U.S. films face uphill BAFTA battle

Subject matter might not resonate with U.K. voters

Amelia Earhart means little to Brits, and Julia Child nothing at all. Nelson Mandela is quite another matter.

BAFTA has always embraced Hollywood stories, but in a wide-open contest for this year’s awards, films that British voters can relate to might have a small but important edge over those with more narrowly American themes.

“Julie and Julia,” “Amelia,” “Precious,” “A Serious Man,” “Crazy Heart” and “Up in the Air,” among others, face a challenge to overcome British incomprehension of — or indifference to — storylines rooted in a specifically American experience.

The likes of “Invictus,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Nine,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The Lovely Bones,” “The Last Station,” “Inglourious Basterds” and “A Single Man” — as well as obvious local contenders such as “An Education” and “Bright Star” — are more accessible to British tastes because of their subject matter, setting or headline talent.

Before “Julie and Julia” was released, no one in Britain had heard of Child, which was reflected in paltry box office. Meryl Streep has her own gravitational field that will suck voters toward the movie, but it’s hard to appreciate the uncanny accuracy of her performance when you don’t know whom she’s impersonating.

Sony provided a textbook example of how not to counter this problem with a BAFTA screening invitation that read: “Before Ina, before Rachael, before Emeril, there was Julia” — all names equally meaningless to Brits.

The U.K. flop of “Amelia” indicates that Hilary Swank also will face an uphill struggle with BAFTA voters. On the other hand, box office isn’t everything. “Hurt Locker” performed moderately, but Brit critics and BAFTA members have been buzzing about Kathryn Bigelow’s Iraq War pic for months.

A different kind of challenge faces “Precious.” African-American cinema tends not to travel well, and “Precious” is a particularly tough story. But the Sundance and Toronto winner seems to have the X factor to wow audiences wherever it goes, and Gabourey Sidibe is exactly the kind of underdog Brits love to support.

BAFTA has softened to U.S. indie comedy in recent years, with kudos for “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” So Jason Reitman should find takers for “Up in the Air,” particularly with BAFTA darling George Clooney in the lead.

“It’s very American, but people are responding, and it’s mainstream enough to appeal to older audiences that were a bit turned off by ‘Juno,'” says Liz Miller of Premier PR, the doyenne of BAFTA campaigners.

The mordant Jewish/Midwestern shtick of “A Serious Man” has divided U.K. critics, however, and will test BAFTA’s traditional love for the Coens.

BAFTA voters, by contrast, have always been rather cool toward Clint Eastwood, and it’s mutual. His directing nod for last year’s “Changeling” was only his second after “Unforgiven,” and he didn’t show up for the ceremony. Maybe “Invictus” will finally bring Clint and the Brits together. Rugby is a game the Brits love, and Mandela transcends all national boundaries. By coincidence, Eastwood just shot his latest film, “Hereafter,” in England, his first since “White Hunter, Black Heart” 19 years ago.

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