Why the shorter, less boring Baftas are better than the Oscars

Richard E Grant and Alison Hammond fronted last year's Baftas
Richard E Grant and Alison Hammond fronted last year's Baftas - Stuart Wilson/BAFTA
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“The Baftas just want to be the Oscars!” is the cry that typically rings out across social media whenever the British Academy’s annual prize giving ceremony comes around. And for many years after 2001, when the event moved from late spring to February in order to align itself with the American awards season, the criticism was broadly fair.

More recently, though, the Baftas have been busily reforging their identity – and while many similarities to their louder, grander US counterpart remain, they’ve become a much more enjoyable affair, with sharper winners, more entertaining broadcasts, and a lower risk of presenters being lamped on live TV.

Here are eight key respects in which they’ve sprung ahead.

1. The voting system is smarter (if also entirely baffling)

Deep breath: let’s start with the tricky one. In 2020, following a ceremony whose lead contenders – Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Sam Mendes etc – might be described as strong but stale, Bafta overhauled its voting procedures. And while the new system is confusing, it dependably spits out good results, presenting voters and viewers with a healthy mix of critical darlings, middlebrow prestige titles and popular hits.

As at the Oscars, the lists of nominees are drawn up by Bafta’s respective chapters: editors decide who should be in contention for best editing, and so on. But rather than relying on a popular vote, smaller juries top up the initial long-lists with a few additional names to avoid any glaring oversights. Each category is run slightly differently: in directing, it again falls to the jury to trim these names to the final five or six, though the two most popular in the branch vote automatically go through. Then in the final round, the entire membership votes for their favourite.

David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in Rye Lane
David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah in Rye Lane - Chris Harris

The Oscars’ system is more straightforward: the chapters choose the nominees; the membership the winner. But that makes it harder for breakthrough talents to secure their moments in the spotlight – such as Rye Lane’s Vivian Oparah, deservedly up this year for a Best Actress Bafta alongside the likes of Sandra Hüller, Margot Robbie and Emma Stone.

2. Their public award actually works

From the mid-noughties, as the Oscars’ Best Picture tastes drifted ever more highbrow, the Academy became increasingly paranoid about being out of step with ordinary cinema-goers. Their attempted solution?

Two new categories introduced in 2022, whose winners would be chosen by the public. Named #OscarsCheerMoment and #OscarsFanFavourite, these #hilariously #cringe honours were promptly hijacked by hyper-partisan Zack Snyder fans, and the following year were both quietly shelved.

Yet since 2006, Bafta has run its own annual public vote – the Rising Star Award for breakthrough talent – with minimal controversy and often pleasingly prescient results. Former winners include James McAvoy, Eva Green, Kristen Stewart and Tom Hardy, while newly minted stars like Jessie Buckley, Barry Keoghan, Lashana Lynch and Harris Dickinson have been among the recent nominees.

Barry Keoghan in Saltburn
Barry Keoghan in Saltburn

2. They meaningfully celebrate British film

Unlike France’s Césars or Japan’s Academy Film Prizes, the Baftas reward a national industry that’s half-entrenched in the Hollywood system, and half staunchly independent of it. That odd duality can lead to confusion: recall the outcry in 2014 when Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity was (rightly) named Outstanding British Film.

But with four categories now dedicated exclusively to British output, a reasonable balance has been struck. This year’s Outstanding British Film field is a vintage one, with ten nominees ranging from Wonka to The Zone of Interest via Napoleon and Saltburn. Whoever wins on the night, the broader picture it paints undeniably looks good.

4. The winners aren’t political

Awards ceremonies are of course meant to highlight excellence, though ideally of the films being recognised rather than the voters who choose them. Ever since American politics went bananas, the Oscars’ Best Picture winners have come with agendas attached, from Green Book’s dopey populism, to the Biden White House-approved CODA, to the celebration of immigrant diligence in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

None were great picks, and Coda was a flatly absurd one, but all allowed the Academy to burnish credentials of some sort. Over the same period, it would be hard to argue that the Baftas’ own Best Films – including Roma, The Power of the Dog and All Quiet on the Western Front – won on anything but merit, even if the individual choices sometimes came as fun shocks.

5. The ceremony is shorter and earlier

On Oscar night next month, the 2024 awards season will have been dragging on for 193 days: more than half of the calendar year. This is plainly ridiculous, and by the time Baftas land on Day 172, more or less everyone has had their fill of it.

Austin Butler at the 2023 Baftas
Austin Butler at the 2023 Baftas - Getty

Then there are the ceremonies themselves. The Baftas is broadcast over two hours on a Sunday evening on BBC One (cut down from three hours live, but ending roughly in sync); the Oscars over a scheduled three-and-a-half hours plus overtime. The constant ad breaks at the latter don’t help, and nor do venue logistics, with footage of winners simply walking to the stage eating up an average of 12 minutes of screen time per year.

6. The categories are better

Cheer moments and fan favourites aside, the Oscars last tried to introduce a new category in 2018: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. Over the last decade, voters had made little space for Marvel, Star Wars et al in the top tier of categories – acting, writing, directing and Best Picture itself – so here was a way to it artificially.

Except the plan was so badly received, it was sheepishly retired the following month. Meanwhile, Bafta introduced a new award of its own, Best Casting – which paid tribute to a strand of the business which, unlike enormous franchises, deserved some extra credit. The Oscars recently announced they’re following suit on this, though doing so will somehow take them until 2026.

7. Britain actually likes films

Napoleon: £14.2m. Killers of the Flower Moon: £9.8m. Poor Things; £5.9m, and counting. All of Us Strangers: £2.7, after only two weeks. While the British box office might not have clawed its way back to pre-covid levels quite yet, we’re watching smart original work at the cinema again: that’s the spirit of discovery on which awards season’s cultural relevance depends.

Compare that to the sorry situation in the US, where ticket sales for the first three titles above were between 33 and 60 percent behind the UK’s pace.

8. The Americans don’t have Alison Hammond

When the Oscars tried to rediscover the common touch in 2022, they arranged partnerships with 24 fawning twerps from TikTok. But at the Baftas last year, a secret crowd-pleasing weapon was unveiled: the seasoned film correspondent from ITV’s This Morning, who presented the ceremony with Richard E Grant.

Presenter Alison Hammond
Presenter Alison Hammond - Vianney Le Caer

True, Hammond’s easy warmth and charisma were slightly squandered in the end on green-room Q&As, when she should have been on the stage with her more luvvie-skewing co-host. Nevertheless, her presence showed a new will from on high to make the Bafta the truly mainstream event it should be, and it’s a pity she hasn’t been brought back.

This year’s host is David Tennant, who as a noted Shakespearean and former star of Doctor Who was presumably deemed to cover both bases.

The winners of the Bafta 2024 Film Awards will be announced on February 18, broadcast on BBC One and BBC iPlayer

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