In Conversation: A Spotlight on the Awards Season

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Here are highlights of a recent interview with renowned film producer, and current director of Film 4, Daniel Battsek. He was interviewed by Screen International journalist Charles Gant.

It’s an insightful look at the awards season and how nominations come about.

THE INTERVIEW

Daniel Battsek, executive producer of 2020’s The Personal History of David Copperfield, was interviewed by film journalist Charles Gant in the Olympic Studios on 6th February 2020.

The event provided us with insights into the intricate voting process for the BAFTAs and Oscars along with his predictions and opinions of the many films of this year’s award season.

Having been the executive producer of Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (and greenlit films such as Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite), Daniel Battsek has vast experience with the awards season voting process. He has been a voter, of course.

Battsek answered several questions and discussed the most important matters regarding this season.

This includes the Home Vote, Netflix’s controversial model, his predicted outcome of the Oscars, the voting process, and its problems.

BAFTA, THE ‘HOME VOTE’ & BATTSEK’S VIEWS ON 1917

The first topic discussed dove straight into the voting season. David Battsek then went on to describe the unusual nature of 1917’s release, explaining why its chances at the Oscars were diminished.

Gant: ‘To what degree do you think that it is a kind of home vote, and do you think it will be repeated on something?’

Battsek: ‘I think there is a very good chance that it will be repeated. Yes there was a certain amount of a home vote although BAFTA are not renowned necessarily for being particularly patriotic. For example, David Copperfield which -I think- had plenty of reason to be included. As well as wonderful films like the souvenir. But that film takes place in a foreign country, is directed by a Brazilian, is written by an Australian.’

‘But what I’m saying is that BAFTA doesn’t necessarily support the home team. 1917 has got, as they say, momentum. It didn’t do what many films do, which is to play at a variety of film festivals, which give kudus to the film. So when it’s the can film festival, Toronto or Teluri or the London film festival or New York film festival. Academy films like to play in order to sort of give a standard of quality. 1917 wasn’t ready for any of those. [It] arrived on the scene very late, was always seen as the film who everybody had their own favourite in the race, were worried about. But, it turned a great film and really ambitious film.’

‘But I mean 1917 obviously is the big winner of the BAFTA.’

‘And the other thing that it has under its name which is another major sort of persuasive factor in academy voters minds is that it has been a big hit at the box office. And that, mixture of quality, creativity, critical response and box office is a very heavy mixture, both for US and UK. Then winning the best film at the BAFTAs and some of these other guilds. Each category of nomination has its own field. There’s the actors guild, there’s the DGA director’s guild and the PGA producer’s guild. 1917 definitely won the PGA. It didn’t win the WGA, since there’s pretty much no dialogue in it.’

PARASITE THE BEST ENSEMBLE

The Film 4 director also briefly touched on Parasite in relation to Best Ensemble, and implied that it could overtake 1917 for Best Picture (which, of course, it went on to do).

Battsek: ‘The Best Ensemble went to Parasite which I think is the most likely film that could overtake 1917. I’d Be very surprised if any other film other than 1917 or parasite win Best Picture, but I’ve been wrong before.’

THE NETFLIX MODEL

The Netflix model of a short showing in cinema followed by an immediate delivery to the service was explained, along with the negative reaction from Academy voters and studios.

Gant: ‘Can we talk about the shape of this season then? Cause I agree with you about box office. If a film is getting critical adulation and is being liked by people and it’s actually delivering audiences, I think that is a factor. But there are two films that were very strong back in September: The Irishman and Mary’s Story both of which I think have faded dramatically and, of course, we don’t know what the box office is because they reach most of their audience on Netflix.’

Battsek: ‘Netflix won’t allow those things to be copied. Yeah, I mean both those films, as you say, they both played through September festivals. There was an enormous amount of critical response to them. And then because of Netflix, they had this sort of strange hybrid release where they played at a few cinemas very successfully. But there are quite a few cinemas that won’t play Netflix films because of the fact that Netflix are going to put them on. Even though they’ve relented and given them a bit of a window where the film is exclusively in cinemas, the film is then immediately brought to their service worldwide. Immediately the film is available.’

‘But there is still this tremendous antipathy from studios, from a lot of the rest of the industry towards the Netflix model because they’re hugely competitive and I think a mixture of that and a mixture of the fact that I do think, again I don’t know how people have responded to The Irishman, I do think that the Irishman is a film that, in order to get full impact, one needs to be sitting in the cinema. As opposed to, proudly, as my friends have told me, seeing it over three nights.’

‘And now there’s actually every chance it [The Irishman] will win nothing actually.’

PREDICTING THE OSCARS

Battsek described how the Oscars and BAFTAs are predicted very early. This is done by working out the odds of each film, accounting for any negative press around it, the time of release and finally the film itself:

Battsek: ‘There are various websites and bloggers where people try and work out the odds of which films are likely to win in various categories and they have people I’ve never heard of whose sole job it is to work which are the favourites in all categories. Everything from Best Picture to Best Animated Short. They’ll have their point of view as to what the most likely winner is. And as you say you see the fluctuation of films as time goes by. Some of these guilds, as we talked about. Sometimes, not exactly acts of God, but things can come into play where a bad press story, or an actor or actress saying the wrong thing in a press junket. And suddenly a film, and their particular chances plummet down the chart. All the experts on Gold Derby are saying either 1917 or Parasite. The Irishman, which at one point had certainly both supporting actors as one of them possibly winning all sort of craft for the special effects was right up there, has sort of disappeared.’

‘And Marriage Story is the same, actually. I mean, Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson were for original screenplay. And it’s still got a chance, but I’d say less likely now than when they started their journey in September.’

‘I think if it’s Original Screenplay, it seems to be a bit of a battle between Parasite and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’

THE VOTING PROCESS

The voting process is quite complicated. As Battsek explained, Academy voters’ knowledge clearly differs greatly from the publications pool of less informed voters.

Battsek: ‘Screen international has started to print what they call award whispers or something.’

‘It is interesting thinking what they are going to vote for and why and so you get a bit of a window into an academy voter’s mind they’re quite particular, pretty smart and they’re pretty up with everything they’ve seen everything and so they’re the ideal voters.’

‘Publications have their own kind of own pool and they have some perhaps less well-informed voters and they are always deliberately picked just to show the breadth of taste and Americans as well, cause it’s always a surprise that voters tend to be based here. And people are suggesting Parasite isn’t an American film, they don’t understand why it’s eligible for Best Picture. Or little women is full of British actresses so I’m not going to vote for them. I mean there were some really surprising prejudice comments coming from academy voters.’

PARASITE’S CHANCES AT THE OSCARS

It was also discussed how Parasite had the opportunity to be the first foreign language film to win Best Picture. This it duly did, making history in the process:

Battsek: ‘There are some extraordinary things that happened this year and parasites is one of them. The fact that Parasite would in fact be the first foreign language film to ever win Best Picture would be pretty extraordinary. You also have a film that I don’t know if many people have seen, an incredible film called Honeyland. Which is in both now as they call it the international film. It’s nominated as best international film but it’s a documentary so it’s also nominated as a documentary. And it’s a kind of favourite. Parasite almost has to win the international film category which means that Honeyland may be allowed to win documentary.’

‘That would annoy me. But it just sort of shows that the academy has talked for a while now about trying I change its sort of scope if you like. There are some signs that it is doing that.’

UNCUT GEMS

The Netflix film starring Adam Sandler was mentioned, being one of the films that didn’t make it:

Gant: ‘Can we talk about some of the films that haven’t made it? Uncut Gems.’

Battsek: ‘To me, Uncut Gems is an absolute masterpiece. But I think the problem is that it’s just a bit too rock and roll for the majority of academy voters.’

[Regarding the premiere] ‘I could tell there was definitely a vibe in there that was not right.’

‘The whole Uncut Gems team was there for the Q&A afterwards. The Safdie brothers, Adam Sandler and who those who don’t know Kevin Garmett who is in the film and is a massive basketball icon. Sitting in front of about 20 ancient academy voters. But I felt right at that moment that I don’t think this is gonna make the grade for academy voters.’

Uncut Gems has, at least, received appreciation from the likes of the Critics’ Choice Awards. It was nominated for Best Picture, with Sandler’s excellent performance also earning him many nominations.

The Golden Raspberry Awards even nominated him for a Razzie Redeemer Award due to his sterling efforts.

RICHARD JEWELL

Gant: ‘What about Clint Eastwood’s new movie Richard Jewell?’

Battsek: ‘I actually haven’t seen Richard Jewell, but I think that at least suffered.

1917 had the advantage of coming in very late and being the new film and getting all the momentum and doing very well at the box office. Richard Jewell would have had the opposite effect. It came in late, didn’t get great reviews, didn’t do well at the box office. And then just to add to it a scandal about the character Olivia wild plays who’s a journalist. It’s supposed to be a true story in which the film depicted how she got her information, but that’s not how she got her information and so it had an immediate crowd impact.’

ROCKET MAN VS BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Battsek described how Rocket Man, a less serious but enjoyable film about Elton John’s life, wasn’t as successful a film as Bohemian Rhapsody.

He felt this is because it didn’t carry the same weight in terms of story:

Gant: ‘What about Rocket Man? It’s not quite what we’ve seen, it has made its headway. ‘

Battsek: ‘I mean it’s not really that good is it. Well, it’s very enjoyable but I don’t think really is an academy film I mean I think that’s where probably… it did quite well in the BAFTAS and I think that was just the love of Elton John and flag-waving.’

Gant: ‘I’m not sure that it’s that different from Bohemian Rhapsody as a creative outcome.’

Battsek: ‘No, but I think with Bohemian Rhapsody talks to another way in which academy campaigns are formed. You know Bohemian rhapsody again, I mean it’s very enjoyable but not a particularly brilliantly crafted film. But it sort of had a narrative attached to it. It felt like it was a story.

It felt like it was a story about something quite important. I guess you know Freddie Mercury’s life is the fact that he died of AIDS. That whole storyline I think was the one that appeals to Academy voters, not that Elton John’s story isn’t interesting but it’s more about sex, drugs, and rock and roll parties and hairpieces. And that isn’t quite as important as some of the topics that Bohemian Rhapsody is trying to deal with.’

PROBLEMS WITH THE VOTING PROCESS

Battsek: ‘And that’s another issue. I can’t remember how many DVDs that got posted through my letterbox. A huge number. And you’re only supposed to vote for films you’ve seen. I think a lot of those films you mentioned might have a profile in US but not much of a profile over here in the UK.

To watch etc., etc. Christmas and you’re with your family and it’s like you want it to be easier and easier to access the TV sp that you could watch every single film on DVD.

You know that goes to the cast of just creating DVDs. I remember from my days when I was running American phone companies that $30,000 hit straight off just to create the DVDs. And that’s before the parties, screenings, and consultants.’

ON DAVID COPPERFIELD

The Personal History of David Copperfield, for which the Film 4 director was executive producer, was also discussed.

There was a screening of the film after this Q&A, so Battsek described its relation to the BAFTAs and the Oscars.

Gant: Can we talk about you film that we are about to see? David Copperfield? I think you have a slight advantage that your film wasn’t in this year’s Oscar race. Would you agree?

Battsek: ‘The film is handled by Fox searchlight in the US, who are a master at academy campaigns. But they already had JoJo Rabbit, and in fact hidden life which didn’t end up performing. They also ran David Copperfield on the side so they decided to have a release date outside of this year’s academy campaign.

We felt that it had a really great chance to get four or five BAFTA nominations but it ended up getting one for casting director, which again was sort of weird because that’s the first year that that’s ever been a category. And the fact that the casting director got nominated but none of the cast got nominated. Slightly ironic. We were in fact wrong though, that we thought we could run a campaign out of the UK alone.

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