Why BAFTA Matters

I’m a proud BAFTA member. I’ve voted with the membership and sat on multiple Film Awards juries. I’ve been moved to see our decisions turned into life-changing nominations and awards. I’ve seen the genuine joy on winners’ faces, and the pride with which they stare at their prizes, at the parties that follow the show. I’ve watched as careers have taken off following a BAFTA nod.

It’s for these very reasons that I take my role as a voter incredibly seriously. On a macro level, it might appear that the BAFTAs slot into the calendar along with any number of other events that provide little more than a self-congratulatory back-slap for a luvvie industry, and that their true worth is measured only in the extra box office that some of the buzzed-about titles generate. That may not be entirely false, but to witness the human, emotional side effect of the role played by the BAFTA Film Awards is to understand their real importance.

In reaction to a piece run by an anonymous “whistleblower” on one tabloid newspaper’s website, I feel compelled to defend the process by which film awards voters go about their task. The piece alleges that the voter in question happily votes for films they haven’t bothered to see, because there’s not enough time to see them and the momentum carries the favourites to victory anyway.

It’s an odd idea that begins with one bizarre plot-hole: it’s actually much, much easier to simply abstain than it is to vote for films you haven’t seen. To vote in Round One – the nominations stage – the BAFTA system requires you to assemble a shortlist of films you might choose and then go through each category, digging out the eligible parties and arranging them in order of preference. Since abstaining in any category – or all of them – involves a simple click, and doesn’t affect your right to vote in subsequent years, doing so is entirely without effort or consequence. So what’s the point of doing anything else?

The piece suggests that buzz drawn from other, American, awards that come first provides a cheat sheet for voters to simply pick the obvious candidate, and that BAFTA voters are sheep following the herd. Certain names, it says, are nominations shoe-ins. Amongst the many fallacies, this anonymous voter expresses frustration that they can’t vote for such a shoe-in, Kate Winslet, because she doesn’t have a film out this year. On the contrary, she’s in Labor Day, and members would have been free to vote for her; she didn’t make it through.

In my experience, buzz certainly plays a part, and voters are naturally drawn to the work of people who have impressed in the past. But the part that anticipation plays is, generally, to sift to the top film’s most worthwhile candidates, which voters then prioritise as they pick screenings and screeners to watch. Every studio runs robust campaigns, and the real duds just can’t get through like they used to. Buzz builds around generally well-reviewed titles.

It has been my experience, and that of my voting colleagues whose opinions on films I hear regularly and freely, that while we might prioritise the buzzy titles, we most certainly prioritise the watching of them before we vote, and that we would never vote for titles we’ve not seen. I defy anyone to suggest BAFTA voters can and must see every single eligible release, but I absolutely refute the suggestion that voters don’t see the films they choose. Indeed, as voting enters its second round, the system is designed to make us certify that we’ve watched all the nominated films before we’re able to vote in a particular category.

Awards screenings – which run for several months before and after Christmas – are regularly packed to the rafters. Most screenings come with wait-lists, or ticket ballots, since the interest from members in attending is so high. For those that fail to secure a place, there are usually at least another few screenings booked into the calendar and, yes, the screener discs are on their way. If this anonymous voter’s ethics are demonstrably askew, there is no doubt in my mind that they represent a fractional minority.

But the real question we must ask, as this story gets re-reported all over the media, is: should we really trust the testimony of a witness that freely admits to lying on their ballot? If that falls within the bounds of their ethical standards, what won’t they say for the sake a few column inches?