BAFTAs drawing notice and influencing Oscar

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In the not too distant past, the BAFTA Awards were also-rans as far as the American studios were concerned. A pleasantly respectable event, sure, but they had little, if anything, to do with the serious business of marketing a movie.

Not anymore. Over the last few years, the Orange British Academy Film Awards (presented by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and colloquially known as the BAFTAs) have become an integral part of many adult-oriented movie campaigns -- and an important step on the road to the Oscars.

"The importance of BAFTA has increased enormously over the last three or four years," says David Thompson, former head of BBC Films. "The marketing spend has increased; the attention film distributors pay has increased enormously, particularly with the more specialist films. The campaigning is on a different level, even from a couple of years ago."

BAFTA's rise in importance can be pinned to one event: The organization's decision in 2001 to move its awards ceremony forward to February -- before the Oscars -- from its previous spot in March or April.

Before that, the BAFTAs were wholly anticlimactic; as far as Americans were concerned, it was the only major awards show to occur after the Oscars. That meant marketers could not use the BAFTAs to generate any real Oscar buzz. But with the new date, the British awards have grown to be at least equal in importance to the major critics' awards and a rival of the Golden Globes for many American marketing executives.

"They moved up their dates, and that made all the difference in the world," says Mark Gill, CEO of the Film Department and former chairman of Warner Independent. "They realized that being after the Oscars, if they wanted to have a worldwide impact, the only way to do it was to move."

The date shift has already benefited some recent awards-season releases, especially last year's "The Queen," which rode its BAFTA win to a best picture Oscar nomination and an acting Oscar for Helen Mirren.

"If you think about the Oscars as providing at least one best picture nomination for a purely independent film, the BAFTA win made 'The Queen' the front-runner for that spot," one specialty executive argues. "And if you are in the business of trying to get that slot, it certainly helps to get the BAFTA win."

Knowing this, stars and directors have been making the trek to London on a far greater scale than before, with the studios willing to shell out the many thousands of dollars each trip costs.

"The attention the studios are paying has notched up over the last few years by 50% -- and this year significantly," says Thompson, who estimates that a British awards campaign can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars -- a pittance compared to an Oscar campaign, but vastly more than was ever spent in the past.

Just last month, DreamWorks sent Halle Berry and director Susanne Bier to London, where they took part in a question-and-answer session moderated by Sam Mendes. The reason? Berry is starring in DreamWorks/Paramount's "Things We Lost in the Fire," an awards contender that Mendes produced.

That Q&A was part of a bigger push, one of many the studios and specialty houses are financing this year.

"The campaign for BAFTA is increasingly looking like the campaign for the Oscar -- the trade advertising, the newspaper advertising that highlights the work, the release at a certain time of the year," says Gill. "It sounds awfully familiar."

Among the expenses of such campaigns are not just flying a star and his or her entourage to the U.K., but also arranging preview screenings and sending DVD screeners to BAFTA's 6,500 members.

"The distributors are having lots of screenings for the members," says BAFTA chairman Hilary Bevan Jones. "There is fantastic corporate support from the distributors to get the big stars over, and the DVDs are being sent out plenty of time before the voting. There is a hunger for people to be in involved."

But is this hunger paying off? Are the considerable sums that the major studios now lavish on the BAFTAs resulting in any tangible benefits?

Insiders are skeptical. For one thing, there seems to be little immediate boxoffice kick from either BAFTA nominations or wins.

Other than last year's "The Last King of Scotland," few executives could cite any recent films where a BAFTA win significantly boosted revenues.

"In the U.K., there is a bump," says Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount International. "But I don't think it translates around the world, and I don't think it is a huge bump."

Nor does the BAFTA add the kind of library value that an Oscar might. A movie like "Gladiator" (2000), which had ended its domestic run when it won the Oscar for best picture, will reap the benefits of that Oscar for years as a jewel in DreamWorks' library; but executives say its BAFTA nod doesn't count for very much in terms of future television and DVD sales.

Perhaps because of this, the BAFTA Awards aren't something that distributors take into account as much as they do the Oscars when planning specialty release dates.

And while Oscar buzz has now become a crucial factor in determining when a specialty film is released in the U.S. -- something that has resulted in an avalanche of year-end releases domestically -- the BAFTAs are just one of many factors that come into play with U.K. releases.

Take Focus Features' "Atonement." The movie opens in the U.S. this weekend, perfectly timed to make the most of year-end awards. By contrast, the picture was released in England way back in September -- eons before the BAFTA nominations are announced on Jan. 16 (the awards ceremony takes place Feb. 10).

"Whether or not its theatrical life in the U.K. is completely over, 'Atonement' has largely run through that cycle," says David Brooks, president of worldwide marketing for Focus, which is handling the movie in North America.

In the years immediately following the change of the awards date, "Atonement" may have benefited more from a BAFTA win than it would today. That's because the U.S. motion picture Academy's own date shift -- bringing the Oscars forward by a month to late February -- has somewhat undercut the BAFTAs over the past couple of years.

"When 'The Pianist' won the BAFTAs, that occurred right during the Academy Awards' final balloting process," Brooks notes, "and it was a nice piece of news to publicize and help with momentum. But with the Oscars moving up, the BAFTA ceremony doesn't play as big a role. You just don't have that extra pop that you got back then."

Nor are the BAFTAs a perfect litmus test for the Oscars. In recent years, the DGA, the WGA and the Golden Globes have all been better indicators. On six occasions over the past 10 years, the BAFTAs and the Oscars have diverged when it comes to best picture.

"We have never gone out of our way to put ourselves up as a bellwether for the Oscars," says David Parfitt, BAFTA's deputy chairman, who will assume the chairmanship next year. "If you go back through the results, it's definitely had a personality of its own. It is about what films make an impact in this market."

This market includes the U.K., as well as Los Angeles and New York, where more than 1,500 BAFTA members are located.

With current movies like "Atonement" and "Control" (the Weinstein Co.) regarded as major contenders at the upcoming BAFTA Awards, Thompson adds, "this year has a bumper crop of British films, and it will be interesting to see how they survive against the muscle of the major U.S. films."

If American films have to apply muscle differently in the U.K. than in the U.S., it's because the two academies have different voting systems.

For the Oscars, nominees are chosen by the individual branches of the Academy. Thus, directors nominate directors, writers nominate writers, etc. With the exception of a few categories like best foreign-language film, this applies across the board; only best picture nominees are voted on by the entire membership, which also chooses the winners.

But BAFTA's system is almost the reverse.

The BAFTAs are chosen in three stages. In the first stage, each member can vote for as many as 12 potential nominees in every category, and the top 15 vote-getters in every category then form an initial "long list" (with each "chapter's" five top choices noted).

In the second stage, members whittle down the long list to create five nominees in each category. As before, all members vote on the nominees.

But when it comes to the actual winners, each "chapter" or branch makes the final decision. Here, directors vote for the winning director, writers vote for the winning writer, etc.

All members vote for the best picture winner, the foreign-language winner and also for the acting category winners.

Aware that so much voting might intimidate some members, BAFTA has an additional rule twist: Voting is mandatory. These procedures are among the fairest of any of the awards. But is it worth it?

Financially, the answer is no. But in terms of prestige, the BAFTAs are going from strength to strength.

"Each year, the status of the event just grows," says Bevan Jones. "The BAFTAs are becoming a significant global player."  


Breakaway colonies:How influential are the British Academy's best picture choices as a predictor of its American counterpart? Not very, it turns out. Only four times in the past decade (including a three-year run from 1999-2001) have BAFTA and AMPAS crowned the same film the best in their respective kingdoms. Things get even more muddled when the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s Golden Globe Awards are factored in.

2007   
BAFTA: "The Queen"   
Oscar: "The Departed"  
Globes: "Babel"/"Dreamgirls"

2006   
BAFTA: "Brokeback Mountain"
Oscar: "Crash"   
Globes: "Brokeback Mountain"/"Walk the Line"

2005   
BAFTA: "The Aviator"   
Oscar: "Million Dollar Baby"
Globes: "The Aviator"/"Sideways"

2004   
BAFTA: "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
Oscar: "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
Globes: "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"/"Lost in Translation"

2003   
BAFTA: "The Pianist"   
Oscar: "Chicago"   
Globes: "The Hours"/"Chicago"

2002   
BAFTA: "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring"
Oscar: "A Beautiful Mind"  
Globes: "A Beautiful Mind"/"Moulin Rouge"

2001   
BAFTA: "Gladiator"   
Oscar: "Gladiator"   
Globes: "Gladiator"/"Almost Famous"

2000   
BAFTA: "American Beauty"   
Oscar: "American Beauty"   
Globes: "American Beauty"/"Toy Story 2"

1999   
BAFTA: "Shakespeare in Love"
Oscar: "Shakespeare in Love"
Globes: "Saving Private Ryan"/"Shakespeare in Love"

1998   
BAFTA: "The Full Monty"   
Oscar: "Titanic"   
Globes: "Titanic"/"As Good as It Gets"
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