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In interviews following the 2021 BAFTA film nominations on March 9, the British Academy’s chief executive Amanda Berry was visibly emotional at the responses to the shortlists. “I think I’m going to cry,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
It was, perhaps, understandable. BAFTA had been through an exceptionally punishing year since its previous film nominations, even without a major industry-crippling pandemic to contend with.
In January 2020, thanks to an all-white presence in the performance categories and female-free list for directors, the institution was at the center of yet another diversity controversy, the #BAFTAsSoWhite hashtag making an unwelcome reappearance as all corners of the film world weighed in. Even one of BAFTA’s favourite sons, Steve McQueen, spoke up, questioning why the organisation existed if not to support “those making headway in the industry.”
Fifteen months on, the list of nominees heading into the dual awards ceremonies on April 10 and 11 (split across two nights due to COVID-19, with the top awards being handed out on the 11th) is a complete transformation, particularly in the areas that were so jarring the last time around. Across the performance categories, 16 of the 24 actors come from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds (with 21 getting their first nomination). In directing, four of the six nominees are women, ending nearly a decade of all-male dominance and doubling BAFTA’s previous best in 2009. Such awards-season favorites as Sound of Metal and Nomadland mingle with the likes of The Mauritanian and Clemency in a very unique, yet welcome, mix. If there was a single complaint, it was hard to hear above the loud chorus of cheers.
“It’s a job well done,” says Daniel Battsek, head of Film4, which has five films in contention, including the Oscar-tipped The Father (six nominations) and the Brit drama Rocks (which is tied with Nomadland, both landing seven nods). While Battsek admits there wasn’t a “particularly high bar” that BAFTA needed to get over, “at least to right some of the wrongs of the last few years,” he says 2021’s list is “definitely something to be commended.”
BAFTA had, of course, moved quickly following the outcry in 2020, immediately launching a comprehensive internal and external review that it only emerged from, somewhat emotionally battered and bruised, seven months later.
Incoming Academy chair Krishnendu Majumdar, who led the review alongside film committee chair Marc Samuelson and a specially formed steering group, spoke in a letter to BAFTA members of the incredibly “humbling” “frank” and “challenging” process, which involved hundreds of hours of Zoom meetings with members, advocacy organisations and companies from across the sector to discuss representation and diversity, admitting he had been “brought to tears” on several occasions on hearing stories from people in the industry who had been impacted.
The result, revealed in late September, was a complete overhaul of BAFTA’s voting, membership and campaigning, described as a “watershed moment” and the biggest shakeup in its history. Among the more than 120 changes were expanded categories (in performance, directing and outstanding British film), a new longlist round, compulsory “conscious voting” training for all voting members and a commitment to recruiting 1,000 more members with a focus on under-represented groups.
But with the nominations coming less than six months later (pushed from January to March because of the novel coronavirus), few expected such an immediate impact. Indeed, the crop of 2021 nominees — undoubtedly the most diverse ever seen in more than 70 years of BAFTA awards — caught many by surprise.
“I honestly thought it would take a lot longer,” says Susanna White, vice chair of the filmmaker association Directors U.K., who hails the wide-ranging consultation process and “clever and vigorous” measures put in place. Directors U.K. had been among the most outspoken following the 2020 nominations, arguing that voters simply didn’t have enough time to watch all the submitted titles, skewing them toward those from more established directors or those backed by a studio’s marketing muscle.
For White, the “biggest reform” implemented by BAFTA was a new system providing every member with a list of films — a mix from across the board — that they had to watch in order to take part in the first round of voting. And these called all be seen on BAFTA View, its new online screening platform.
“It was like, here’s an achievable number of films you can watch, what do you think of them?,” she says. “It’s just much fairer, I think. And very clever.”
The phrase White uses, and one echoed throughout BAFTA’s reviews process, is of “levelling the playing field,” not enforcing any sort of diversity quota, but merely ensuring that all the works are being judged. One statistic that suggests this is working is the rise in overall films nominated — up to 50 in 2021 from a previous record of 39.
As BAFTA organizers would admit, the pandemic actually has played a part in the positive outcome. Film4’s Battsek points to the fact that, with cinemas shut, smaller independent films no longer faced the criteria of requiring decent box office numbers to garner enough attention, adding that voters weren’t able to be wined and dined by the usual array of screenings and parties from the bigger-pocketed distributors. But he doesn’t take anything away from BAFTA, which he claims “threw a lot at the wall in one fell swoop.”
He adds, “They needed to press the reset button and they pressed it, and it’s had the desired effect immediately.”
But could “reset” be pressed elsewhere? Can other film organizations in the midst of a diversity crisis — such as the currently embattled Hollywood Foreign Press Association — replicate BAFTA’s achievements?
“I think so — it’s really inspiring,” says White. “You know, it’s an august institution, and you might think that wheels would turn slowly. But actually, it was just by saying: ‘Yes, change is possible when you commit to it.’ It’s actually not that hard.”
This story first appeared in the March 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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