When Alfonso Cuarón won the DGA prize Saturday night, I laid out my thoughts on why "Gravity" should be considered the de facto frontrunner in this year's Best Picture race. With a PGA award (albeit in this case half of one) and a DGA honor in tow, it tends to be a done deal this time of year. But this isn't a typical year by any stretch.
One thing that could end up playing against "Gravity" in the end is an elongated phase two. The Winter Olympics have stretched things out and that's brutal for any film looking to maintain a certain buzz wave. At the moment, "Gravity" is cresting high on that wave (with added killer, relentless, epic new TV spots on key programming like last night's Grammy Awards). But "12 Years a Slave" has been chugging along since the Golden Globes, steadily building steam. And it could hit a real high note just two days into the final phase of Oscar voting begins this year.
Yes, for the first time in quite a while (if ever), the BAFTA Awards could make a real difference. For years the ceremony across the pond was a more singular affair. For a number of years, in fact, it used to take place after the Oscars, away from the fray. The voting system used to be an inverse of the Academy's, the entire membership voting on nominees across the various fields while the individual branches decided the winners in each category (save for Best Film and the acting categories, which were still open to the full membership).
However, all of that has slowly changed over the last decade. Beginning with the 2001 ceremony, the BAFTA Awards moved out of April and went back to taking place before the Oscars. But then that date began to creep up even more, eventually putting the show close to the start of Oscar voting in the first or second week of February. And then, finally, in the lead-up to the 2012-2013 awards season, the group completed its transition to Oscars shadow dancer by switching its process to mirror the Academy's, individual branches voting on nominees and the overall membership voting on winners.
"The BAFTAs aren't what they used to be," a production-based industry insider with BAFTA ties across the pond tells me. "'Filth' and James McAvoy would have made it in here 10 years ago, truly great British cinema. Even [Best British Film nominee] 'The Selfish Giant' had to be saved by committee."
All of that is to highlight the point that, more than ever, the BAFTA Awards seem to be in a real place of affecting the buzz wave this year as we find ourselves in a dead heat for the Best Picture Oscar, "Gravity" in one corner, "12 Years a Slave" in the other. The former led nominations with the Brits, but only just, as its Best British Film nomination sent it ahead of "12 Years" and "American Hustle" on the final tally.
That actually ended up being an interesting bone of contention for some members of the organization, though. In reporting on the nominations, our own Guy Lodge called the film "newly British," noting his surprise that "BAFTA effectively claimed it as their own" with that Best British Film nomination. As it turns out, though, it's entirely possible "Gravity" misses out on both the Best Film and Best British Film trophies as a response.
"It seems quite a few are reactionary voting for '12 Years' in Best Film and 'Philomena' in Best British Film because they feel 'Gravity' doesn't truly feel like a British film (even though it genuinely is one, unlike 'Saving Mr. Banks')," my BAFTA insider says. "And a lot of them felt they were going to vote for '12 Years' in Best British Film, but then it didn't get nominated there, hence the support in Best Film."
Steve McQueen's film passed the UK's Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) test for consideration as a "British film," so it is a bit odd that it didn't make the cut in the category. But that only seems to be galvanizing some members into supporting it. "People are truly proud of it," the insider says. "BAFTA-winning British director, British cast (mostly). Plus, it's just opened here, so the press was high on it right when ballots came out."
I'm hearing there are plenty of members just sweep-voting the film, in fact, meaning it could walk away with wins for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay just two days after Oscar ballots hit mailboxes (and inboxes). Yes, Cuarón could hit his first real hiccup with BAFTA (not that his missing there would greatly affect his standing on these shores — with or without a Best Picture Oscar for "Gravity," his award for directing seems secure). Below-the-line votes seem to be spread out a bit between the two films.
If suddenly "12 Years a Slave" looks like a muscular frontrunner coming out of the BAFTA Awards, then you can bet it will encourage some Academy voters who have shied away from watching it (there are still a number) to finally do so. And it would certainly go a long way toward fortifying conviction in supporters and/or influencing fence-sitters.
(It also, by the way, seems that the Coen brothers' masterful "Inside Llewyn Davis" was met with the same collective shrug in BAFTA-land that it was over here. "It was my favorite film of the year, yet I haven't met a single BAFTA voter yet who liked it," our insider says.)
So the tide may be on the verge of turning. Academy members were quite enamored with "Gravity" after it released. It was a consistent topic of conversation for months and seemed to be the one simmering as a dominant force throughout the season. But maybe some of the high is wearing off. "Everybody I'm talking to is switching to '12 Years' because it's the important film," says one publicist affiliated with neither contender.
At the end of the day, though, none of these shifts are likely to settle anything in the minds of those gunning for the gold. Even films like "The Wolf of Wall Street" are finding traction and could get a BAFTA boost: the film ended up scoring the highest opening weekend of Martin Scorsese's career in the UK last week and Leonardo DiCaprio's second-highest. In a BAFTA Best Actor field bereft of Oscar frontrunner Matthew McConaughey, any votes not going to "12 Years" star Chiwetel Ejiofor appear to be going to DiCaprio, I'm hearing. That would be bad news for Focus Features, because if any of the other Best Actor Oscar nominees has an angle on upsetting McConaughey's apple cart, it may well be DiCaprio.
"There is a hell of a long time between now and ballots even going out," another publicist tells me. "Things could change a lot. Nobody is sitting down and rolling over right now; everyone thinks they can win something."
Would you expect anything less of the most competitive Oscar race in recent memory?
(Final note: I'm finding I have even more to say about all of this, about the nastiness of these sorts of competitions, how both of these films are masterful pieces of work from consummate craftsmen and to see them shedding blood on the battlefield is tough to watch. But I'll save it for now.)