BAFTA Awards put spotlight on their own

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LONDON -- It is a criticism that has been leveled at members of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for years now: Despite being the U.K.'s highest film honor, the awards are dominated by those damn Yankees year in and year out.

But not this year. With titles like director Stephen Frears' stately Miramax docudrama "The Queen" competing against such films as Sony's "Casino Royale," Universal's "United 93" and Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" and "Notes on a Scandal" for the Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film of the Year, there is a significantly stronger British presence among the nominees.

Oddly enough, the change isn't due to any major policy revisions or new voting procedures ahead of this year's Orange British Academy Film Awards, which are set to take place Sunday. Instead, most observers agree, it is because this year's eclectic slate of movies reflects the fact that the British film industry finally has proved that it can make commercially successful films aimed at a sophisticated adult audience.

Handicapping this year's BAFTA Award winners

BBC Films chief David M. Thompson says this year's nomination lineup is indicative of just how strong the current state of British filmmaking actually is. "There are many really good British films around that are making their presence felt on equal terms with the rest of the industry, not just because they are British," Thompson says. "The criticism in the past that the BAFAs are too star-struck with Hollywood has been negated somewhat by the quality of British films, which has really made this year's nomination list look very good for the industry here."

Thompson points to the omission of writer-director Andrea Arnold's "Red Road," distributed in the U.S. by Tartan Films, from the British Film of the Year nominees list as evidence of the surplus of quality British features vying for attention this awards season. "Such a terrific film (as 'Red Road') not being included among a list (of) every other terrific film shows the strength of British titles this year," he says.

Thompson laughs when he says he often is congratulated on the success of "Queen" because "(high-level studio executives) think the BBC made it." In reality, it was the U.K. production arm of commercial broadcaster ITV and French-owned Pathe Entertainment that backed the project, which garnered this year's biggest tally of nominations with 10.

But this year also marks major changes to the ceremony itself. The glittering shindig is relocating from London's largest cinema at the Odeon Leicester Square to the much more salubrious surroundings of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Newly appointed BAFTA chairman Hilary Bevan Jones says the awards "will be absolutely fantastic this year" and describes the new venue as "a beautiful place to host our film awards."

Also, at press time, BAFA organizers were finalizing contracts with new host Jonathan Ross, who recently struck a deal worth upward of $35 million to continue working for the BBC. Ross will replace actor Stephen Fry, who hosted the ceremony for the last six years, and Ross' shtick is guaranteed to be risque -- his friend Ricky Gervais once described him as "the funniest man not doing standup."

Since moving to its current pre-Oscar time slot in 2001, the award show has been declared by several press outlets -- including the London Times newspaper -- as "a barometer of success at the (U.S.) Academy Awards," with nominations "seen as crucial by the leading studios."

London-based David Kosse, president of international marketing and distribution at Universal, is pleased to see BAFTA directing more attention to local film talent, if only because the weight of a BAFA can provide a strong hook for local marketing campaigns.

"I think they can be the linchpin of a campaign for British films," he says. "The press seem to really rally around a lower-budget British film that gets recognized by (BAFTA), and that can galvanize the public."

Kosse is hoping that Universal's acclaimed Sept. 11 drama "United 93" from Paul Greengrass makes good on some of its six nominations. Many expect Greengrass to secure the best director nod at the ceremony.

Paramount Pictures International president Andrew Cripps agrees that a BAFTA film prize can be a strong tool in the marketing process. "I think people know what a BAFTA (film award) is and is certainly yet another bit of ammunition for marketing departments to use," Cripps says. But, he says, while a BAFA might be important in the overall perspective, "they're not the be-all and end-all."

The filmmaking arm of U.K. broadcaster Channel Four, Film4 is pinning its awards hopes on the success of "Last King of Scotland," which the company helped develop and back. "King" has garnered five nominations, including best film and a shot at the coveted Alexander Korda Award for the movie's Scotland-born filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, as well as the writers and producers.

Film4 head Tessa Ross says that earning recognition from BAFTA is especially rewarding because it represents the approval of the local film sector. "That sense of being praised and supported by your peers is of the utmost importance to an organization such as ours," Ross says. "I wish we could say that the competitive nature of the film business isn't really important and that every movie made should be praised for making that journey, but that's not the environment we live in."

While calls for BAFTA to create at least one additional award for purely British endeavors might have been muted this year, the discussion continues nonetheless.

"It is a very difficult tightrope to walk, but I think it is fantastic that they are international," says Stewart Till, the former CEO of United International Pictures and current U.K. Film Council chairman. "Rather this than the Cesars in France, the Goyas in Spain or the (Australian Film Institute Awards), which focus primarily on celebrating local films in their respective countries. I would like a slight tweaking towards the British side of things -- perhaps introduce one more award solely for British films. A tweak on the dial towards a little more celebration of all things British would be good."

Till suggests screening additional clips and montages from U.K. films and perhaps dedicating a section of the awards ceremony to spotlighting just how well British movies are performing around the world.

"Overall, the awards are fantastic for the film industry in the U.K. because they celebrate the glamour and excitement of film in the lead-up to the awards," he says. "In the mind of the U.K. consumer, it keeps film up there as a glamorous proposition."

Ross, for one, is pleased that this year's BAFAs are saluting local films that genuinely deserve the recognition. "A lot of distributors plan the release around the BAFTA film awards and the Oscars, but what I particularly love is that an amazing movie from an amazing filmmaker -- Paul Greengrass' 'United 93' -- lives long in voters minds and gets the recognition it deserves."
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