If you’re accustomed to upsets in the BAFTA’s British film category — such as when “This Is England” beat “Atonement,” “Man on Wire” beat “Slumdog Millionaire” or “Fish Tank” beat “An Education” — brace yourselves for a change.
Tweaks in the BAFTA voting system this year could fundamentally alter the character of the BAFTA Awards.
For the first time, the entire membership of 6,500 voters, including the 1,480 based in the U.S., will choose the winner of British film, instead of the prize being decided by a hand-picked jury of London insiders.
In 2010, when their movie was the only U.K. nominee for best film (losing to “The Hurt Locker”) but didn’t even get the British film prize, it was a bitter pill for the producers of “An Education,” including BAFTA’s then-film chair Finola Dwyer.
“You can get fantastic discussions and arguments in those jury rooms, and end up with weird results,” says one BAFTA committee member. “You never want the BAFTAs to become too conventional, but ‘Fish Tank’ beating ‘An Education’ was one of the weirdest.”
In the most recent BAFTAs, even “The King’s Speech” was reportedly run close in the jury voting by “Four Lions,” before becoming the first pic ever to win the double of top film and top Blighty film since the Brit award was reintroduced in 1992.
The voting-body change could even affect the choice for best film, since members will potentially be faced with a decision on whether to split their vote or to pick the same movie for both awards.
Previously, if members wanted to express strong support for a British contender, their only option was to choose it for best film. But with the alternative to pick it for British film instead, that could clear the way for a different (and possibly less British) choice for best film.
The scenario is complicated further by this year’s introduction of a documentary award, also voted by the whole membership. Although docs will gain more prominence from getting their own prize, this might make it harder for a doc to emulate “Man on Wire” or “Touching the Void” by winning top British film honors.
Under the old system, the whole membership voted to decide the British longlist of 15 titles. BAFTA’s film committee would then pick the five nominees, and a jury (the committee plus extra bigwigs) would choose the winner.
This year, BAFTA has created a British chapter to vote for the longlists and the nominees. Chapter members must pledge to watch as many contenders as possible, to ensure that smaller and more obscure titles don’t lose out. So far, 1,000 members have signed up for the chapter — 880 in the U.K. and 100 in U.S.
That’s a surprisingly low number, given that roughly half of the membership describes film as its primary activity (the rest being in TV or videogames). The foreign film chapter, by contrast, has 1,600 members, including 1,300 in the U.K. and 275 in the U.S. However, BAFTA officials expect the British chapter to grow in years as members start to understand the new system better.
Chapter voting for the British longlist will reduce the influence of U.S.-based members, who have access to a narrower range of Brit pics and are more swayed by the Oscar race. U.S.-based voters make up only 10% of the chapter, compared with 23% of the entire academy.
But when the final vote is thrown open to the whole membership, the trans-Atlantic voice will be much louder than under the previous jury system, as will the voice of the TV and games members.
However, BAFTA’s film chairman Nik Powell says there was no longer a case for excluding the mass of BAFTA members from deciding their own best British film, particularly with greater flexibility offered by online voting. But he also insists that BAFTA will monitor the outcome closely to see if the change impacts adversely on the chances of smaller indie films.
In order to ensure that such pics aren’t disadvantaged by the costs of mailing out DVDs or organizing multiple screenings, BAFTA has expanded its online viewing platform and its deal with iTunes, so that distribs can make their British films available for streaming or download.
Last year, BAFTA experimented with this system for the foreign-language chapter. Distribs took the opportunity to put 25 titles online, out of the 36 films entered for the award. The org has no statistics about how widely the system was used by voters to view the contenders.
The online system will also be made available for documentaries this year. As with the British award, the first two rounds of voting will involve the new documentary chapter, with the whole academy picking the winner.
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