BAFTA winners make limited box office impact

Sometimes an award is just an award

LONDON — No one who wins or gets nominated for a British Academy Film Award will tell you that a BAFTA doesn’t matter.

It’s one of the most prestigious honors in the business. But whether it makes any difference commercially — that’s another question entirely.

Unlike winning an Oscar, it doesn’t add noughts to an actor’s paycheck (unless perhaps you’re a complete unknown like “Red Road” thesp Kate Dickie, for whom BAFTA kudos might propel her into bigger movies).

And amid all the hoopla of the American awards season, which is widely reported in the British media, distributors can’t be sure if the BAFTAs on their own add pounds to the U.K. box office.

The evidence is scanty. Two years ago, much controversy surrounded the failure of “Million Dollar Baby” to win any BAFTA nominations. But in the days after the nods were announced, “Million Dollar Baby” enjoyed a bigger B.O. bounce than any of the BAFTA front-runners because of its triumph at the Golden Globes.

The U.S. studios tend to argue that BAFTA recognition is a significant contributor to the momentum of an Oscar campaign. But their allegiance to this theory has been tested this year by a change in BAFTA rules requiring qualifying films to be scheduled for U.K. release by the award ceremony on Feb. 11, rather than by the end of March as before.

As a result, the distribs of several Oscar contenders, including “The Good Shepherd” (Universal) and “The Good German” (Warner), decided it wasn’t worth qualifying their films for this year’s BAFTAs. They clearly calculated that the potential upside of winning wouldn’t be enough to outweigh the commercial downside of releasing their pics in the highly competitive January period.

One American studio exec — who declines to be named for fear of offending BAFTA brass — suggests that the British kudos only make a commercial difference for a very specific type of British movie, such as “Vera Drake.”

That, he argues, is because the U.K. press tends to treat the BAFTAs as an Olympic sport, with its partisan coverage reducing the entire event to the hoary old story of British triumph or disaster. Either way, American nominees and winners get routinely overlooked.

“We campaign for the BAFTAs, of course, but we do it mostly because of filmmaker relationships,” says this studio topper.

But Andrew Cripps, who’s moving from president of UIP to become prexy of Paramount Intl., makes a case for BAFTA’s usefulness in positioning certain movies, such as Par’s own “Dreamgirls,” for their international rollout.

Although he doesn’t go so far as to claim it impacts directly on foreign ticket buyers, he argues the BAFTAs can encourage his own execs in the field.

“On a film like ‘Dreamgirls,’ it’s pretty important, given the timing of the nominations,” Cripps says. “BAFTA is recognized around the world, and it can give you momentum. If the British Academy gets behind a film, it sends a message out to the territories.”

Within the U.K., Pathe topper Francois Ivernel describes the benefit of a BAFTA win as “material, if not spectacular.”

“We owe it to the talent to campaign for the BAFTAs, and I really think for a quite modest investment, there’s a worthwhile return,” he says.

For smaller distribs, however, it’s harder to make that sum add up.

Soda Pictures got a surprise nomination last year for its micro-budget pic “Everything,” which coincided almost to the day with its DVD release.

“We did end up making some BAFTA stickers for the DVD, but I don’t think that made a difference,” says Soda’s Kate Gerova. “It sold and rented well, but that’s because Ray Winstone was on the front cover.”

David Belton, nominated last year for producing “Shooting Dogs,” testifies: “For the film and everyone involved, it was a huge boost, it authenticated what we had achieved. But did it make any difference to the people who came to see it? No.”

In the end, winning or getting nominated for a BAFTA has to be its own reward. And maybe, in a business where it can be too easy to confuse price with value, that’s just as it should be.

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