As the Academy deliberates, BAFTA makes its own voting tweaks

Posted by · 12:55 pm · June 26th, 2012

Ah, BAFTA — even when they’re not making a conscious decision to do so, they seem to wind up shadowing the Academy. As Kris reported yesterday, AMPAS brass are meeting today to discuss potential changes to the voting rules for next year’s Academy Awards. Earlier today, however, BAFTA beat them to the punch by announcing an overhaul of their own voting system. They’d cry “First!” — but it’s not the English thing to do.

The changes are considerable, and to my eye, come with both pros and cons — but the chief takeaway, for better or worse, is that it makes the BAFTA voting system markedly more similar to that of the Oscars. That’ll disappoint those who treasure the quirks of the Brits’ previous voting system, which sometimes resulted in some rather distinctive winners. But since dramatically shifting their calendar to precede the Oscars in 2000 — they used to take place several weeks after — the BAFTAs having been falling ever more in line with the American awards, so this feels like a natural progression. 

The first of the changes is the most welcome, and it involves streamlining the polling from a three-stage to a two-stage process. You may recall that the BAFTAs used to have an initial vote to draw up 15-nominee longlists in each category (bar exceptional fields like Best Foreign Language Film and Best British Film). After the announcement of those longlists, a second vote would determine the five final nominees in each category — before, of course, the final vote for the winners.

Under the new system, however, as in the Oscars, the initial vote will determine the five nominees in each category — thereby scrapping the longlist. This, in my opinion, can only be a good thing: not only were the longlists pointless and cumbersome, but they also drained most of the suspense from the eventual nomination announcement — with the five top choices of the relevant voting chapter (more on the chapters in a moment) marked on the longlist with an asterisk, the final nominees would only occasionally deviate from those.

Meanwhile, announcing the longlists to the public rarely served BAFTA well, revealing only the alarmingly, and sometimes comically, shallow pool of films and names being considered by the voters, while many deserving contenders didn’t even make that cut. This year’s longlists were particularly embarrassing: “Midnight in Paris” made the cute for Best Visual Effects, for example, while Simon Curtis and Phyllida Lloyd (but no Terrence Malick) were in for Best Director. The new system won’t necessarily stop that kind of demented voting in the lower reaches of the ballot, but it’s surely better that we don’t know about it.

Or perhaps it will, given that the second major change announced today involves the power given to the voting chapters — in BAFTA parlance, that’s the equivalent of the Academy branches. The Academy has always employed branch voting at the nomination stage — actors determining the acting nominees, cinematographers determining the cinematography nominees, and so on — with the entire membership voting on the winners in all but a few ghetto categories.

BAFTA, however, unusually had the reverse system. The entire membership would vote on the nominees in all categories, but with the exception of Best Film and the acting races, the final winner in each category was determined by the relevant chapter/branch. Now, BAFTA has decided to flip that system, once again bringing their procedures mostly in line with the Academy’s.

The nominees for direction, writing and all technical categories will be determined by branch voting, while the entire membership will vote for the winners in all categories. The only difference from the Oscar voting lies in the acting categories — where, as with Best Film, the entire membership will determine the nominees as well as the winners.

Are you still with me? Is your head hurting yet?

This change strikes me as more of a mixed blessing. Chapter-specific voting at the nomination stage is obviously a good thing. Though, as I mentioned earlier, BAFTA nominees were usually in line with the chapter’s asterisked picks anyway, when the collected membership strayed from those it was rarely for the better. (Witness this year’s head-desk moment in the Best Original Screenplay category, where the general voters overruled the writers’ choice of “Young Adult” in order to nominate Abi Morgan’s disastrous script for “The Iron Lady.” Sometimes you really should leave it to the professionals.)

I’m more nervous, however, about having the entire membership vote for the winners. One of the things I’ve always liked about BAFTA, as opposed to the Academy, is that chapter voting in the technical categories often led to some highly singular and deserving winners: “Mulholland Drive” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” both won for Best Film Editing, for example, which is an outcome that seems likely with all chapters voting.

The principal concern is that voters with little knowledge of the field they’re voting in will simply default to the biggest nominee in the race, or the one they simply like most — a trend that sometimes results in iffy calls in below-the-line categories at the Oscars. (Emmanuel Lubezki, feel free to pout at this point.)

BAFTA have acknowledged that worry, and I like their pledge, quoted in Variety, to “take a more proactive role in instructing members to abstain from voting in categories where they don’t consider themselves qualified to judge, and [to] also send out a clear message that it expects members to abstain in the final round in any category where they have not seen all five nominees.” That is at it should be, but I’m not sure how many voters will play fair in that regard. 

Finally, special rules still apply to the awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Animated Film, Best British Film and Best Documentary Feature, in which both the nominees and the winners will be determined by “opt-in” chapters of volunteers from all areas of BAFTA. That will ensure that all the nominees are viewed and given a fair shake by the voters — though I still wouldn’t count on the Best British Film winners being as idiosyncratic as when the award was determined by a select jury.

Anyway, we’ll see how it all pans out next year. For now, I’m pleased to see BAFTA evidently taking on board the industry and critical response to problems in their voting system — some of these solutions are clearly for the better. Others — well, swings and roundabouts, but it can’t hurt to try things. Your turn, Academy. 

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.

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