Some '06 pics remain eligible for U.K. glory

LONDON — As the runners line up for the Feb. 10 British Academy Film Awards, a handful of movies already have a head start.

They include this year’s foreign-language Oscar champ “The Lives of Others” and picture nominee “Letters From Iwo Jima.” Both missed the release deadline for the 2007 BAFTA race, and it’s a dead certainty that these or other 2007 omissions will figure in the 2008 nominations, with at least one — mostly likely “Others” — firmly in prize contention.

BAFTA has spent several years trying to align itself as closely as possible with the Oscar race, but the org threw itself out of sync last year by pushing forward its qualification deadline by about six weeks.

Previously, pics had to be released in the U.K. by the end of March, but last year, BAFTA toppers decided candidates must open by the time of the award ceremony. It was a sensible bid to make the awards more directly relevant to the British public, but it forced distribs to make tough decisions about whether to qualify certain pics at all.

With so many kudos hopefuls now squeezed into the narrow December-January release window, some chose to forgo the questionable benefits of being in the race in favor of getting a clearer run at the box office in March or April.

That paid off handsomely for “The Lives of Others,” which earned $5.5 million in April, with the added luster of winning Oscar gold. It enters this year’s BAFTA race as clear favorite to win the foreign-language prize and with a real chance of picking up other nods as well. Yet BAFTA recognition in 2008 would deliver no financial upside for distrib Lionsgate U.K., because the movie has already completed its release cycle.

“We will be pushing ‘Lives of Others,’ even though there’s probably little or no commercial benefit, because we’re so proud of what we achieved with the film, and we want to showcase it,” Lionsgate’s U.K. topper Zygi Kamasa says. “The prestige of winning a BAFTA is strong in its own right.”

British Independent Film Awards titlist “This Is England” is another latecomer that prospered at the box office in April and must fancy its BAFTA chances this time, particularly for best British film. Writer-director Shane Meadows is much treasured by U.K. biz insiders, and the fact that the British film award is judged by the BAFTA committee, not by membership vote, stacks the odds in favor of “England,” the best reviewed, most personal and most commercially successful pic of Meadows’ career.

“Letters From Iwo Jima” has a shot at a foreign-language nod, while “Half Nelson” (which earned Ryan Gosling an Oscar acting nom) and “The Painted Veil” (which won a Golden Globe for original score along with two Independent Spirit nominations for actor Edward Norton and scribe Ron Nyswaner) are dark horses in the thesp and technical categories. Much depends on how strongly they get pushed by their respective distribs.

These films will all benefit from BAFTA’s relaxation of campaign rules this year to allow retail DVDs to be sent out to voters. Last year, only vanilla screeners without extras and flashy packaging were permitted, but BAFTA toppers changed their mind when they realized the ban on retail DVDs was tougher on indies than it was on the bigger distribs.

For the coming awards season, distribs seem to have gotten themselves better organized to make sure almost all of the obvious Oscar runners get released by the Feb. 8 qualification date. Only a couple of foreign-language outsiders, “Caramel” and “The Edge of Heaven,” won’t be out in time.

The Weinstein Co., which stretched every sinew last year to get “Factory Girl” under the BAFTA wire (in vain, as it turned out), faces a similar challenge this year with “Grace Is Gone” and “The Great Debaters,” neither of which had lined up U.K. distribution, let alone a qualifying release date, by the end of October.

But TWC’s international topper, Glen Basner, promises all the necessary deals will get done in time. The company has already started its BAFTA campaigns for both films, hiring Hy Smith as consultant, inviting BAFTA members to the London Film Fest premiere of “Grace Is Gone,” and drawing up its own plans for screenings and screeners, regardless of who ends up distributing the movies.

One pic emerging as a real Oscar contender that might miss the BAFTA race this year is Ben Affleck’s child abduction drama “Gone Baby Gone.” Disney was forced to postpone the U.K. release indefinitely because of uncomfortable parallels with the real-life Madelaine McCann case. Distrib is tentatively holding open a Dec. 28 date, and hoping that the growing buzz for the pic from the U.S. and the praise for its sensitive and serious approach will convince the U.K. media it deserves to be seen.

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