If you are looking for a Wagnerian spectacle, the next Orange British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs) may well provide it.

On Sunday February 11, the BAFTAs will take place in a magnificent new venue - the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden - with a new host to replace Stephen Fry.

Last year’s awards attracted a healthy smattering of international stars - including Jake Gyllenhaal, Ang Lee, Thandie Newton, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Charlize Theron, Ziyi Zhang and Heath Ledger.

The presence of such A-listers would certainly seem to lend credence to the assertion by Duncan Kenworthy, producer and deputy chair of the Academy, that the event is now ‘the pre-eminent film awards ceremony outside the Oscars’.

Last February, there were disgruntled murmurings in certain quarters that so many of the main prizes went to US projects and that even the ‘British’ winners, whether Pride & Prejudice or Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit were studio-backed.

‘Being a British Academy, it is always fantastic if the Brits win but we’re an international event,’ counters Amanda Berry, BAFTA’s chief executive. ‘I am sure the Brits would agree that it’s far better to be competing on an international stage.’

While some may question just how much impact the show has outside the UK, the awards have huge resonance for the local industry.

‘They’re the most exciting awards for any British film-maker, especially given the fact they’re voted on by your peers,’ proclaims director Joe Wright, who won the Carl Foreman Award for Pride & Prejudice last year.

‘I went with Keira [Knightley] to the Oscars and that was wonderful, but there is something about being at home and how important that is.’

Wright adds that the event ‘is a great party… almost like an old film festival where you get to meet other directors, which is very rare. You meet actors, friends and producers.

You all get to talk to each other and that is important in an industry where people can be isolated from one another. It’s an opportunity to exchange ideas and have a drink together - a community bonding experience, hopefully.’

The BAFTA voters nominations predicatably have put Brits in contention for major prizes this time around.

Stephen Frears’ The Queentops the list of nominations with 10; Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King Of Scotlandis among the best film nominees and is mentioned in four other categories; while Richard Eyre’s Notes On A Scandal is up for three.

Meanwhile, the work of British technicians on such films as Children Of Men and Casino Royale have also been recognised.

And, of course, Daniel Craig has become the first Bond nominated as best actor.

What’s a BAFTA worth’

But how much of a boost does a film get from winning a BAFTA’

There is one startling statistic that emphasises just how much the profile of the Orange British Film Academy Awards (BAFTAs) has risen in recent years.

The 2006 show was one of the three highest-selling UK television shows globally, bought by 231 territories and principalities. The programme goes out everywhere from China to the Cook Islands and is shown by BBC America in the US. At home, 3.4 million British viewers watched the BBC-broadcast show.

It is an extraordinary transformation given that in 2001 the BAFTAs were broadcast only in the UK.

‘The reality is that we go out in more territories than the Oscars,’ says BAFTA chief executive Amanda Berry, who calculates the potential reach of the show at more than a billion people.

So how does that reach translate in industry terms’ Can a BAFTA nomination help launch a film both in the domestic and international market’ Opinions appear to be sharply divided.

‘BAFTA nominations can add a real gloss to your campaign,’ says former Pathe UK marketing director Anna Butler. ‘When we received nine BAFTA nominations for Crash [which went on to win two] last year, it helped raise the film’s profile in the run-up to the Oscars. It reminded audiences and voters how good the film is, some months after our release campaign.’

Butler points out that it is ‘really a numbers game with BAFTA nominations’ and that ‘a fistful of nominations is worth more than one or two wins unless they are key categories of best film or acting.’

A film such as Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener, which picked up 10 nominations for the 2005 awards but emerged with only one BAFTA, can therefore be seen as a major beneficiary of last year’s event.

‘Any major award, particularly at this time of year, has the potential of adding more impact to your film. BAFTA is a major award. It adds to the critical mass that hopefully a film has already started to achieve,’ agrees marketing consultant John Durie.

He points out that BAFTAs can boost the ancillary performance of movies that have already received their theatrical release in the autumn but are headed for DVD in
the spring.

Nonetheless, certain observers strike a sceptical note about the visibility of the awards outside the UK. ‘I work a lot in continental Europe and I don’t think anyone knows what the BAFTAs are,’ says one industry figure. He cautions that even if the awards show has been sold to more than 200 territories, that does not mean it is necessarily broadcast in prominent slots.

‘Every country has its own set of awards,’ notes John Durie. ‘What distributors will look at around the world and certainly in Europe is [whether] that award mean anything to our audience’ Although [the BAFTAs show] is watched, the question is, can that award be used as a hook when selling the film to its consumer audience in its respective territory”

Whatever its uses as a marketing tool, the event has an obvious knock-on benefit for the industry simply because many high-profile figures pass through town for the BAFTAs. Last year, the UK Film Council organised a special summit, ‘The Big Idea’, at which leading film-makers, including Paul Haggis and James Schamus, took part in a brainstorming session.

Screener dilemmas

Like every major awards ceremony, BAFTA has to deal with issues surrounding release patterns, piracy and screeners.

Two years ago, for example, when no screeners of Million Dollar Baby were ready, the film (which went on to win a clutch of Oscars) was not seen by enough British Academy members even to secure nominations.

‘If the members don’t see it, they can’t vote on it,’ points out David Parfitt, chair of BAFTA’s film committee.

Nor is Joe Wright backward in chastising BAFTA for failing to nominate Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice. He mentioned the omission in his acceptance speech and the issue still irks him. ‘It did sadden me that was the case,’ he says.

‘I think she should have been nominated. Sometimes in Britain we’re not very good at giving each other a pat on the back.’

Films released up until February 9 are eligible for the 2007 BAFTAs. In a bid to make the event as relevant to the public and topical as possible, BAFTA wants to ensure that award candidates are available to be seen by British cinema-goers (in previous years, films released until the end of March were eligible).

Partly as a result of the rule change, some likely Oscar contenders have slipped under the BAFTA wire.

Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives Of Others are all being released in the UK too late to be considered.

Radical moves

The BAFTAs are not cheap to stage. Berry estimates that the cost - shared between BAFTA, the BBC and sponsor Orange - is in the $4m (£2m) range.

The earnings from the awards are pumped back into the British Academy’s support for educational charities. One of the continuing paradoxes about BAFTA is that it remains a (relatively) cash-strapped organisation despite staging some of the most glamorous awards events in the British media calendar.

‘Everybody thinks we’re hugely wealthy, but they forget that we don’t get any Lottery funding, we don’t get any government funding. We’re totally self-funding across sponsorship, membership revenue and our corporate hire revenue,’ Berry says.

BAFTA recently secured a mortgage on its Piccadilly home in London and still has an overdraft to pay off repairs on its roof. Earlier this year, Hilary Bevan Jones
took over as chairman of BAFTA succeeding Duncan Kenworthy, who serves as deputy chair for a year.

BAFTA has made two radical decisions in recent years. In 2001, it shifted its dates to a slot in advance of the Oscars. It has also secured a place on prime-time British television. The question now is how to keep evolving. The watchword, Berry says, is ‘accessibility’- the aim is to broaden the awards’ reach.

With this in mind, one major initiative launched this year is ‘60 Seconds Of Fame’. This is a short-film competition open to anybody aged 16 or over who can enter via their BBC regional website.

Night at the opera

BAFTA’s move to the Royal Opera House will solve a host of logistical problems

Why the move from the awards’ usual base, the Odeon Leicester Square’ As BAFTA chief executive Amanda Berry explains, it was a wrench to leave but the Odeon was simply too small.

‘The Odeon refurbished and took out 200 seats. That had a big impact on us as we’d like the venue to be bigger. We had to disappoint a lot of people for tickets.’

By decamping to Covent Garden, the organisers will solve several logistical problems. The Royal Opera House has a capacity of just under 2,000, so more guests can be invited.

There is also plenty of space in which to set up a proper press centre backstage. Meanwhile, BAFTA is promising ‘the biggest red carpet we’ve had to date’ and hopes to erect a big screen in the Piazza at Covent Garden so the public can watch the awards.