Door opens for low-profile local pics to contend

History suggests that a British film can’t win a BAFTA without an Oscar campaign, except in the two categories reserved for local films.

But is history bunk, at least in the case of the BAFTAs come 2010?

The shrinkage of U.S. specialty distribution means a growing number of plausible British hopefuls are entering this year’s BAFTAs without any Oscar heat. Either they haven’t yet secured a Stateside release or their exposure has been too limited.

For pics such as “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll,” “Fish Tank,” “Glorious 39,” “Nowhere Boy,” “Harry Brown,” “Looking for Eric” and “Me and Orson Welles,” BAFTA prospects could be better than they would have been in past years, when they might have been doomed from the start and inevitably outpaced by higher-profile Oscar contenders from Britain such as “An Education” and “Bright Star.”

The uneven playing field has been the price BAFTA has paid for positioning itself so unambiguously as part of the American award season. The prizes for British film and new British filmmaker, plus the fact that U.K. talent has figured so prominently in the Oscars anyway in recent years, have muted any concerns that BAFTA is too influenced by Hollywood tastemakers.

The U.S. distribution shakeout poses a new challenge of which BAFTA officials are acutely aware.

They do their best to arrange screenings of smaller British titles at the London HQ, and also in Los Angeles and New York, where a quarter of the members are based. But it’s screeners, not screenings, that really dictate the votes.

So it’s up to the U.K. distributors to push their films, which includes sending DVDs to the American members. That’s a tough call in hard times when the direct financial benefit of doing so isn’t obvious, and yet it’s the effect of those hard times on the industry and the BAFTA vote that makes it so tempting.

In any case, Andy Serkis will need the support of distrib Entertainment to stand a chance of an actor nom for his performance as polio-stricken New Wave rock star Ian Dury in “Sex and Drugs.” Pic is set for U.K. release in January but doesn’t yet have a U.S. deal.

The Weinstein Co. no longer looks set to release Sam Taylor-Wood’s “Nowhere Boy” for this year’s Oscars, leaving U.K. distrib Icon to campaign alone. But Kristin Scott Thomas is big with BAFTA, so this one shouldn’t sit unwatched on the screener pile.

Likewise, the presence of Michael Caine as a geriatric vigilante should at least ensure that BAFTA voters bother to watch Lionsgate U.K.’s “Harry Brown.”

British pianist-turned-actor Christian McKay was unknown before his uncanny turn as the young Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s U.K.-made “Me and Orson Welles.” Generating Oscar buzz will be a struggle for a film that financier CinemaNX is essentially self-distributing Stateside. But McKay gave a bravura Q&A to BAFTA members recently and may catch their fancy.

Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” and Ken Loach’s “Looking for Eric” got rave press out of Cannes and U.S. deals with IFC. But both are probably way too niche for the Oscars. Their best BAFTA chance is in the Brit film section, but even then they may need the org’s film committee to overrule the membership vote, which tends to favor more mainstream work.

Other British films such as “The Damned United,” “Moon,” “Creation,” “Pirate Radio” (aka “The Boat That Rocked”) and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” have some Stateside fans, but a much better chance in the U.K. Michael Sheen’s interpretation of legendary English soccer coach Brian Clough meant little to American audiences, but if Sony Pictures Classics pushes hard enough, it could beguile BAFTA. And Sam Rockwell in “Moon,” another SPC pic, is a rare American for whom the BAFTA could offer better prospects than the Oscars.

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