Gilbey on Film: the Oscars grouch

Why make the Best Film category larger? It's obvious who's going to win.


The obvious change to this year's Academy Awards nominations is the decision to override the five-film limit on Best Picture nominees that has been in force since 1944. Now ten titles are competing for the prize that tells idiots which movies they should ask their teenage children to download illegally on their behalf.

For all the difference it will make to the end result, the Academy might as well have expanded the category to 50 films, or 4,423 films, or simply everything that has ever been released in the civilised world since the Lumière brothers first announced in the pages of Heat magazine that they were planning something "totally massive". It's a cinch to look at that ten-strong tally and pick out the titles that would scarcely have been acknowledged in an ordinary year.

Under the old system, the nominees wouldn't have stretched beyond Avatar, The Hurt Locker (hooray!), Inglourious Basterds (hooray again!), Precious and Up in the Air. Loosening the elastic has accommodated two deserving nominees that don't stand a chance (District 9 and Up), as well as An Education, which would be this year's Little Film That Could, if only Precious didn't already occupy that role more convincingly. Just for a lark, there's also something populist (the Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blind Side, which opens here next month) and something gormlessly arty (A Serious Man).

The new system is a form of sucking-up, necessitated by the mini-scandal of a colossal hit like The Dark Knight missing out in the categories that count. The ten-film rule placates the studios behind those pictures that would not normally be nominated. And it gives the fanboys something to root for now that their favourite film is ostensibly in the running.

A bit unnecessary, that, because the fanboys' choice, Avatar, is going to snatch Best Picture anyway. First Titanic, now this: James Cameron is such a consummate highwayman that maybe we should all start referring to him as Dick. (As in Turpin, obviously.)

At least Avatar hasn't made any impression in the two writing categories. (How could it? It's only the film's 3-D effects that have distracted most people from noticing that the script barely scrapes into the one-dimensional.) Hope springs eternal in the writing nominations. In the Loop certainly deserves its Best Adapted Screenplay nod. If it wins, can Malcolm Tucker do the acceptance speech, please?

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will be hosting the awards ceremony on 7 March, teaming up again after their recent gromcom* It's Complicated in a crafty piece of cross-promotion which will benefit that film's forthcoming DVD release no end.

But it doesn't really matter who's holding the microphone and dishing out the spiky-seeming yet crypto-congratulatory quips. Surely the perfect Oscar show would feature the corpse of Bob Hope, reanimated with the help of technology pioneered by the Avatar boffins, performing a four-hour soft-shoe shuffle to Radiohead's "No Surprises" while Ron Howard, James Cameron and other undeserving recipients of the Best Director prize receive a Thai massage on a bed that is slowly revealed to be a vast and fully working griddle.

(*Gromcom: a romcom in which the participants are grey/silver-haired and/or some way outside the usual 18-35 casting range. I made that term up. You can have it.)

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.