Oscars with an English accent

Special to The Times

It's Saturday night. It's black tie. It is to be held at the Century Plaza Hotel. What could "it" possibly be?

If you guessed an NRA convention, you would be wrong.

It's an awards ceremony. And stop rolling your eyes. You know you can't get enough of them.

The board of directors of BAFTA/LA, that is, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, knows this, too.

In a town where even 12-step recovery meetings are structured like the Oscars, complete with presenters, tearful thank yous and loads of wildly enthusiastic applause, the folks at BAFTA/LA know that nothin' gets 'em out around here like a support group, especially one that promises movie stars, designer duds, statuettes, gift bags and, most important, a podium.

Best of all, like the Golden Globes, the event is a glorified dinner party -- lots of mingling and gossip. It is safe to assume the speeches will be shorter, more self-effacing, and probably more dryly droll, since the crowd is, after all, mostly British.

Now in its 13th year (it was canceled once, after Sept. 11) the ceremony honors British and other luminaries who have been influential in promoting the British voice in film. (Membership in the group is open to anyone, of any nationality, who has worked in the British film and TV industry.)

It's a great way to grab the spotlight for an evening, explains board member Duncan Clark.

"We're all volunteers. We can't compete with the heavy premiere coverage, but the awards do create momentum for the organization."

Recipients have included Miramax Films chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sir Peter Ustinov, Michael Caine, Martin Scorsese and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, producer of the James Bond movies.

This year, the gala will honor Hugh Grant, Peter Weir, Angela Lansbury and Sony's Howard Stringer.

Presenters include Sandra Bullock for Grant, Robin Williams and Russell Crowe for Weir, Robert Wagner for Lansbury and Jane Seymour for Stringer. Alan Cumming will be onstage as well as Sharon Osbourne and Billy Connolly. Jazz artist Boney James will provide the music.

A new award, named for the late director John Schlesinger, will be presented by Dustin Hoffman, also to Weir. The ceremony is part of a continuing campaign by the group to raise what has been a rather low profile, considering the firepower of its 1,200 members.

And the campaign seems to be working, in that discreet European way, observes Jeffrey Godsick, Twentieth Century Fox vice president of marketing.

"I think BAFTA/LA seems to have evolved and grown in the past four or five years," says Godsick, who is heavily involved in the studio's awards season campaigns. And if the best marketing operation is the one where you can't see the man behind the curtain, the group gets an A-plus in Godsick's book.

"If it's a conscious push, it's been really well done, because I haven't seen it or felt it. I don't see a conscious PR effort on their part."

Miramax senior executive Cynthia Swartz points to other factors that have contributed to the group's rising profile. The L.A. group's Britannias have always been in the fall, but when the mother organization moved London's BAFTA Awards (their version of the Academy Awards) from April to February "to be before the Oscars, it obviously had a lot of impact," she says. Strategically, the L.A. group's events that lead up to the BAFTA awards and Oscars became more significant for the studios.

"And, with no screeners this year, it has become even more important to screen for them a lot and try to deliver actors and directors for their Q&As.;"

Because her company makes or distributes so many British films, Swartz says, BAFTA -- L.A. and London -- has always been on Miramax's radar. "Harvey has always been a big BAFTA supporter; they have always been important to us."

Heidi Trotta, senior vice president of publicity for Walt Disney Studios, also sees a definite upswing in BAFTA/LA's profile. "They have an incredible membership and are very important in terms of word-of-mouth and award consideration, and over time, that has definitely increased, both here and in the U.K."

Besides the Britannias, the group hosts a round of starry tea and garden parties, some timed to coincide with other award weekends, others just for fun. And these events attract big name, big money, high prestige sponsors such as "Jag-U-ar," Land Rover, St. Regis Hotels, Four Seasons Hotels, the Savoy Hotel Group in England and British Airways.

Located in a pleasant building a few blocks from Melrose Avenue's west end, BAFTA/LA's offices are an unassuming contrast to the facilities of its American cousin, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Wilshire Boulevard, but the organization is steadily growing, not only because of the events, but also thanks to an expanding British influence on Hollywood, as well as an ambitious board of directors that has made it its business to participate as fully as possible in the life of Los Angeles as well as Hollywood.

The board is particularly proud of the Outreach program, which exposes disadvantaged kids to movies and the process of making them.

One recent event for kids at the Museum of Contemporary Art featured Sir Ian McKellen reading from "Lord of the Rings," answering questions, and explaining how scenes were filmed.

The group also endows a scholarship for British students seeking to study film at UCLA.

One such beneficiary, Zoe Green, is going into her third year in the MFA program at UCLA.

A self-described "working-class girl," Green, 26, majored in English literature at Cambridge and cut her teeth directing with the Cambridge Footlights Theater Group.

"I've had a long, hard quest to get to America," she laughs. Like many students, she's had to contend with a lack of funds. Unlike her U.S.-born counterparts, however, taking a job is not an option.

"You can get a student visa to come here," points out Don Haber, BAFTA/LA executive director. "But once you're here to study, but you're not allowed to take a job waiting tables or anything like that. That's where we're able to help."

New Jersey native Haber says the next step in the group's scholarship efforts is the creation an endowment for American students who wish to study in London -- a "Rhodes scholarship of film."

Meanwhile, the organization has plenty on its plate.

Just before the Sept. 11 attacks, the board had planned to announce a fund-raising drive to enable the group to expand its L.A. location and facilities into something similar to BAFTA's London headquarters.

Housed in a 19th century structure steps from Piccadilly Circus, BAFTA's London digs include meeting, research, archive, gallery and screening facilities as well as a pub where members can socialize.

"Eventually, we'd like to see a 195 Piccadilly West -- West," explains Haber.

Even without corporate sponsorships and other supplemental funds, "BAFTA/LA could run on its membership fees alone," says board member Gary Dartnall.

Corporate sponsor dollars are, he explains, gravy, enabling the group's scholarship and community outreach efforts.

And the sponsors see a unique opportunity to tone up brand recognition (that "British thing," with its perceived connotations of gentility, still lends an air of prestige in this former colony) and do good works.

"We present attractive use of funds, scholarship, events for inner-city children. We offer exposure for their brand. And our membership is very diverse."

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