Bafta's accidental snub

What is hailed as Clint Eastwood's masterpiece has been left off the film awards shortlist. Geoffrey Macnab reports
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On Monday, when the nominations for this year's Bafta awards are announced, there is going to be one glaring omission. News has already seeped out that Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby (right) is missing from the shortlist for best film and best director. The film, a Rocky-style yarn starring Hilary Swank, has been rapturously received in America. Nonetheless, to the discomfiture of Bafta, British voters have snubbed what some are calling Eastwood's masterpiece.

"Frankly, it belongs on there and everyone knows that it belongs on there," says one Bafta member. "It is unquestionably Clint Eastwood's best film. It will probably win the American Academy Award and it's not even in the running for the Baftas."

The story of why Million Dollar Baby has been overlooked offers an intriguing insight into the paranoia, politicking and frantic lobbying that go hand in hand with modern-day movie awards.

There are 6,240 members of Bafta, all entitled to vote. Every year distributors send them "screeners" - DVDs of the hundreds of films in the running. There are also special showings of the films. Publicists wage a military-style campaign to ensure that their titles are seen by as many voters as possible. But there is one major hitch. The studios remain terrified of piracy. Some, therefore, refuse to send out screeners.

"With the most extensive screening programmes, the most members you can hope to get to see a film is under 1,000. You can see that the screeners are essential," notes Sara Keene, chief executive of Premier PR, which has the thriller Collateral and the Ray Charles biopic Ray among its Bafta hopes.

It turns out that the real reason Million Dollar Baby (released in the UK today) has been snubbed is that hardly any voters had seen the film. No screeners were sent out, and the first showing of the film was held (disastrously late) on 14 December; only about 100 people turned up. There were two subsequent screenings, but it's a fair bet that around 90 per cent of the voters had not seen the movie.

"We would never try to advise a company on how they should run their campaign," says David Parfitt, who chairs Bafta's film committee. "All you can ever do to make sure the membership sees your film. But it's hard to see that three screenings for a membership of 6,500 is enough."

Ironically, Bafta may be a victim of its own recent drive to ensure transparency in its voting system. Previously Bafta's film committee was able to avoid embarrassment by discreetly adding titles to the shortlist, whether or not members had voted for them.

It's understandable why awards shows are so keen to prove that voting is above board. In 1982, the starlet Pia Zadora won a Golden Globe for her poor performance in Butterfly after her husband spent a fortune entertaining Hollywood Foreign Press Association members (who choose Golden Globe winners).

The US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is notoriously strict about the circumstances in which its members can see potential Oscar movies. There are no goodie bags or freebies. This year, Bafta has moved into line with AMPAS. No longer are distributors allowed to give voters expensive gifts or throw lavish parties.

"The rules changed this year. Up until this current campaign, you were able to do pretty much what you wanted, stopping short of sending them a £10 note," says Sara Keene.

Entertaining has not been proscribed entirely, however. "I was never terrifically keen on bribes in the first instance," says publicist Liz Miller. "I don't think any of those incentives ever work, but the AMPAS ruling that you're not allowed to give members a drink or a potato chip is absurd. It's absurd to imply that a glass of cheap white wine is going to influence somebody's decision. At Bafta screenings, we're enjoined not to give them foie gras but we're allowed to give them a drink."

The Bafta Awards are live on BBC1 on 12 February

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