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BAFTA Awards: ’12 Years’ and ‘Gravity’ Race to the Oscars (Analysis)

The game is afoot! Sunday’s BAFTA Awards were filled with plot twists, including “12 Years a Slave” as best film. Are these awards a preview of Oscar? No. These are very different voting groups, and their rate of similarity is pretty mixed. But one thing is confirmed for certain: There will be genuine suspense until the last envelope is opened March 2.

“12 Years,” distributed by Fox Searchlight domestically, scored the top prize plus Chiwetel Ejiofor for best actor, two wins out of its 10 noms. Warner Bros.’ “Gravity,” which led with 11 noms, tallied six wins, including the prize as outstanding British film.

Back in September, some pundits predicted a neck-and-neck race between these two for Oscar. In fact, many other strong contenders emerged since then and remain possibilities. But the great BAFTA results for the two follows the Producers Guild tie between the films, meaning pre-Oscar awards events have been sending plenty of mixed messages in the best picture race.

BAFTA has picked the same best pic winner as Oscar 11 times in 20 years, a so-so batting average. But the similarities are becoming more frequent: The two have picked the same film for the last five years.

In other categories, where competition is also strong, BAFTAs provide a PR boost. Ejiofor, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Lawrence, Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell (“American Hustle” screenplay) enhance their reputations as the year’s best in the midst of Oscar balloting (which runs Feb. 14-25).  No Academy voter wants to think they’re swayed by popular opinion. But in a tight race, when so many good contenders have a shot, the noise of the crowd is hard to ignore and BAFTA raises the noise level for its winners.

Conversely, Sunday’s results could assist Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Lupita Nyong’o, Spike Jonze and others. They have been considered front-runners and had won high-profile awards, so it may be a good thing to suddenly become an underdog at this stage of Oscar voting. (The two “Dallas Buyers Club” actors, surprisingly, weren’t even nominated by the Brits.)

Some of the wins were expected, such as Cate Blanchett, the “Gravity” below-the-line victories and “The Great Beauty” for foreign-language. The trophy to Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope for screenplay adaptation is not a total surprise. The two are local heroes in Britain and while many in the U.S. think John Ridley is a front-runner for “12 Years a Slave,” “Philomena” has a lot of fans and can’t be discounted for an Academy Award.

Another consoling thought for those who did not win Sunday: As a bellwether, BAFTA proved limited by honoring people who weren’t even Oscar-nominated. That list includes makeup and hair, Evelyne Noraz and Lori McCoy-Bell, “American Hustle”; editing, Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, “Rush.”

BAFTA has become a more accurate predictor of Oscar’s best picture race, a change that can be attributed to date shifts. The BAFTA Awards used to be handed out in April, a few weeks after the Academy Awards. But starting Feb. 25, 2001, it shifted to a date about a month before the Oscars; BAFTA wanted to become part of awards season, rather than living in Oscar’s “shadow” after the fact, as a spokesman told Variety at the time. Dates for the two events became even closer when Oscars moved a month earlier starting with the Feb. 29, 2004, ceremony.

In the director category, for example, the two orgs agreed only once in seven years before the date change. However, they’ve agreed six times in the 13 years since; not a great average, but much closer. In the decade since the two events have been held more closely, BAFTA predicted lead actor seven times and lead actress six times.

As for “Gravity” being a British film, that might be news to Hollywood and Mexico. The film was lensed in London with many British crafts workers. But the stars and studio are from Hollywood while the director (Alfonso Cuaron), scripters (the helmer and Jonas Cuaron) and cinematographer are from Mexico.

But success has many fathers. “Lawrence of Arabia” was named one of the top five British films and top five American films by BFI and AFI, respectively, so this is not new. And when accepting his award Sunday, Cuaron said “I consider myself a part of the British industry.”

In case you wonder exactly who voted on these awards, BAFTA started as British Film Academy in 1947. It merged with the Guild of TV Producers & Directors in 1954, changing to the current name in 1976. The org consists of people within the film, TV and videogame industries. The organization decided in 2005 to put a cap on membership, with 5,000 members in the U.K. and 1,500 in the U.S.

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