BAFTAs hit high notes at the Opera

Ceremony screened outside in Covent Garden

When the British Academy Film Awards moved half a mile last year from the Odeon Leicester Square cinema to the swankier setting of the Royal Opera House, it was almost a complete success.

Almost, but not quite. A small matter of a licensing mix-up with Westminster Council meant BAFTA couldn’t follow its original plan to broadcast the ceremony live to the crowds outside via the opera house’s giant outdoor screen.

This year, however, the right license has been obtained, and anyone fanatical enough to brave the weather of a February night in London will be able to watch the awards as they happen from the Covent Garden piazza.

Throughout the afternoon, like last year, the large screen will be used to broadcast the climax of the “60 Seconds of Fame” event, a national competition for one-minute movies by the general public, organized by BAFTA and title sponsor Orange.

This is all part of BAFTA’s attempt to get the British public more engaged with the film awards. There were positive signs last year, when TV ratings for the BBC’s coverage, transmitted on a two-hour delay to allow for rapid editing, rose by about a third from the historic low of 2006.

BAFTA, the BBC and the show’s production company Whizz Kid are trying various tricks to juice up the TV coverage. Generating some sense of live excitement from the crowd outside is just one of them. As well as being a grander setting in its own right, the Royal Opera House has a backstage space better suited to shooting behind-the-scenes footage. BAFTA’s TV producers hope to integrate backstage reactions from the winners and crowd responses from outside into the broadcast version of the ceremony, to make the package more dynamic.

BBC chatshow host Jonathan Ross will be back as presenter, having replaced the much-loved Stephen Fry last year. Again, the challenge will be to tailor his trademark irreverent and risque gags to an evening intended as a classy celebration of the best of Brit and global cinema.

Not everyone felt the balance was struck respectfully enough last year, although BAFTA sources say Ross, a genuine movie fan, did a lot of last-minute work himself on the script to raise the tone and cut out some of the cheaper cracks penned by his writers.

However, the willingness of BAFTA toppers to experiment with various aspects of the ceremony and TV coverage to make it more impactful for viewers isn’t always matched with equal enthusiasm on the part of the BBC.

The pubcaster canceled plans for an awards preview show for digital web BBC3 and also nixed interactive “red button” coverage for digital viewers, including quizzes and a facility to switch at will to backstage cameras.

“Each year, the BBC starts by saying they want to reimagine and redefine the whole idea of the awards show, and we come up with tons of ideas, and then they don’t go for it, whether for budget reasons or out of fear,” one BAFTA insider confides.

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