In recent years, the British Academy of Film & TV Arts has done everything in its power to position its film awards as a bellwether for the Oscars.

But that claim to fame has been undermined this year by a rule change which has had the unexpected effect of excluding several Oscar candidates from the BAFTA race.

When BAFTA closed its list of entries last week, it emerged that at least nine widely-touted movies had missed its new deadline for qualification.

These include “The Good German” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” from Warner, “The Good Shepherd,” “Catch a Fire” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” from Universal, “The Painted Veil” from Momentum, “Half Nelson” from Axiom, “The Lives of Others” from Lionsgate UK and “The Home of the Brave” from MGM.

Also not qualified is the Shane Meadows movie “This Is England” from Optimum, which won best film at the British Independent Film Awards last week.

None of these will be picking up one of Mitzi Cunliffe‘s masks, at least not this year, because none are set for release in Blighty by the new Feb. 9 deadline. That omission could be even more embarrassing if some get nominated next year, which would make BAFTA seem like very old news indeed.

Previously, distribs had until the end of March to get their contenders into cinemas. But under the org’s new rules, films must now go on general release before the award ceremony on Feb. 11.

That change was designed to make the awards more relevant to the general public. When the TV audience slumped to three million last year, BAFTA officials reckoned that too many of the nominees were unfamiliar to viewers, because the likes of “Capote” and “Syriana” had not yet opened in Blighty.

But the deadline shift has left distribs with a serious dilemma. January and early February is already dangerously overcrowded with kudos hopefuls. Faced with difficulty securing screens and the prospect of a box office bloodbath, it’s not surprising that some pics have discreetly withdrawn to the relative safety of March and April.

BAFTA has also unwittingly put itself in direct competition with the Berlin Film Festival, particularly for the big American movies. The Berlinale, which starts Feb.  8, requires that its selections don’t open outside their country of origin before the fest. That’s why “The Good Shepherd,” for example, is bypassing BAFTA and releasing Feb. 23 in Blighty.

Explaining his thinking over German pic “The Lives of Others,” Lionsgate UK topper Zygi Kamasa says, “If we entered it for BAFTA this year, it should get a nomination and might even win. But a film like this needs a clear run of two or three weeks at cinemas, and in January all the arthouse screens will be taken up with the English-language contenders. The upside of having a BAFTA win is never going to outweigh the negative impact of going into such a crowded period.”

The unspoken truth is that if the non-runners do win significant Oscar recognition, then they will still enjoy a  boost at the British box office, regardless of their absence from the BAFTAs. Indeed, films released in March will be better placed to capitalize upon this than those releasing in January. Two years ago, “Million Dollar Baby” arrived too late for the BAFTA nominations, but still saw a bigger B.O. bounce from its Oscar success than any of the BAFTA winners.

On the other hand, Harvey Weinstein is so convinced that “Factory Girl,” and particularly its British star Sienna Miller, could get a real kick from the BAFTAs, that he bent every sinew to squeeze the movie under the wire. Last week, the Weinstein Co. guaranteed a Feb. 9 release to BAFTA even before it had finalized a U.K. distribution deal.

Either way, by forcing distribs into uncomfortable contortions, the well-intentioned rule change has clearly backfired. Expressing regret that so many movies missed the qualifying period, BAFTA’s film chair David Parfitt says the org will review the deadline after this year’s ceremony.

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