Since its humble beginnings in 1987 as a small offshoot of the British Academy of Film & Television Arts, BAFTA/LA has expanded into the British Academy’s largest affiliate outside London, now with more than 1,100 members.
But it’s time to apply the brakes, says BAFTA/LA executive director Donald Haber, an American who studied at the London Film School. The org, which will present the Britannia Awards on Thursday evening at the Beverly Hilton and whose ranks have swelled in the past couple of years as it opened its doors to Irish and Commonwealth citizens, recently upped the level of experience and qualifications required to become a member.
“We wanted to stress the quality of membership,” says Haber, citing the org’s small staff and the limited size of screening rooms. BAFTA/LA offers members around 70 free screenings a year and it’s important, as voting members of the British Academy, that all members see the films.
“I’d rather slow the growth down and do a better job, than keep growing at a rate where we can’t fulfill our mission.”
That mission is primarily to act as a bridge between Hollywood and the British production and entertainment business communities, as well as to provide a welcoming home away from home for the org’s expat members.
BAFTA/LA members comprise a broad swathe of above- and below-the-line professionals with not just full voting rights in the annual U.K.-based BAFTA Film Awards but also participation in its own Britannia Awards, now an established awards season fixture.
This year’s 13th annual Britannias, to be held Nov. 4 at the Beverly Hilton and hosted by Scottish actor-writer-director Craig Ferguson, is shaping up to be a truly international event. Presenters include Meg Ryan, Robert Zemeckis, Michael Caine, Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou and Anjelica Houston. Honorees include Tom Hanks (Stanley Kubrick Award for excellence in film), Helen Mirren (Britannia Award for artistic excellence in international entertainment) and writer-director Jim Sheridan (John Schlesinger Britannia Award for artistic excellence).
“The recipients this year all have wonderful and multiple talents,” says Haber. Mirren, especially, he says, with her star turns on film, television and on the stage is “someone who really represents all that’s wonderful about British actors with her ability to work in all formats.”
The aim of the Britannia Awards is not just to honor British talent, he stresses, but to honor excellence in the worldwide industry. Haber likes to refer to honorees as people who keep the lights on for the British film industry. Past recipients of the excellence in film award include directors George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick; last year’s honoree was Hugh Grant.
“(Hanks) is a worldwide figure,” says BAFTA/LA board member and 2004 Britannia Awards co-chair Rosalie Swedlin of this year’s honoree, noting that the Hanks-co-directed “Band of Brothers,” a joint U.S. and U.K. production, was shot almost entirely in England.
“Tom doesn’t take himself too seriously, and that makes him quite endearing to the British sensibility,” adds fellow co-chair J. Alan Davis. “In keeping with our awards program he is someone of the highest caliber yet someone who can look at themselves in a realistic way and not get too Hollywood about the whole thing.”
Jim Sheridan is the first Irish recipient of a Britannia Award, and will receive the org’s newest award named in honor of the only ever non-British BAFTA (U.K.) winner, John Schlesinger. “(Sheridan’s) ‘In America’ really brought him to the American audience,” says Davis. “At BAFTA/LA we try to honor people that have some sort of nexus to both communities.”
With the increasing stature of the Britannia Awards and the organization, the board had hoped that this year’s ceremony would be televised, which would have been a huge step forward for the kudo. It simply wasn’t ironed out in time, but Haber is fairly confident the event will be on screens next year. “We’re talking to a lot of networks — not just in America, but in Britain and Europe — and there’s substantial interest,” he says, noting it would bring more visibility to the organization and allow it to do a lot more in the community.
Haber’s other pet project, and one he hopes to see through while he’s still in the executive director’s seat, is the establishment of BAFTA/LA’s own building as a center for excellence. It would serve as a home for its expanding heritage archive and seminar program, and house a theater for screenings and community events.
“You’re beginning to see BAFTA/LA become more visible. It’s a tremendous satisfaction to the members,” says Haber. “To have that center and to have the awards televised, then we can really say we’ve really accomplished something.”