Oscars 2021: Why the Academy should take cue from BAFTA, and implement a jury system to ensure equity

Instead of a 9,000-strong awards body, a culturally diverse jury of a dozen film professionals across various technical fields is more likely to churn out the cream of the crop.

Prahlad Srihari April 21, 2021 08:04:17 IST
Oscars 2021: Why the Academy should take cue from BAFTA, and implement a jury system to ensure equity

Representational image

The BAFTAs have long been labelled a younger — and if you ask Youn Yuh-jung, "snobbier" — brother to the Oscars. Both started off as self-congratulatory rituals of, by and for the white men in cinema. The awards for the best in the business only appeared to be governed by democratic systems. Recognising the work of minorities was the last thing on their minds.

Widespread outrage in recent years has prompted measures to boost diversity. Yet, the demographics of the nominees and winners are still heavily skewed towards those who make up these awards bodies’ majority. Given the chance to rethink their votes, the white members will still vote for 12 Years a Slave, but not Get Out. True to fraternal tradition, the Oscars' Best Pictures have frequently corresponded with those of the BAFTAs. Few will complain if it does this year however.

Pushing for a more inclusive membership, the British academy and their sibling from across the Atlantic have taken measures to increase the percentage of minority members. But this hasn't had the knock-on effect on the make-up of the nominees. In 2019, BAFTA mandated BFI’s Diversity Standards, which films had to meet in order to be eligible. But the following year, the members still failed to nominate a single non-white actor or female director. In its aftermath, among the many changes BAFTA instituted, was an equity-minded jury.

Under this new system which was introduced this year, the acting and directing chapters voted to determine the preliminary longlists in their respective categories. To elaborate, in the Best Director category, the directing chapter ranked their top 20, out of which the top eight female and top eight male filmmakers were longlisted. A specially selected jury, with intersectional diversity in mind, picked an additional two female and two male filmmakers to round out the list. After deliberating on the longlist, the jury whittled the nominations down to the official six, on which all BAFTA members then voted to decide the winner. Similarly, the acting chapter ranked their top 15 in the four acting categories (Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress), longlisting the top 12. The jury then selected the remaining three from the performances ranked from 13-22, before selecting the final six for the members to vote on.

Oscars 2021 Why the Academy should take cue from BAFTA and implement a jury system to ensure equity

BAFTA statuette

And if would you believe it, it worked. The make-up of the nominees will attest to that. Four out of the six Best Director nominees were women: Chloé Zhao (who eventually won) for Nomadland, Shannon Murphy for Babyteeth, Jasmila Zbanic for Quo Vadis Aida?, and Sarah Gavron for Rocks. Two-thirds of the acting nominees (16 out of 24) were non-white. Some of 2020's best performances, like Alfre Woodard in Clemency and Dominique Fishback in Judas and the Black Messiah, didn't make it to the final five of the Oscars or Screen Actors Guild Awards. But they did at the BAFTAs.

Another reassuring highlight was seeing non-English-language features cross over into marquee categories like Best Director. Yes, the Oscars also nominated Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round, but the BAFTAs also had, as previously mentioned, Zbanic in the race. It's hard to imagine a line-up of this make-up if not for gender parity provisions during the nomination process. In categories without jury deliberation, the nominees are as obvious as they come. For instance, compare the academy-voted Best Film nominees (Nomadland, Promising Young Woman, The Father, The Mauritanian, The Trial of the Chicago 7) to those of the jury-selected Best British film, which not only includes indies like Calm with Horses, Limbo, Mogul Mowgli, and Rocks, but even genre films like His House and Saint Maud. All this only proves why jury intervention should be the norm across every awards category and, daresay, every awards ceremony.

Oscars 2021 Why the Academy should take cue from BAFTA and implement a jury system to ensure equity

Oscar statuette

The Oscars do employ a jury system, but only for picking the nominees for Best International Film. Consider how its process works in all the other categories. The voting members of the Academy determine the nominees in their corresponding fields. So, actors pick the best lead and supporting actors, directors pick the best directors, cinematographers pick the best cinematographers, etc. Everyone gets to pick the Best Picture nominees. Come final voting, everyone is eligible to vote on all 23 categories to decide the winners. But letting voters pick nominees within their own branches is an incestuous process which leaves no room for outliers. So, you end up with nominees that simply bolster the voter's own prejudices over what constitutes the best in their field.

Moreover, you can't trust the Academy members to make informed choices when a lot of them don't even watch all the films in consideration. This despite being provided access to an online screening platform, if not sent screener DVDs to their doorstep. Just this year, an Academy voter confessed to not having watched all the documentaries due to an aversion to watching movies on the computer. Another voter admitted, in a Vulture interview in 2017, that a lot of his peers hadn't watched Best Picture nominee Get Out because it wasn't an "Oscar film." The Hollywood Reporter's 2015 study found that at least six percent of the voters hadn't watched the year’s Best Picture nominees. 

Being an Academy member is surely a privilege, and with that privilege comes some responsibility. This kind of apathy calls into question the legitimacy of the whole thing. Then, there's the susceptibility to lobbying. If voters can be influenced by which studio threw the best cocktail party or which Hollywood star was the most cordial at that party, the Oscars are about as democratic as the elections in China.

Instead of a 9,000-strong awards body, a culturally diverse jury of a dozen film professionals across various technical fields is more likely to churn out the cream of the crop.

Carefully selected each year, the jury must be held accountable throughout the process, with measures ensuring transparency and no studio influences. Sure, there will always be some omission and subsequent indignation. Personal preferences abound in every voting system. The process of judging the best of the best always carries an implicit bias. But whose decision would you rather trust: a dozen of noted jury members who have watched all the films in contention or thousands of anonymous voters who pick and choose what they want to watch? The success of the BAFTAs' jury system is cause for it to be implemented as the industry standard. And its big brother should take note.

Oscars 2021 will air in India on 26 April.

(Also read — Oscars 2021: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross' Original Score nominations for Mank, Soul are testament to their versatility)

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