The decision by leading U.K. arthouse distrib Artificial Eye for the first time to send out screeners of its top foreign titles means that BAFTA’s foreign film race is set to be more competitive than ever.

“Amour” and “The Kid With a Bike” from Artificial Eye will be among the contenders for the award, along with “Rust & Bone” from Studiocanal, “Headhunters” and “The Raid” from Momentum and “The Intouchables” from Entertainment Film Distributors.

“A Royal Affair” (Metrodome) and “The Hunt” (Arrow) could also be in the mix but will be handicapped if they don’t use screeners.

Ever since BAFTA did away with jury voting for foreign film — or as BAFTA calls it, “film not in the English language” — it’s been virtually impossible to win the prize and difficult even to snag a nomination without sending out screeners to all 6,500 voters.

In the past, this distorted the race, because most small arthouse distribs, including Artificial Eye, said they could not afford to use screeners, given the prohibitive cost and scant financial upside of winning.

As a result, a succession of foreign masterpieces have notoriously failed to get their due at BAFTA — from Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” and “The White Ribbon” to “A Separation” and “Pina” last year.

Last year’s shocking defeat of “A Separation” by Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” amped the concern of many BAFTA members that the foreign category is decided not exclusively by merit, but also by box office, familiarity and, most significantly, the willingness of a distributor to spend money on DVDs.

“People had heard of Almodovar; it was just name recognition,” argues Robert Beeson of New Wave Films.

BAFTA has worked hard over several years to analyze the problem, listen to the distributors’ complaints and adjust its rules for voting and campaigning, in a bid to level the playing field. This seems finally to have brought Artificial Eye, at least, into the game.

“It’s much harder in the foreign-language category to justify whether a win or a nomination actually translates into increased revenue for a film,” says Philip Knatchbull, chief exec of Curzon Artificial Eye. “But BAFTA has really taken on board what we’ve been saying about the problems of the cost of campaigning and done everything in their power to make it cheaper, and for that we are very grateful.

“Our relationships with the filmmakers are very important, so sometimes that can be a factor in our decision,” he adds. “And obviously a BAFTA win is a very strong endorsement which, in certain case, can add ancillary value.”

The most significant change this year is that BAFTA’s foreign chapter will now choose the winner of the award, not just the five nominees.

Previously, the whole membership voted for the winner, based on chapter nominations. Even when the chapter used its specialist knowledge to push through films without screeners, such as “A Separation” and “Pina,” these were overlooked by the wider voters because they could not watch them without actually buying them.

BAFTA is also allowing distribs to target their campaigning exclusively at the foreign chapter. This has 1,700 members, so in theory it should be significantly cheaper to send them screeners than to blanket all 6,500 BAFTA voters.

Ironically, after lobbying for exactly this change, Artificial Eye will actually send out its foreign DVDs to the entire membership after all. That’s because it has raised sponsorship for its box set, which includes its British titles “Berberian Sound Studio” and “Ginger & Rosa,” so the marginal cost to Artificial Eye is negligible, and the sponsor, Film360 Magazine, wants to reach the widest possible BAFTA audience.

BAFTA is also instructing members not to vote for a winner in any category unless they have seen all five nominees. This should eliminate the problem of certain films winning because they are more accessible. But in return, BAFTA has spelled out to distributors that they must make greater efforts to ensure all voters have the chance to see all the films, whether at screenings, on DVD or online.

BAFTA chief exec Amanda Berry believes that this message has hit home.

“It feels like there’s already a lot more screening activity than at the same time last year,” she says. Veteran campaigner Liz Miller agrees, noting sellouts for screenings of even relatively obscure U.K. contenders, such as Sony’s doc “West of Memphis.”

In the past couple of years, BAFTA has also experimented with the introduction of an online screening option, notably for foreign films, documentaries and smaller British titles.

Last year, there were 23 titles on BAFTA’s portal and 34 on iTunes. This year, BAFTA is extending the experiment by allowing distribs to use any platform they want, including their own proprietary portals. This is a response to feedback from some distribs about legal problems using iTunes or BAFTA’s platform for films not yet on commercial DVD release.

Doc specialist Dogwoof is planning to use its own platform. Curiously, Artificial Eye is sticking to iTunes, rather than employing its own Curzon VoD service, which it launched to a great fanfare this year. That seems like a missed opportunity to market its pioneering VoD service to the influential opinion-formers in the industry.

Distribs express some doubt about how efficient these online screenings are in reaching BAFTA’s elderly membership, but no useful figures exist. Distribs got no feedback from iTunes last year about how frequently their BAFTA rental codes were used, while BAFTA didn’t have the resources to track how often its own portal was accessed.

“It’s beyond the technical abilities of most BAFTA members to watch film online,” Beeson says.

“I don’t campaign. It saves a lot of time and bother. In the past, winning a BAFTA would occasionally stimulate TV to buy something they didn’t bother about before, but on the whole, campaigning is an awful lot of nuisance for nothing. If BAFTA members want to see our films, they can rent them off iTunes for £3 ($5).”

Peccadillo Pictures is also sitting out the race this year, after failing to get any love for the three titles it pushed hard last year: “Tomboy” for foreign film, the gay critical hit “Weekend” for British film and “We Were Here” for documentary.

“I have appreciated BAFTA’s efforts to make it easier for us, particularly the online viewing,” says Peccadillo publicity topper Droo Padhiar. “But the cost to independents like us is just too high. BAFTA is just too mainstream for something like ‘Weekend,’ so it’s a lot of labor for something that’s not striking a chord with the right demographic.”

“I think BAFTA has made great strides to try and make the process more democratic,” adds Kate Gerova at Soda Pictures, which is putting its slate online, including feel-good foreign contender “Monsieur Lazhar,” but won’t send out DVDs. “Now it’s up to the BAFTA voters to prove they can take seriously the responsibility of being chapter members.”

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