Genre films face uphill kudos climb

Box office hits hope for BAFTA recognition

Two British films combined to gross $1.5 billion worldwide this summer. A third, released this fall, could take that total over the $2 billion mark.

Fast forward to the Royal Opera House on Feb. 8. No one expects “The Dark Knight,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Quantum of Solace” to dominate this year’s British Academy Film Awards like they have the box office. The intriguing question is: Will they win anything at all?

A BAFTA is not, of course, a reward for brute commercial success. But the British Academy of Film and Television Arts exists to celebrate great British achievements, and there can surely be no doubt that the British creative teams and production crews behind “Dark Knight” and “Mamma Mia!” achieved something remarkable.

Though both films elicit sharply divided responses in Brit industry circles, neither is your everyday boilerplate blockbuster whose success can be dismissed as a triumph of star power and marketing clout. Christopher Nolan and Phyllida Lloyd can plausibly claim to have made movies quite unlike anything else out there.

Like most award ceremonies, BAFTA is ambivalent about entertainment. Yet in the recent past, it has sometimes proved itself less snobbish than the Oscars when it comes to pop culture. BAFTA has given its best British film prize to “Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” and nominations to “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Shaun of the Dead” and “Love Actually.”

Last year, the British Acad bestowed nine nominations on “Casino Royale,” though only one win (for sound). BAFTA voters might feel that’s enough recognition for Bond, but if upscale director Mark Forster brings something special to “Quantum of Solace,” it could become impossible to ignore.

Comedy is a particular sore point. The usually good-natured Simon Pegg was irate when “Hot Fuzz” was shut out entirely from the nominations in favor of supposedly classier fare; Pegg expressed his opinion forcefully to BAFTA toppers.

The BAFTAs aren’t unusual among awards in preferring dark, weighty dramas. But the Brits are proud of their comedy tradition, and might be expected more than most to appreciate the talent it takes to get ’em rolling in the aisles.

“Of course if you work in comedy, it irks you that when awards come around, comedy is considered a lesser art form than tragedy,” says Duncan Kenworthy, who did win best film for a comedy for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and later served as chairman of BAFTA.

“I know that with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill,’ somehow people made the judgment that they weren’t really acting, though I felt their performances were remarkable. But I do think that the BAFTAs are more unconventional, more willing to take a bit of a risk, than the Oscars are.”

Kenworthy points to Eddie Murphy’s supporting actor nomination for voicing the donkey in “Shrek” and dismisses the idea that BAFTA might need a separate award like the Golden Globes to give comedy talent its due.

“To my knowledge, no one has ever suggested it,” Kenworthy says. “It would be tantamount to saying that comedy can’t operate in the big swim and therefore must have its own little prize.”

Current BAFTA chairman David Parfitt, who won a BAFTA and an Oscar for producing a romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love,” says distributors could do more to highlight the skill behind populist films.

“It’s more a process of re-education,” Parfitt argues. “Distributors automatically assume that comedies won’t get awards, so they don’t campaign for them.”

This year has actually been rather short of British laffers, however. That leaves “Mamma Mia!” to fly the flag for fun, with “Dark Knight” and “Quantum of Solace” carrying the banner for thrills. At least they have one hidden advantage — being shot in the U.K., they all employed a lot of BAFTA voters.

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