Recognition from the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) is now taken very seriously by UK distributors. Sarah Cooper looks at how the awards, seen as an edgy, young event on the UK calendar, are maturing while striving to maintain a distinct identity

In a year that has seen UK films making waves at all the major film festivals, there is a sense of anticipation ahead of the 14th British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs), taking place in London on December 4.

“By only celebrating home-grown talent, it casts an early spotlight on what will be the British contenders in other awards ceremonies,” says Anne Gartside of Momentum Pictures, who co-ordinates the company’s awards campaign, which this year includes Shame. That film has seven BIFA nominations this year, as do Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Tyrannosaur.

They are followed closely by Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which have six nominations apiece.

Last year’s big winner was The King’s Speech, leading to whispers the BIFAs, which have long been seen as a champion of smaller films, were becoming more ‘establishment’.

The event has certainly grown dramatically since its inception in 1998, when it used to be held in a nightclub. It now takes place in the 1,700-seat Old Billingsgate former fish market in east London and attracts a growing number of above-the-line stars to its red carpet each year. This year’s ceremony will be hosted for the first time by Ireland-born Bridesmaids star Chris O’Dowd.

“Now we’ve got people approaching us throughout the year and showing an interest,” says BIFA co-director Tessa Collinson, who runs the event with co-director Johanna von Fischer. Collinson has been with BIFA since its inception, and von Fischer joined in 2000. They both took up their present roles as co-directors in 2006. “Internationally we get much more interest too. From a publicity point of view, it definitely stretches outside the industry.”

‘Now we’ve got people approaching us throughout the year’

Tessa Collinson, BIFA co-director

StudioCanal CEO Danny Perkins believes it is vital the BIFAs and BAFTAs retain separate identities: “It’s great BAFTA has become as big as it has, but that means there is a place for the independent awards to recognise more of the British community. It’s important to keep that point of difference.”

It is a record year for StudioCanal with 32 nominations across five films. The company is also sponsoring the most promising newcomer award, for which three of its titles are under consideration.

Katherine Butler, senior commissioning executive at Film4, which has 28 nominations, points out a BIFA nod is no guarantee of BAFTA success. “Yes there are films that will go on and do well at the BAFTAs, but there are different criteria attitudes,” she says. “The BIFAs are not afraid of more challenging material and celebrating film-makers much earlier in their careers.”

Two Film4-backed nominees, Submarine and Tyrannosaur, are directed by first-time film-makers Richard Ayoade and Paddy Considine, respectively.

What the BIFAs can do is serve as a platform for smaller UK films which may not be on the radar of the BAFTA voters. “If a BIFA nomination or win urges a BAFTA member to pick up that DVD they’ve got at home and watch it, then that’s great. Our remit is to raise the profile of British film and British talent and to get people going to see these films in this country,” says von Fischer.

As most of this year’s nominated films have had a UK release, BIFA recognition can also help a film-maker get their next film made. “It helps the individual talent within each project when it comes to their next projects,” says Mark Herbert, managing director of Warp Films, which has three contenders — Tyrannosaur, Submarine and Kill List — in the running for a total of 18 prizes. “None of our films are star vehicles so we need everything we can to raise their profile in an industry where there is so much out there.”

For a film like Shame on the other hand, which is being released in the UK in January, a BIFA win is likely to be an integral part of the local distributor’s release campaign. “If Shame wins, we would absolutely put that on our advertising,” says Gartside. “It says to the public that this is an award-winning film.

“We see it as a very important awards ceremony, particularly because it’s given many of our films a great kick-off point for the awards season.”

Some 70 BIFA members vote for the nominations. The winners are then chosen by a 16-person pan-industry panel. This year they include directors Josh Appignanesi and Debs Paterson, casting director Lucy Bevan, Screen International editor Mike Goodridge and actors David Thewlis and Gemma Arterton.

Films must have been either released in the UK by November 30 this year, or have been shown at a British film festival. The films themselves must qualify as British but the talent need not be (hence nominations for Australian actress Mia Wasikowska for Jane Eyre, Ireland’s Michael Fassbender for Shame and US actor Ezra Miller for We Need To Talk About Kevin).

One category some in the industry would like to see introduced is for best adapted screenplay. At present there is just a general screenplay category. “There is a lot of adaptation going on and we have a lot of talented writers,” says Christine Langan, the head of BBC Films, which has nominations for We Need To Talk About Kevin, Jane Eyre, Coriolanus and The Awakening.

Several films are notable for their absence from the nominations, including My Week With Marilyn, The Deep Blue Sea and Wuthering Heights — despite Andrea Arnold being a previous BIFA winner for Fish Tank in 2009. Meanwhile Junkhearts actress Candese Reid failed to make the newcomer category, despite being a popular winner of the same award at October’s London Film Festival.

“It’s heartening and heart-breaking at the same time,” says von Fischer of the shut-outs. “Sometimes we have difficulty getting access to the films [My Week With Marilyn, for example, has not been shown at any UK festivals and was only released in the UK on November 25] and there was just a large number of very interesting films out there.”

‘It helps the individual talent within each project when it comes to their next project. None of our films are star vehicales, so we need everything we can’

Mark Herbert, Warp Films

Film4 backed both The Deep Blue Sea and Wuthering Heights. “I do think those two films will go on and be celebrated at other awards,” says Katherine Butler. “So in a way it’s lovely to see films like Kill List and Tyrannosaur being celebrated because they are such specific British independent titles.”

Previously supported by the now defunct UK Film Council, this year the BIFAs has received $81,300 (£52,000) of transition funding from the BFI and has renewed its sponsorship deal with Moët & Chandon for this year and next.

Collinson and von Fischer say demand for tickets is higher than ever, partly because the BIFAs provides one of the few occasions in the annual calendar where the whole spectrum of the UK industry gathers for one night. And in its pre-Christmas slot, it is always an excuse for a party, especially at a time when British independent film-making is flourishing creatively and commercially — despite an increasingly tough economic climate.

“It’s the independent spirit that is so celebrated,” suggests Langan. “There is always something intrinsically British that gives people a feeling of pride and ownership and makes us feel like we are in the game.”