Blighty awards campaign loses its swag -- and then some

LONDON — Bah, humbug! The British Academy of Film & Television Arts has done its best to take the fun out of its film awards with a clampdown on campaigning.

The goal is a more merit-based voting process. But some skeptics believe the winners have become more predictable, more conventional — and more American — as a result.

In recent years, BAFTA toppers have been determined to emphasize that membership is not about perks, but about duties and responsibilities. Chief among those duties is the obligation to vote, and to do so with due consideration and sobriety.

So voting has become mandatory — members who don’t will face the threat of being kicked off the screener list next year — and distribs are not even allowed to offer a glass of white wine to cloud the judgment of members.

Cuddly toys, books, elaborate presentation boxes for screeners that are fancy enough to wrap up and put in a stocking for the kids, reviews and magazine articles, even retail copies of DVDs packed full of juicy extras: All of these have been outlawed in BAFTA’s bid to clean up the campaign and create a level playing field in which the best film, the best performance and the best costumes win entirely on their own self-evident merits.

“It used to be like Christmas for the members,” veteran PR rep Liz Miller laments. “Now it’s more like, I don’t know, spinach.

“There’s certainly no room for corruption now. In the past, if you felt that the BAFTA members were susceptible to bribes, you were allowed to try that, but now you can’t. Not that I ever did,” she adds hastily.

This year, BAFTA has further tweaked its rules by banning artwork on DVDs. Screeners must be delivered in vanilla sleeves.

“If we make it cheaper to send out screeners, and to hold screenings at BAFTA, that should help the smaller films,” says BAFTA film chairman David Parfitt. “We thought it would also help the small distributors to allow retail versions of DVDs, but we found in practice that only the big distributors send those out, so we stopped that.”

But Miller is skeptical.

“I don’t think there ever was or ever will be a level playing field,” she says. “All of us have this idea that there’s some concept of justice and fairness in awards, but it doesn’t exist.”

By removing the ability of distribs and publicists to get creative with their campaigning, the kudos race is left to a Darwinian struggle between the movies themselves. And some — particularly those backed by the big American players — are just more muscular and more noticeable than others.

“The bigger studios can afford more screeners, and the richer companies can afford to raise the profile by taking a lot of advertising,” says Sara Keene, another veteran BAFTA campaigner.

The rule change Keene regrets most is the ban on sending out reviews. “If a film hasn’t opened here yet but is getting a good response from critics in America, it would help for the members to know that.”

Keene also wonders whether the mandatory voting system acts against smaller pics by forcing less expert members to vote.

“In the old days, people voted because they cared, and the rest didn’t bother,” she says. “That meant you were getting a much more considered vote, and the little winner would come through. Now they get washed out.”

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