The Changing Face of British Film Awards
By Ben Dalton
The BAFTAs have passed for another year, and the most high-profile event in the British film calendar left few surprises. Most categories went the way of the bookies favourite, so much so that Best Actor presenter Salma Hayek slipped a joke about Frances McDormand into her onstage chit-chat before McDormand had even won her Best Actress trophy. A full ten weeks have passed since the BIFAs – long enough to shoot nearly three Lady Macbeths – but the influence of British film’s younger ceremony (funding meagre, attitude eager) can still be felt, both in what was awarded and what was not.
Sunday’s big winner was Martin McDonagh’s revenge drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which took home Best Picture, Best British Film, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay – all five awards considered ‘big’ ones. This towers over the total it achieved at the BIFAs where, despite 11 nominations including Best British Film and Best Director, it scored only two awards, for Carter Burwell’s score and Jon Gregory’s editing. It is possible the BIFAs earlier date affected Three Billboards’ haul there; it wasn’t released in the UK until over a month after the ceremony, and while screenings were made available for all BIFA jurors, the relative lack of hype for the film could have restrained its standing. BAFTA responds to the impressive, fully-unfurled (& funded) force of an awards campaign, which looks to be pushing McDormand all the way to a second Oscar. The only other film to win at both events – Rungano Nyoni’s darkly comic I Am Not A Witch – won an award at BAFTA that could only go to a first-time feature maker, the Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.
It seems that BAFTA is less willing to award low budget, unstarry projects to the same extent as BIFA. Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country, the big winner at BIFA with four awards including Best British Independent Film, was shot for just £1 million, took over £800,000 at the UK box office alone, and yet achieved just a single BAFTA nomination for Best British Film. William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, which took a record 15 nominations at the 2017 BIFAs including for Oldroyd and Oscar-nominated producer Fodhla Cronin-O’Reilly, and has won awards around the festival circuit including at the European Film Awards, only received BAFTA recognition in Outstanding British Film and Outstanding British Debut.
However the presence of these films in the nominations at all is significant, and an indication of where BAFTA takes notice of BIFA. All five BAFTA nominees for the Outstanding Debut award were previously nominated at BIFA (four of them in 2017, The Ghoul in 2016), with eight of the ten nominees corresponding across the previous two years. All fifteen nominees across the three years are independent films. BAFTA is using this award to promote these original films from first-time filmmakers working on smaller budgets, and the future projects lined up by the nominated filmmakers here indicate how these awards have increased their visibility in the industry.
The promotion of individual actors through two categories also makes for interesting comparison. BIFA has its Most Promising Newcomer award, a fixture at the ceremony since its inaugural year in 1998, while BAFTA has the EE Rising Star Award, which has run since 2006. Eleven actors have been nominated for both awards, with their BIFA nomination always coming first; perhaps to be expected, given the ceremony’s earlier date and the closer-to-the-ground status of BIFA. More telling of the function of the two awards is the gap for some of the actors who have appeared in both categories. It’s worth noting that this is not quite like-for-like, as the BIFA prize is for British talent only, whereas BAFTA Award is open to actors of all nationalities (although tellingly has gone to a Brit on nine of thirteen occasions). However for Ben Whishaw and Will Poulter, six years passed between them being a ‘promising newcomer’ and a ‘rising star’; for Toby Kebbell, George McKay and John Boyega it was five. Crucially for Boyega and Poulter, despite having starred in popular British indies Son Of Rambow and Attack The Block, it was only when they scored roles in big-bucks successes Star Wars: The Force Awakens and We’re The Millers that their Rising Star nominations arrived. The BIFA Most Promising Newcomer nominees are delightfully talented, but appearing in projects of lesser acclaim and money, such as this year’s Chubby Funny (Harry Michell), Just Charlie (Harry Gilby) and Pin Cushion (Lily Newmark) – all absolutely worth checking out, by the way. Despite a lack of – or delayed – BAFTA recognition, they’re often on the path of a strong career – Michell is to direct Roger Allam and Derek Jacobi in his second feature, Gilby will play the young J.R.R. Tolkein in a film about the author, while Newmark has taken a lead role in Rudolph Herzog’s How To Sell A War and is a model for cosmetics behemoth Chanel’s ‘Chance’ fragrance. Most prominently, the audience favourite of the world’s biggest film right now is Black Panther’s Shuri, played by 2016 Most Promising Newcomer nominee Letitia Wright. It’s also notable that both Best Actor and Best Actress at the BIFAs, Josh O’Connor and Florence Pugh, did not make the relative categories at BAFTA, instead appearing in the Rising Star nominees.
The diversity of projects at both ceremonies makes any summary something of a generalisation; right now, though, BIFA exists to celebrate popular British work, but also to promote talented new filmmakers to a fresh audience. BAFTA is still more on the side of supporting already-established films and personalities, many of them from across the pond. That’s not to say that one is better than the other: there is space in film, and in the British film industry, for both ceremonies. But it is an indication that BIFA is more willing to take risks, recognize groundbreaking work and champion unknown talent years before its older sister. For those looking to spot trends and get ahead of the curve (or place some well-researched bets), BIFA is the place to look.