BIFA: How We Overhauled Our Voting System to Give Films a Fair Shot (Column)

The Last Tree

Ahead of tonight’s BAFTA Awards in London, Amy Gustin and Deena Wallace, co-directors of the British Independent Film Awards (BIFA), discuss how they shook up their awards’ voting mechanisms to become more inclusive of a wider variety of films and filmmakers. 

BIFA is different from other awards bodies in its process as well as its purpose. We’re here to champion British independent film and new filmmakers. To do that well, it’s vital that we give every film and filmmaker a fair shot.

Tempting as it may be, we aren’t going to join the chorus of BAFTA-bashing: the public and industry outcry over the lack of diversity in their nominations has already illuminated problems that need to be addressed.

However, we do admit to having a little fun on social at their expense: it was too good an opportunity to pass up to highlight some of the exceptional BIFA winners and nominees this year, who aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Examples include the all-female wins in Debut Director, Debut Screenwriter and Breakthrough Producer, and Sam Adewunmi and Ruthxjiah Bellenea’s victories for “The Last Tree” (pictured).

When we took over BIFA five years ago, we had an opportunity to get under the bonnet of how its voting process worked. BIFA has always been about celebrating the best and most exciting new British talent. To continue to do that job properly, we needed to make sure that our process was as inclusive and rigorous as it could be.

We started with the voters. We radically expanded our voting pool by recruiting from past nominees and winners, as well as having an open call for new people. The requirements to be a BIFA voter are relatively easy to meet, which makes for a younger voting body. We also approach underrepresented groups and individuals and encourage them to join up, to ensure that voters are representative of the diversity of the U.K.

We added extra categories to showcase the best new British talent and we publish the lists of filmmakers who make it through the first round of voting. This allows us to put the spotlight on a bigger group of promising new filmmakers.

We are open to films that have had a single festival screening, and so are inclusive of a wider variety of films and filmmakers. We also pinpoint and approach films from underrepresented filmmakers by contacting festivals and film organizations that champion those groups.

And once we have assembled a representative set of voters and have been as inclusive as we can of all work being made in the U.K., we start the voting process.

The principle is simple: everything has to be seen, discussed and given a fair shot.

We make sure that every film entry is seen by a minimum number of voters in each category for which it is entered and that every film is discussed. We make sure that each voter sees a minimum proportion of the entered films in their category.

We also ask all of our voters to undergo ScreenSkills-funded unconscious bias training, so that they are aware of the factors that might affect their decisions as they make them. And, importantly, when calculating the voting results, we take into account how many voters have seen a film as well as how many voters voted for it. This way, a film seen by 15 voters is at no disadvantage against a film seen by 150.

We know the way we do things isn’t perfect and are always open to suggestions to improve it. Many of the changes we’ve made over the last five years have been as a direct result of listening to our voters. We think it’s our responsibility to run BIFA in a manner in which independent filmmakers can be proud of.

All of this is important to us because we have an influential platform and although we can only judge what is made in any given year, we can influence what will be made in the future and who gets to make it. Showcasing underrepresented filmmakers helps to inspire the next generation of talent: visibility is important. This is a question that should be addressed seriously.

Amy Gustin and Deena Wallace are co-directors of BIFA.