What Can Directors Guild and BAFTA Awards Tell Us About the Oscars?

In an unprecedented season, it may not make much sense to turn to precedent about pre-Oscar contests


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In a normal year, this weekend’s Directors Guild Awards and EE British Academy Film Awards would go a long way toward clarifying the Academy Awards picture only a few days before Oscar voting begins next Thursday.

But as we hardly need to remind you, this is not a normal year.

Sure, the person who wins the Outstanding Achievement in Feature Film award from the DGA will probably go on to win the Best Director Oscar, just as they have all but four times in this century and all but eight times in the 72 years. And sure, that might give that director’s film a leg up in the Best Picture race, which the DGA winner has taken more than 50 times.

And when it comes to BAFTA, which puts on the British Academy Film Awards, it wouldn’t come as a total surprise if a dozen or even more of its winners also triumph at the Oscars: Last year, winners in 13 of the 18 BAFTA categories that are also given out at the Oscars went on to win the later award as well.

But in 2021, precursor awards feel less significant than ever before. Partly, that’s because the Academy is rapidly changing; after the #OscarsSoWhite protests of 2015 and 2016, AMPAS has expanded its voting membership from 6,261 to 9,300 in five years, with a huge number of those new members based outside the United States. The overlap between Academy voters and U.S. guild members is still a significant one, but it’s getting smaller.

More than that, though, 2020 and 2021 have been unprecedented years in many ways, with the movie industry and the awards business turned upside down by the global pandemic. And in unprecedented times, does it really make sense to turn to precedent to figure out who’s going to win?

Maybe not. Without live screenings, without in-person Q&As and meet ‘n’ greets, without non-virtual awards shows or film festivals, it’s risky to assume that the usual rules apply. This could be a year when things will go the way we think and “Nomadland” will win Best Picture, but it could also be a year of a picture-director split, or even a year in which the Best Picture winner is a film that isn’t even nominated for Best Director.

That said, the DGA Awards on Saturday feel entirely predictable. So far, Chloé Zhao has won almost every directing award there is to win, and there’s little reason to think that she won’t win this one, too – and, for that matter, little reason to think that she won’t also win the directing Oscar. Directing has been a category with few surprises in recent years; if “Nomadland” can win over the Producers Guild, it can certainly win over the Directors Guild.

Sunday’s BAFTA awards (which will be preceded by a Saturday ceremony handing out prizes in the below-the-line categories) are trickier. In an attempt to overcome a history of bypassing nonwhite nominees that was even more pronounced than the Academy’s, BAFTA overhauled its rules last fall, allowing small committees to have more input into the “longlists” from which nominees would be chosen.

The result is a slate in which only half of the Oscar acting, writing and Best Picture nominees were also nominated by BAFTA voters, with the missing actors including Viola Davis for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Carey Mulligan for “Promising Young Woman,” Andra Day for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” Gary Oldman for “Mank,” Steven Yeun for “Minari,” Glenn Close for “Hillbilly Elegy,” Olivia Colman for “The Father” and Sacha Baron Cohen for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” among others.

Oscar favorites like Daniel Kaluuya and the late Chadwick Boseman will still have a chance to pick up BAFTA awards, as will plenty of people and films in the below-the-line categories: There are at least two Oscar nominees in every BAFTA category, with a three-for-five or even a four-for-five match most of the time.

But will it really tell us much about the Oscars if, say, “Nomadland” wins again? Or if “Chicago 7” pulls off a BAFTA win to go with its SAG ensemble award? Or if “Promising Young Woman” or “The Father” uses its home-court advantage to win the top prize? Probably not, although it’ll be very tempting to look at the show as a big momentum shift if “Promising Young Woman” or “Chicago 7” does win.

And if “Nomadland” does win, which I suspect is the likeliest outcome, will its rivals then insist that that’s good for them, since no BAFTA winner has gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars since “12 years a Slave” in 2014? Again, probably not, though it’ll be just as tempting for campaigners and pundits to trot out that statistic.

Resist the temptation. This is 2021 and we’re close to the end of an awards season like no other. Two big awards shows are taking place this weekend, but we shouldn’t trust either one of them. Instead, we should relax and not worry about precedents in this unprecedented season — which, thankfully, will be over in only two weeks and two days, not that anybody’s counting.

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