Baftas' status at stake in diversity debate, say film industry insiders

Challenging Hollywood by recognising more minority artists risks ‘deflating the balloon’

Changes that Bafta needs to make to ensure it is more representative could cost the event its status as the second most important film awards in the world, industry figures have said on the eve of the biggest night in the British film calendar.

This year’s buildup has been dominated by the debate over the lack of diversity for some of Bafta’s most prestigious awards, after no actors of colour were included in any of the major acting categories, and no women were nominated in the best director category.

Earlier this week, the Belle star Gugu Mbatha-Raw said there was a stark lack of inclusivity at awards shows, while Steve McQueen criticised Bafta specifically. After the nominations were announced McQueen told the Guardian the awards risked becoming redundant and irrelevant unless it took reform seriously.

Bafta said it was disappointed with the nominations but described the lack of diversity as an industry-wide issue, before announcing a review of its voting process that could reshape it before next year’s event.

Figures from British film, including some Bafta voters and former winners, have told the Guardian the changes it needs to make could be painful for such an established organisation and would require challenging the Hollywood system.

Stephen Woolley, the Carol and Made in Dagenham producer who has been nominated for more than 50 Baftas, blamed the lack of diversity in some areas on the fact smaller films were competing with huge Hollywood campaigns pushing their favoured films.

“It’s not a fair process,” he said. “The studios get behind a film and spend a huge amount of money. For them, it’s about getting kudos and satisfying the people who have made those films because then they will work with them again.”

Deena Wallace and Amy Gustin, who run the British Independent Film awards (Bifa), believe they have found a formula to negate Hollywood’s spending power. (Netflix spent a reported $30m (£23m) on its Oscar campaign last year). The pair said by using juries that must undergo unconscious bias training before determining nominees and insisting on no direct contact between studios and voters when promoting films, they were able to ensure a more varied set of nominations.

“It’s really hard to get an organisation that big, which is ultimately run by its members through the committee structure, to change,” said Wallace, who previously worked at Bafta. “It’s like trying to turn a supertanker around.”

Wallace said Bafta was in a position where it could be forced to choose between its high status, where it is “part of the same conversation as the Oscars”, or being more diverse and risk attracting fewer A-list stars. “If they start to diverge from what the Oscars are doing and start to reward a very different set of actors then it loses a lot of its international profile and that is a risk for them.”

She added: “To some extent, it’s a risk for the UK film industry because it’s important for us to have an awards ceremony that is basically second only to the Oscars.”

“We’re a British awards show that is fair, that is championing British talent and is diverse,” Gustin said. “But we don’t have Brad Pitt.”

Woolley agreed pushing for change could risk alienating big Hollywood players. “The studios that fly over the actors, pay for the tables – they’re the ones paying the money to push those big films,” he said. “If those tables and flights aren’t paid for and the red carpet isn’t what those studios want, then the whole balloon will start to deflate.”

Edward Watts and Waad al-Kateab, the directors of For Sama, which became the most nominated documentary in Bafta history with four nominations, including one for best British film, said they managed to succeed despite not having a huge campaign machine. “In one way I feel more proud that I’ve made it in this space,” said al-Kateab, when asked about the diversity row.

Watts said he was surprised by the nominations. “When the diversity row blew up we were so shocked, partly because in the documentary world it really isn’t the case,” he said. “The diversity row is so important but our focus has been so much on getting people to engage with this humanitarian crisis and war crimes that are still taking place daily.”

The Baftas will take place on Sunday 2 February at the Royal Albert Hall, London.


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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