BATFA Awards could be most star-studded of season

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It turns out many of those Golden Globes nominees who were cheated out of a trip down the red carpet last month because of the writers strike might not be sending back those designer gowns and expensive jewels after all.

Instead, they might be packing them up and jetting to London this weekend to strut their stuff at Sunday's 2008 BAFTA Awards.

As a result of last month's not-so-Golden Globes ceremony and the subsequent uncertainty that has surrounded this month's 80th Annual Academy Awards celebration, the BAFTAs could find themselves basking in a considerably brighter spotlight this year.

For BAFTA chief executive Amanda Berry, there are mixed emotions about that greater potential.

"We've obviously been put into the spotlight, but we've been quietly working away year after year developing and growing the awards," she says. "So I'd hate to think that if we have a fabulous ceremony this year, everybody will think it's just because of what's been happening in the United States."

Presented by the nonprofit British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Orange British Academy Film Awards (the mobile phone company Orange is the long-term title sponsor) has evolved over time to attract international attention while remaining true to its British roots.

"Over the years, under very careful leadership, it's struck a very good balance," observes David Thompson, the longtime BBC Films head who resigned last fall to launch his own independent production company. "It's become a much more attractive, much starrier international event. But at the same time, it does engender a sense of pride and confidence in British cinema."

But it's the turn of events stateside that could be indirectly responsible for making the BAFTAs a particularly attractive proposition this time around.

"I do genuinely feel sorry for the individuals who were recognized by the Golden Globes this year and didn't get their moment in the sun," says Peter Morris, chairman of BAFTA/LA, the organization's Hollywood chapter, which hosts the annual Britannia Awards. "Since a good sum of those Golden Globes nominees are up for BAFTAs as well, it could be that they get their moment not in the sunshine but in the glistening rain hitting the London pavement."

Sensing that the BAFTAs are ready for their close-up, E! is dispatching Ryan Seacrest to cover the red-carpet arrivals, marking the first time the American Idol host has officiated an event outside of the United States.

Berry also confirms the red-carpet presence of all the American networks this year, and in addition to once again being broadcast on BBC America, the event has been picked up for the first time by Canada's CBC.

"We've been very lucky in the past because, obviously, we were a little island in the middle of the ocean and a lot of people had to travel a long way to get to us -- but they do," adds Berry.

And once they've gotten a taste of the BAFTAs, they tend to keep coming back for more.

Confirmed fans include George Clooney, Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio and Philip Seymour Hoffman. On the exec front, Harvey Weinstein has always been an avid BAFTA booster, as has Universal Pictures co-chairman David Linde.

"It's a very meaningful acknowledgment to be recognized by your peers, and the BAFTAs do just that," says Linde, whose studio is well-represented this year by the 14 nominations for "Atonement" (released stateside through indie division Focus Features) in addition to another half-dozen collected by "The Bourne Ultimatum." "It's a great celebration of movies and moviemaking -- and a great party!" he adds.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to stage your event at the majestic Royal Opera House in London's upscale Covent Garden.

"There's something really delicious about the setting of the Royal Opera House," says Thompson. "They've managed to define the glamour of the movie industry with something that is very special and very traditional about British cultural life, too."

But the regal setting also provides a nice contrast to the tone of the event, which tends to be considerably less reverential than its American counterparts, which often comes as a surprise to first-timers.

"People expect it to be very prim and proper and British, but there's a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation," explains Morris. "We admire success and talent, but we also enjoy seeing them taken down a few pegs."

That edgier ambience had been honed by the very wry, very dry-witted Stephen Fry, who served as the BAFTA Film Awards' master of ceremonies for six years before handing the mike over to U.K. TV personality Jonathan Ross last year.

When heavier-than-usual rains caused foaming flame retardant to ooze out of the red carpet, Fry quipped that it was "years of greasy flattery given to actors finally bubbling up."

For the winners, the loose, convivial atmosphere means there are no time limits placed on speeches, unlike back in America.

"We don't do what the Oscars does and start playing music only because we don't have a live orchestra, which would be lovely but we neither have the room nor the budget," concedes Berry. "We do ask for people to keep it short, but if somebody's emotional and excited, we're not going to stop them doing it in the venue."

However, because the ceremony, which usually lasts about two and a quarter hours, must fit into a two-hour broadcast slot, and the program starts going out live before they finish recording, the production team must edit as they go along.

From the Royal Opera House it's on to the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane for the traditional after-show dinner -- and again, the vibe is noticeably different from its Oscar counterpart.

"It's great fun," says Berry. "We make sure it's a press-free zone, so when people come to the dinner they can completely relax."

Unlike at the Academy Awards' Governor's Ball, where people tend to pop in briefly before running off to the Vanity Fair bash or one of the other dozens of parties, at the BAFTAs, the 1,000-plus guests all sit down and enjoy the meal as the winners mingle. Nobody is being rushed off to do interviews.

Ironically, while there's the potential for plenty of star wattage on Sunday night, there's also a possible downside as a result of that WGA strike.

"We've got a lot of nominees coming, and those confirmation calls are still going on," says Berry. "But because a lot of films were rushed into production ahead of the writers strike, it also feels to me that a lot more people are working -- and on much tighter schedules -- than we've had in the past."

Still, judging from all those incoming phone calls and inquiries about West End theater ticket availability this weekend, the Golden Globes' loss could well turn into BAFTAs gain.

"If that happens, there will be nobody happier than our board members because it reflects on the esteem in which the BAFTAs are held," says Morris. "We always get a good turnout, and if we manage to get a few more this year, so much the better."
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