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BAFTA Awards Attempt to Reset for Modern Times

When BAFTA chair Jane Lush stood up to present this year’s awards nominations announcement, she said the British Academy stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those addressing harassment. “It’s not only #MeToo, it’s #WeToo,” she said. A pithy line, but the rug was pulled from under the BAFTA head moments later when former BAFTA Rising Star Letitia Wright revealed a best director nominations list devoid of women, in a year when Greta Gerwig and Dee Rees are among the female helmers with standout projects.

The moment at the organization’s London headquarters underlined the challenge facing BAFTA: it is attempting to be part of the solution, but many headlines portrayed it as part of the problem. For the organizer of the most prestigious film awards outside the U.S., setting the tone post-Weinstein is a minefield and asks it to acknowledge an unprecedented movement for change while celebrating the best work of the year.

“If you think about #OscarsSoWhite, that really did engulf that ceremony – it was what people wanted to talk about and was the prism through which they looked at the nominations,” says Pippa Harris, film and TV producer and deputy chair of BAFTA. “Rightly we’re looking at [the BAFTA Awards] through the prism of where women are in our industry this year. What is tricky in terms of BAFTA’s position is you have to prepare for a ceremony that is hurtling down the track and step back… and ask what can we do to permanently change the culture, because that’s what really matters.”

“As the profile of the awards has grown and the ceremony is now shown internationally in every major territory in the world, it is obviously a very powerful platform for people to say something”

As the BAFTA organizers looked to the Golden Globes, so the Oscar organizers will look to the BAFTAs. With its calendar moment just ahead of the Oscars, and with BBC America, the Fox channel in Asia, and many others around the world broadcasting the ceremony (BAFTA will stream it), all eyes will be on London’s Royal Albert Hall on Feb. 18.

Incoming BAFTA host Joanna Lumley has the comfort of not being in the hot seat first; that honor belonged to Globes front-man Seth Meyers, who reserved “a special hello to hosts of other upcoming award shows who are watching me tonight like the first dog they shot into outer space.” Lumley fills a vacancy created by retiring 12-time host Stephen Fry, and her opening monolog and hosting skills will be in the spotlight.

So will the remarks of the award-winners, given the current environment and Oprah’s electrifying speech at the Globes. Those receiving accolades are sure to address harassment, equality, and the desire for change.

“As the profile of the awards has grown and the ceremony is now shown internationally in every major territory in the world, it is obviously a very powerful platform for people to say something,” says BAFTA chief executive Amanda Berry. “The world has changed dramatically in the last the few months, and I don’t have any problem if someone feels passionately about something and they say it.”

The all-white, all-male best director nominations were unfortunate given BAFTA’s various programs designed to engender change and representation in film, TV, and games, and leave it open to an awkward Natalie Portman-esque moment on the night (when Portman introduced the best director nominees at the Globes, she said pointedly: “Here are the all-male nominees”). BAFTA, a registered charity, was bound by the votes of its 6,500 members, but as Susanna White, chair of the Directors U.K. Film Committee and the director of “Woman Walks Ahead,” told Variety after the noms were announced: “When the outcome of that vote is so skewed as to exclude the great work of women directors, you have to look at the voting systems of the awards… and the demographic makeup of their membership.”

“I think us tinkering with the award categories so that somehow we can skew it will not solve the problem,” counters Harris, taking note of a recent report showing that just 18% of behind-the-scenes positions were filled by women. She says producers need to take some responsibility. “As a producer, when you start looking for a director and it’s an all-male list, then look again because it shouldn’t be. It needs producers, commissioners and exec producers to look at who they are choosing.”

Women now outnumber men on BAFTA’s scholarships, and its Breakthrough Brits, and BAFTA Crew schemes. BAFTA also has its Elevate program, which supports female directors who want to progress in film and high-end TV, although it has been criticized in some quarters for the number of directors, 15, offered assistance. That is symptomatic of a problem for the organization: After a series of scandals, the pace of change being demanded outstrips the abilities of those charged with promoting progress. BAFTA’s redevelopment of its headquarters, for example, will allow it to broaden its membership, and add a screening room to give a wider showcase to up-and-comers, but it is still two or more years out.

In the U.K., a new set of industry-wide guidelines on harassment is in the offing, and BAFTA is playing a key role in drawing them up, along with Women in Film and TV, and the British Film Institute, among others. From next year, the Outstanding British Film, and Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer categories will need to conform to the BFI Diversity standards, which will encompass the harassment guidelines, and the organization is evaluating whether it should broaden that initiative to cover more awards.

“If we can get [the guidelines] right and incorporated into the BFI diversity standards, and that becomes in turn part of the qualification criteria for the BAFTAs, that will prove a catalyst for change,” Harris says.

Come Feb. 18, the world will be watching.

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