “Casino Royale.”

“We knew something was up and only offered her that price for the first $1,000, which she duly took,” says Rupert Adams, spokesman for William Hill, who adds that “when it comes to the Oscars race, we sometimes know no more than the man in the street. Often it is simply our gut instinct against yours.”

Tempted? Does gambling on entertainment markets offer bizzers who think they’re in the know a license to print money?

Bookmakers have long offered gambling odds on the Oscars race and other awards bashes but most freely admit their level of expertise is somewhat short of their bottomless knowledge of the track.

The lion’s share of early inquiries in this year’s best film Brit betting market has been for Peter Jackson’s epic “King Kong” (6-1), but Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” has been installed as the hot favorite (11-10) after early awards season recognition.

Bookies expect “The Constant Gardener” (9-1) to shorten due to the strong U.K. elements, but give “Pride & Prejudice” (25-1) and “Mrs. Henderson Presents” (40-1) a snowball in hell’s chance of success.

Sometimes the bookies take a pounding.

Two notable plunges that paid off for punters were for Daniel Day-Lewis (“My Left Foot”), who went from 5-1 to 8-15, and Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”), who saw her odds tumble from an opening 6-1 quote to 2-1 under the weight of punters’ dough.

Best film favorites flatten odds and hurt the bookmakers, but William Hill is pleased to report that only one bold gambler took them up on their 50/1 price on “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” bagging 11 awards. But don’t think every plunge pays off.

In 2004, patriotic punters in the U.K. threw their cash behind Brits Clive Owen (“Closer”) and Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”). Both went off market leaders but failed to pass the post in Hollywood. This time last year, “Sideways” was the early favorite and “The Aviator” came in for strong support after its success at the Globes, but both limped in behind late closer “Million Dollar Baby.”

Bookmakers predict the U.K. industry will do close to $2 million in Oscars biz in 2006 — up significantly on 2005, and a hefty wedge for what remains a novelty market.

“Serious gamblers still don’t weigh in on the Oscars, but we are seeing a notable increase in betting on the Oscars and other entertainment markets since the National Lottery went some way to removing the guilt associated with gambling. Housewives might now have a few quid on their favorite actor to win an Oscar for a bit of fun,” says Reuben Thomas, an analyst at London-based gaming consultancy Abelson Info.

Indeed, the high level of betting interest on the outcome of reality TV shows like “Big Brother” and “X-Factor” has surprised bookmakers.

The increased interest in Oscar betting has not led to more money changing hands in the British Academy of Film and Television Awards. Despite the higher profile of the BAFTAs in the awards season calendar over recent years, betting remains near non-existent.

“We offered betting on the BAFTAs in 1999, 2000 and 2001 but shut it down due to a lack of interest” notes Adams.

William Hill is wary of offering markets on the Golden Globes due to a perception that inside knowledge might hurt the firm.

Ladbrokes and some other firms take a different view: They take the money on the Globes and use it as a forecast for their Oscars markets. Unlike William Hill, Ladbrokes uses a U.S consultancy firm to firm up its kudos season betting.

“As is always the case, we watch where the first £5 note goes and react accordingly,” says Ladbrokes’ Karl Williams, adding that “the big hitters tend to keep their powder dry until the later stages, and we have to be constantly on our toes.”

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