Prior to 1999, the British Academy Film and Television Awards were seen as the poor, but perfectly respectable, country cousin of their high-wattage American brethren. There were a number of reasons for this, chief among them the four-month time lag between U.S. and U.K. release dates, which saw a bizarre hike in prestige releases during April, when the BAFTA ceremony was traditionally held.
Until 1997, the event also included an extensive roll of television awards, which made for a long night, with the top film awards inevitably going to the same films honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences two months earlier. The BAFTAs felt stale.
In 1999, however, the BAFTAs stepped up the glamour offensive. Elizabeth Taylor was honored with a BAFTA fellowship, presented by Michael Caine, while the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, and Christina Ricci walked the red carpet outside North London’s dowdy Business Design Centre. Three years later, the Brits were emboldened by the rejuvenation of the event to bring the BAFTAs forward, to the beginning of February. After a sharp intake of breath from the U.K.’s traditionally conservative industry, the gamble paid off. Now, the BAFTAs are generally perceived as the last stop on the Oscar trail, with this year’s event slated for Feb. 12 at the opulent Royal Albert Hall — the day before AMPAS’ final round of voting opens.
For many, the move was a masterstroke.
“I really believe that the BAFTAs are the most high-profile and influential film awards in the world, aside from the Academy Awards,” says Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London and the British Film Commission. “Perhaps equally importantly, they are the most eclectic and diverse, in representing British and world cinema, as well as Hollywood. And, yes, I think the date change definitely has had a positive benefit.”
But although that date change certainly put the BAFTAs back on the map, there have since been criticisms that the awards now skew toward Hollywood, with only one British title — Ken Loach’s Cannes Palme D’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake” — duking it out against American Oscar darlings “Arrival,” “La La Land,” “Moonlight,” and “Manchester by the Sea.”
Is the British indie section being left behind? Wootton believes not. “I think the BAFTAs [tend to] reflect Hollywood,” he says, “as our record-breaking, multi-billion pounds inward investment figures demonstrate, they also very appropriately reflect the amount of American-financed production that is made in the U.K., using British creative talent in front of and behind the camera. That’s as true of ‘Star Wars’ as it is of ‘Harry Potter.’ And in terms of British indies, yes, I do think they are well represented.”
Here, Wootton cites the British film category — in which Andrea Arnold’s festival hit “American Honey” and Babak Anvari’s low-budget horror “Under the Shadow” compete with Holocaust-themed courtroom drama “Denial” against Warner Bros.’ “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — as an important place to recognize some of those films.
“In terms of the indies, it varies from year to year,” says Ben Roberts, director of the BFI Film Fund, which last year put money into films as diverse as Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire,” Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom,” and Francis Lee’s recent Sundance hit “God’s Own Country.” “I would, obviously, say that I always wish for more visibility for U.K. indies, and there can be some frustrating oversights from voters. But our industry is particularly developed and complex, and the BAFTAs reflect that broader system — don’t forget that countless U.K. technicians, craftspeople, artists, and filmmakers are working here and elsewhere on studio productions.
“I’m glad that the outstanding British film, debut, and shorts categories provide some specificity. Having said that, outstanding British film doesn’t cross over into best film as often as I’d like, although I’m glad it has this year” [with Ken Loach’s BFI-funded “I, Daniel Blake”].
Independent producer Jeremy Thomas, 2001 BAFTA nominee for Jonathan Glazer’s edgy crime thriller “Sexy Beast” and 1987 winner with Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese epic “The Last Emperor,” agrees with Wootton that the awards reflect the healthy, but mostly commercial, state of the industry.
“When you look at the numbers of the films that are made in the U.K., and the money spent, it is very healthy,” he says. “Seats are full, the local film industry is strong. Very good films are perhaps made not enough, but that is what has happened to cinema. The television industry, and filmmaking in [serial] format is very, very successful. But the independent, or the individual, feature film is quite a rare item nowadays.”
Wootton refutes the suggestion that, though it has become an important tastemaker, the BAFTAs remain in hock to the American studio system. “As a place to make films, the U.K. is one of the most sought-after and admired places in the world — and we have the fiscal incentives, infrastructure, technology, and creative talent to back that up. We aren’t playing second fiddle to the U.S., we are in a serious, long-term, economic, industrial, and creative partnership with them.”
Should more be done? “Yes, of course,” he says. “[More] to help filmmakers find finance, reach audiences, and sustain their businesses, and increase the diversity and social inclusion of our filmmaking and its subject matter. It’s notable that our partners and stakeholders at the British Film Institute have put this at the heart of its new five-year strategy. This is absolutely right and a key challenge going forward.”
Is there any more that can be done? “We already do a lot,” says Roberts. “We have great partners in the U.K. who promote British film at festivals and markets throughout the year. But at some point — in terms of BAFTA — the responsibility for what gets recognized becomes the individual responsibility of BAFTA members and that requires a lot of diligence to consider everything equally and to balance their merits. Therein lies the challenge with awards.”
For Thomas, the BAFTAs, like the Academy Awards, are a side-product of filmmaking rather than a goal. “I’ve been lucky to be touched by the BAFTAs and by other awards over the years,” he says. “It’s nice when you get your BAFTA — it’s a good pat on the back for what you’ve been doing, although the films I make are not really those sort of films. Controversial films or maybe, let’s say ‘alienating’ films, are harder to get recognized by an academy. That is something that is not changeable. Taste is taste. I mean, this year in the Academy Awards, some of my favorite films haven’t been nominated. But that probably says more about my taste than it does about [the current state of] cinema.”
Like Wootton, Thomas thinks BAFTA serves the purpose it was always supposed to serve when it was founded in 1947 by the likes of Carol Reed, David Lean, Alexander Korda, and Michael Powell to identify and reward excellence.
“I don’t really have criticisms of [the films that] people pick for awards,” he says. “Everything’s done fairly, and it’s something that is good for promotion of films. That is why they have turned into these events that they are.”
But should there be more pressure to make British films feel less of an addendum to its own celebration? He thinks not: “You can’t make individual taste a duty.”