Insiders' enjoyment of ceremony lost on TV

Like its American cousin, BAFTA faces a challenge to get young moviegoing masses to watch its kudocast.

As an industry event, the British Academy Film Awards is a triumph, from the slick organization of the campaigning and voting process to the ceremony itself, brilliantly orchestrated on a tight budget.

Pretty much everyone who’s anyone shows up, enjoys the witty and mercifully swift two-hour show at the fabulous Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, then repairs for several hours of intense schmoozing at the official dinner in a swanky hotel on Park Lane. The after-parties hosted by various U.S. studios prove that BAFTA has succeeded in entrenching itself as a player in the Oscar race.

But as a British TV show, the BAFTAs remain stuck in a specialized niche.

“The problem is trying to be an industry event and an awards show, because you can’t do both properly,” admits one BAFTA insider.

The BBC audience hovers around a moderate 3 million-

4 million viewers, depending on what’s on other channels. It also skews old, whereas the title sponsor, cell phone giant Orange, is chasing the teens and young adults who have something better to do.

At least the ceremony in February snared 1 million more viewers than 2008 edition, mostly thanks to the efforts of Universal and Warner in securing the red carpet appearance of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — and also because of British excitement around “Slumdog Millionaire” and controversy around presenter Jonathan Ross, just returned from a BBC suspension for being a bad boy.

For once, the BBC was persuaded into some smart scheduling — starting with red carpet coverage on youth-oriented digital web BBC3, switching to its upscale channel BBC2 for the first half of the ceremony, and climaxing with the big prizes on BBC1.

It will be hard for BAFTA to maintain those gains this year. The BBC3 show has been dropped, the budget has been squeezed further, the Winter Olympics will be stealing viewers, and there’s no obvious candidate to replicate the “Slumdog” or Brangelina effect. Industry insiders are tipping Robert Pattinson to be lined up for the Orange Rising Star Award, voted by the public from a shortlist drawn up by an industry jury, in a bid to boost the younger audience.

Ask distributors whether the BAFTAs boost their takings, and the answer is negative. Yet the continuing goodwill of distribs, particularly the Hollywood studios, is essential to invest the awards with significance. A studio such as Warner, which tends to get a lot of craft nods but not so many in the higher-profile sections, has to spend big to bring over below-the-line nominees from America, for little tangible return. As studio pursestrings tighten, BAFTA officials know they have to work hard to keep the majors’ support.

Yet BAFTA hasn’t followed Oscar’s lead to 10 best picture nominees, a move generally seen as a bid by the Stateside Academy to make more space for big studio films. BAFTA’s logic is that it already has 10 slots, spread across five best picture nods and five for best British film. For BAFTA, the eternal challenge is how to balance its courtship of the Hollywood studios with its need to retain an independent British identity.

Over the past decade, bit by bit, BAFTA has transformed its film awards from a somewhat ramshackle and parochial affair into an event that truly reflects the British film industry’s sense of its own global significance. If the British public doesn’t entirely share that view, BAFTA knows it still plenty of work to do to persuade them while maintaining its industry gains.

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