Screeners important in BAFTA race

Distribs take a big risk by not mailing out DVDs

LONDON — No screeners, no prizes. That’s the unwritten rule of the British Academy Film Awards.

That’s why, regardless of their quality, films such as “Sweeney Todd,” “The Bucket List,” “The Assassination of Jesse James,” “The Brave One,” “Zodiac” and “Beowulf” from Warner, “The Savages” and “The Darjeeling Limited” from Fox and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” from Sony will struggle to make an impact in this year’s BAFTA race.

In each case, the distributors have chosen not to mail out DVDs to voters. 

No matter how many special screenings are laid on throughout November and December — and this year there have been more than ever — BAFTA campaigners believe that sending out screeners is still the only way to get their movies seen by enough voters to secure a nomination.

But it’s expensive — up to $60,000 per movie for watermarked DVDs — and distribs remain troubled by the threat of piracy, particularly for films not even out in U.K. cinemas yet.

For some, the nebulous commercial upside of winning a BAFTA is not sufficient to justify the risk.

Many kudos contenders don’t open in Blighty until January or early February. But the first voting deadline is Jan. 3 to decide the longlists of 15 candidates in each category. Any movie that hasn’t reached a critical mass of BAFTA eyeballs by then is out of the race.

For late arrivals like “Sweeney Todd” and “The Savages,” both out in theaters Jan. 25, distribs have done their best to arrange preview screenings. But only a minority of hardcore BAFTA members are routinely able to attend such events in central London.

In the past couple of years, the Cinea system for encrypting screeners provided a solution to piracy concerns. Last year, 15 out of 47 BAFTA screeners used Cinea. But the termination of this service has forced distribs to rethink.

The biggest blow, given its strong list of contenders, is Warner’s decision not to provide any screeners that aren’t already available as retail DVDs. Fox has also become more selective — withholding “The Savages,” but sending out “Juno,” which opens Feb. 8.

On the other hand, Entertainment Film Distributors, a longtime skeptic of screeners, seems to have shrugged off its old piracy fears. It mailed out “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” which it releases theatrically Jan. 11, as well as the retail DVD of “Hairspray.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Fox hasn’t sent “The Simpsons Movie,” even though the retail DVD came out Dec. 10. With Warner’s “Beowulf” and DreamWorks’ “Bee Movie” also not being sent, and “Persepolis” not even qualified this year because it won’t be released theatrically until April, that makes “Ratatouille” not just the favorite, but pretty much the only real runner in the race for best animated film.

By contrast, Harvey Weinstein has once again demonstrated his conviction about BAFTA’s importance by arranging to send out DVDs of two films, “The Great Debaters” and “Grace Is Gone,” which haven’t even finalized their U.K. distribution deals yet. As he did last year with “Factory Girl,” Weinstein has committed to release them Feb. 1 and Feb. 8, respectively, to meet BAFTA’s qualification deadline, whether or not a U.K. distrib is in place by then.

One film definitely out of this year’s BAFTA race is Ben Affleck’s directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone.”

Disney has now postponed indefinitely the U.K. release of the pic, which grapples with child abduction, because of the continuing media coverage around the disappearance of British 4-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal this summer.

The studio initially put the release on hold a couple of months ago, when the McCann story was at its height, but still hoped to get the movie out on Dec. 28. With fresh stories about the police investigation appearing in British newspapers virtually every day, Disney has now bowed to the inevitable and pulled the pic completely.

It’s not the only Oscar contender that will miss out on this year’s BAFTAs. “Lars and the Real Girl” isn’t eligible because it won’t be released in Blighty until March. But Ryan Gosling could still figure for “Half Nelson,” which missed BAFTA qualification last year for timing reasons. Distrib Axiom has sent out screeners.

Small arthouse distribs still feel they can’t afford the cost of screeners. But that means some fine movies will always get overlooked. It will be fascinating to see whether Cannes and European Film Award winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” shows up among the foreign-language nods without screeners.

Sending DVDs doesn’t guarantee a nomination, of course. But BAFTA voters can only judge what they get the chance to see.

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