How do the organisers of the Bafta film awards ensure each year is better than the last? Sarah Cooper reports on the plans for this year’s event.

The most recent Bafta ceremony in February this year attracted its biggest TV audience since 2004, up 20% on 2010. Bafta chief executive Amanda Berry puts it down partly to the popularity of Christopher Lee’s receipt of the Bafta Fellowship award and also the Harry Potter franchise picking up a prize for outstanding British contribution to cinema. She suggests too there was an above-average interest in last year’s big winner, The King’s Speech.

But she suggests it was more than just those reasons. “There does seem to be a much greater awareness of what we’re doing at Bafta,” says Berry, pointing out that viewing figures for Bafta’s TV awards in May were also up this year. “The challenge is how you put on an event which pays proper tribute to the people in the room, but which can also be an entertaining programme for people watching on TV.”

This year’s host will be UK actor and comedian Stephen Fry, who fronted the ceremony from 2001 until 2006 when TV presenter Jonathan Ross took over until this year. It will be the first time Fry has presented the show at London’s sumptuous Royal Opera House, where it has been staged since 2007.

‘We would like to stay ahead of the Oscars, should they move’

Amanda Berry, Bafta

The venue holds 2,000 guests and Bafta plans to host a simultaneous event for 300 members of the public, also at the Royal Opera House. There will also be an online broadcast featuring backstage interviews with the winners to coincide with the TV broadcast which will air on BBC1. And Berry says she is planning an exuberant opening to the event to rival last year’s dance number from the cast of StreetDance 3D.

For the industry, the evening extends to a swanky dinner and after-party at the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane, attended by all the key talent. Increasingly distributors also host their own after after-parties — last year the place to be was Harvey Weinstein’s soirée in honour of much-lauded The King’s Speech at the newly opened W London hotel in Leicester Square.

The awards are a chance for the British film industry to get together to celebrate its achievements. “As we have some categories just for British films [outstanding British film, outstanding debut, short film and short animation], there will always be that kernel of Britishness,” says Bafta’s head of film since 2008, Deena Wallace.

“And by making the ceremony international, you shine a global spotlight on Britain and our industry,” adds Berry.

New this year is Bafta’s inaugural documentary award as well as a revised voting system for the outstanding British film category. For the first time the latter will be voted for entirely by Bafta members as opposed to a jury. Both the outstanding British film and foreign-film prizes will be voted for in the first instance by ‘chapters’ — subsections of Bafta members who have pledged to watch all the submitted films — with the final nominees being voted for by Bafta’s 6,000-plus members in the UK and around the world.

Distributors of films in the documentary, foreign film and outstanding British film categories have also been given the option to make their films available on both iTunes and Bafta’s own viewing portal.

‘Online viewing probably is the way it’s going. But we’re exploring ways that help members to get used to doing it that way’

Deena Wallace, Bafta

“We could see the changes starting to happen in the industry and we wanted to stay ahead of the curve,” says Berry of the rise of online film streaming. “While we absolutely want members to see the films on the big screen, we appreciate that is not always possible, especially in categories where the films may not be so widely available because they had a short release or the distributor can’t afford to send out screeners.”

Deena Wallace says she has been encouraged by the generally positive response from Bafta members. “They are very open to it. The voting period is over Christmas and it means they can watch the films at home or when they are away without having to carry around a bag of DVDs.”

The online viewing system is likely to be extended to all of Bafta’s categories in future years. “That probably is the way it’s going,” says Wallace. “But we are exploring ways that help members to get used to doing it that way.”

The Baftas moved its dates from April to early February to take advantage of the countdown to the Oscars in late February in 2001. With speculation that the Oscars will move into a January slot as early as 2013, it could mean another date change for the Baftas.

“We would like to stay ahead of the Oscars, should they move, because it’s a slot that works,” says Berry. “It makes us part of that window where the world is looking at film, and it means we are relevant to the industry and the public.”

She is confident the industry would support a further move. “When we moved our dates in 2001, we spent a lot of time talking to the industry,” she explains. “They have never stopped supporting us and have really understood what we have set out to achieve.”