BAFTA’s best not good enough for Korda

Blighty's top film has never been named top U.K. film

BAFTA’s most enduring contradiction is that when a British movie wins the best film prize, it never takes the award for outstanding British film. The Alexander Korda Award honoring the top Blighty offering has its own quirky dynamic that sets it apart from the other prizes.

There’s nothing in the rules to prohibit a BAFTA double. Judging by the buzz in Brit biz circles, “Slumdog Millionaire” will be a hot favorite for both prizes this year. But in the 15 years since the Korda was introduced, its different voting system has always produced a different result.

Last year, “Atonement” won the BAFTA for best film but lost out in the Korda race to “This Is England.” A year earlier, the same fate befell top film kudo winner “The Queen,” which lost the Korda to “The Last King of Scotland.”

This year’s Korda contenders include a rich brew of Oscar hopefuls (“Slumdog,” “Happy-Go-Lucky”), low-budget festival faves (“Hunger,” “Somers Town”), docs (“Man on Wire,” “Of Time and the City”), edgy thrillers (“In Bruges,” “Adulthood”), costumers (“The Duchess,” “Dean Spanley”), Holocaust dramas (“The Reader,” “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas”), kidpics (“Son of Rambow,” “Inkheart”) and studio blockbusters (“The Dark Knight,” “Mamma Mia!”).

Unlike the BAFTA for best film, which is voted by the entire BAFTA membership and closely tracks the Oscar race, the Korda is the gift of a jury and tends to go to a deserving candidate that wouldn’t otherwise get into the spotlight.

That generally means something small and independent — such as recent winners “This Is England,” “My Summer of Love,” “Touching the Void” or “The Warrior” — but it can also mean something big and fun, like “Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” Recent nominees include releases from the Potter, Bond and Bourne franchises.

This mainstream tendency in the nominations has been reinforced in the past couple of years by a new voting system. The membership now gets to decide the 15 movies that go forward to the jury for selection of the nominees and the winner. The jury generally nominates the top five films from the longlist and will insert a film from lower down in exceptional circumstances only.

That’s a challenge for distribs of hardcore art pics like Steve McQueen’s debut “Hunger” or the Terence Davies microbudget doc “Of Time and the City.” They must now mount proper campaigns to the entire BAFTA membership, including a mass mailing of screeners, which might cost more than the commercial value those movies can easily justify.

But Jane Giles of the British Film Institute, which released the Davies doc, says that giving all BAFTA members the chance to see the movie is almost an end in itself — a public service to the filmmaker and the industry — regardless of whether it wins a prize.

“We’ve always supported Terence, and this is one way of communicating the story of his resurgence to a core group within the British film industry,” she explains. “It’s beyond a purely commercial decision about whether it can win or get nominated.”

The importance of the Korda is not its box office value, which is marginal at best, but the fact that it represents the ultimate seal of approval from the British film elite for one of its own. It’s a prize free of what double-Korda winner Kevin Macdonald calls the “cultural cringe” toward Hollywood that he believes sometimes afflicts the BAFTAs.

Tanya Seghatchian, producer of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “My Summer of Love,” says winning “gave us this huge validation from our peer group, not just for me and Pawel, but also for the actors — Nathalie (Press), Emily (Blunt) and Paddy (Considine).”

“BAFTA helps raise your profile and gives you a bit of extra muscle within the industry,” Pawlikowski agrees. But he adds dryly, “It doesn’t of course help you creatively, which is the main battle.”

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