‘Where the Baftas go the Oscars follow’ parroted the journalists this week, but it’s not strictly true. For many years the Baftas could not be mentioned in the same breath as the Oscars. It was an underpowered industry closed shop. The ceremony was linked to a lengthy dinner, as in any other industry, so by the time gongs were handed out the room was often surly and half-cut. It lacked professionalism and pizazz.
Change was needed. Bafta expanded regionally, encouraging young filmmakers and recruiting a much more diverse membership in terms of age, race and gender. It got rid of the ceremonial dinner and repeatedly shifted the date ahead of the Oscars. It drew firepower.
Why, then, did this year’s most astonishing films like ‘Waves’, ‘David Copperfield’ and ‘Atlantics’ get no traction with the voting members?
One factor to consider is the way we vote. The process is geared towards balance (you can only vote for films you’ve seen, and vote in specific categories) but the order in which we see films becomes crucial as time runs out.
The heavy-hitting studios are first off the blocks with a roster of screenings followed by streamed private-access films and DVDs. It’s a big cost for the small independent release companies, but they get their films out as quickly as possible, not necessarily on such a wider scale.
Over Christmas I was faced with 146 films to see. Luckily I had seen a great many already, but many were unknown quantities. The first two films I watched were ‘For Sama’ and ‘The Cave’, and I immediately wanted them to win. But voters know that star-free low-budget films face impossible odds against ‘Joker’ or ‘The Irishman’, especially when there can only be one overall winner; awards events have built-in absurdity. If you’ve missed their screenings you have to wait for the film’s appearance via the Bafta portal, and suddenly you’re watching a small, well-intentioned parable about economic migration against ‘1917’. The films arrive randomly, so that this year ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ turned up after most of us had voted (not that it was ever going to win).
Sam Mendes’ war film feels like a direct descendent from the days of Richard Attenborough and David Lean, a grandly conceived and finely crafted epic made with British talent. Although the Baftas are a global ceremony they’re also about national excellence, as are the Oscars or any awards ceremony with the possible exceptions of Venice and Cannes, which feel genuinely global. The Oscars certainly is not; it feels as if the gongs are being handed out by elderly cinema owners in Texas.
The problem I had with many of the smaller films is not that they’re rougher-edged or star-free (quite a relief) but that they’re often flawed in one or two aspects, and you overlook the flaws to find the greater good. You will them to succeed, and that means voting for them over the odds.
Voters ultimately head toward the mainstream and make painfully obvious choices. If there’s a period film in which everyone’s wearing huge wigs you can guarantee it’ll win Best Hair & Makeup, overlooking the subtleties that went into making wigs for ‘The Irishman’. Soundtrack awards avoid brave, unusual scores in favour of traditional orchestras, and showy turns get rewarded – ‘Judy’ had a star turn but it was far from being the only one – where were the awards for ‘Marriage Story’ or ‘Harriet’?
It’s a learning curve. The fact that ‘Parasite’ scored higher than the treacly ‘Little Women’ shows that the journey is being undertaken.