British films at the Oscars: is there a balance?

A year 2014 will be a year that the UK will always remember. After a big win at the Golden Globes and, of course, the BAFTAs, Brits also stole the night on 2nd of March at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, with huge success of the Britain’s ‘Gravity’ and ‘12 Years a Slave’.

Space drama Gravity, with its seven Oscars, owes it all to the stunning special effects produced by London-based Company Framestore. The winner of three Oscars, brutal and honest ‘12 Years a Slave’ – including the Best Picture award, deservedly so – was brilliantly designed by the British filmmaker Steve McQueen and starred London-born Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the main role.

But Brits’ effect on the year 2014 didn’t stop there: Oscar nominated ‘Philomena’, with brilliant Judi Dench in the main role as an Irish woman searching for her baby son, who was given to an American family by nuns, and Steve Coogan, in the role of political journalist, is as British as it can be (director, actors and writers all come from the strongest European kingdom); Somali pirates hijack drama ‘Captain Phillips’, nominated in six categories, was directed by Britain’s filmmaker Paul Greengrass; and last, but not the least, Steven Price, a musician from Nottingham, took home the award for the Best Original Score for ‘Gravity’.

In terms of filmmaking, the year 2014 will not be the only year Brits will be proud of. Let’s take a look at the last decade of the Oscars, focusing only on the British films nominated in the Best Picture category, and we will recognize a certain trend of success of the British films. For example, in 2004 Graham King, a Los Angeles-based English producer stood behind Martin Scorsese’s ‘Aviator, but lost the Best Picture Oscar to ‘Million Dollar Baby’ (that year, ‘Aviator’ took home the Oscar in five other categories). Two years after that, King’s finances paid off after producing another Scorsese’s stunning crime thriller ‘The Departed’. However, that year, 2006, ‘The Departed’ wasn’t the only film everybody spoke about. Another British diamond, Stephen Frears’s drama ‘The Queen’ left a footprint at the Oscars, with an unbelievable performance by the Oscar winner Dame Helen Mirren, in the role of Queen Elizabeth II. In 2007 Joe Wright’s ‘Atonement’ was nominated in seven categories, winning the Oscar for the Best Original Score.

The following year was all about one movie, a British drama about a young man who’s playing the “Who wants to be a millionaire? “quiz: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. After being nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning four Golden Globes and seven BAFTAs (including Best Film), it was expected that it will still the show on 81st Academy Awards. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ took eight out of ten Oscars, winning three: Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Till 2010 and the huge success of ‘The King’s Speech’, Brits had some dry spells. After winning seven BAFTAs and four Golden Globes, Tom Hooper’s historical drama about King George VI received 12 Oscar nominations, while winning four of them, including Best Picture, Best Achievement in Directing, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor in a Leading Role.

We may notice a certain trend of British films winning major awards in the recent decade, but is there a balance of British films at the Oscars? Baring in mind that not until 40’s were any British films at the Oscars (Hitchcock was the first British director to be nominated for Best Director awards in 1940 and the first film was Henry V in 1945), and that American and British films use the same language, can we really say that there is a balance?

“The success of British films has been amazing. However, I think films should stand as themselves, irrelevant of their origin or language. Be they British, Turkish, Greek or Polish. A great film is a great film whatever language it is in. The balance is really immaterial”, said Bill Stephens, a member and a voter at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Bill emphasized that the number of British films at the Oscars probably increased, especially if we compare across all 86 years of the Oscars.

“I suppose one has to say that they are also more visible. But they are more visible because they are marketed better by the American distributors who spend a small fortune doing this to enhance profile and potential sales to all media. Again though, one has to ask, “when is a British film a British film”, said Bill.

The general notion about the films at the BAFTAs and the Oscars, and the awards’ outcome, is that film fans use the Oscars as a general reference, rather than BAFTAs.

“Oscars are the oldest film awards in the world and the most prestigious. The Academy Awards are watched by approximately 10 times annually. Recently the BAFTAs very cleverly switched their dates to run before the Oscars and, within the industry, gave themselves a better profile”, said Bill and added that distributors and the media pay more attention to the Oscars, due to it’s global importance.

Allegedly, Gravity, which stars US actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, caused controversy after being listed as a British film, and winning the main award at the BAFTAs. This brings us to the importance of the balance of language and the production of a film, before hitting the award season.

“This has always been a contentious area in film classification. If the film [Gravity] was made here, and it was, then it can be classified as British. Also the director classifies himself as ‘British’, because he lives here and the producer is British. Many American films are made here in England and classify themselves as American”, said Bill and added that from his point of view the film should be by where the main money comes from. “And clearly Gravity was mainly financed by Warner Brothers, an American company.”

While BAFTAs set aside categories to honor homegrown films, such as award for Outstanding British Film and Outstanding Debut by a British Director, at the Oscars those individual categories don’t exist.

“Personally I don’t think the BAFTAs should have a ‘Best British Film’, it’s ridiculous. Imagine if the Oscars had a Best American Film! There would be a big outcry”, said Bill.

It remains to be seen whether the number of British films at the Oscars will increase even further, and whether that can define the overall quality of the movies in the industry. It is also uncertain when can we call a British film British, and whether the language plays a bigger role than the movies’ images itself. As Bill Stephens from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said “a great film is a great film whatever language it is in”, we cannot but think that maybe that balance is irrelevant, and that we should look unto a movie as a pure art expression, no matter from which country it comes from.






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