The British are Coming!
The victory speech is now more well known than the film that prompted it — Chariots of Fire that won 4 Oscars in 1982.
On winning the award for Best Original Screenplay, Yorkshireman Colin Welland quoted US independence war hero Paul Revere to the American audience,
“The British are coming!”
Such confidence from a Brit was rather unexpected, especially considering the dross the British film industry had regularly made throughout the 1970s.
And for a while, Welland’s pronouncement of a British Hollywood invasion seemed prophetic. In the following year, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi won 8 awards. Subsequent years saw a poorer return for Brits, and the general (Hollywood) consensus is that Welland was wrong. The British stayed at home.
But is that opinion correct? Over 35 years has now passed since Welland’s speech. It’s time to have a second look, and we can use data from the awards to reassess his statement.
The easiest place to answer this question is using data from wikipedia and the page “List of British Academy Award nominees and winners on wikipedia”. This data is crowd-sourced and so we should remember that there is the possibility of errors.
We will compare the 35 years before 1982, and the subsequent 35 years up to 2017. Twenty-two award categories span that entire period; ‘Best Makeup and Hairstyling’ that started in 1981 and ‘Best Animated Feature’ in 2001 are excluded from this analysis.
Let’s start by summarising how well the British have done at the Oscars. To simplify the analysis the individual categories are grouped into 7 similar ones.
The chart below shows the running total of British nominations and winners since 1947 to 2017. Since 1982 all the groups have continued on an upward trajectory, Brits still winning and being nominated in similar numbers year after year. Britain does well in the Visual categories. This reflects the world-class skills and facilities in Britain recognised over decades.
Now let’s total the nominations before and after Welland’s speech. On the surface there appears to be truth in Welland’s assertion. The British have been nominated a hell of a lot more since 1982.
By then totalling up the nominations by the 7 categories, the chart below shows the big gains, post-speech, are in the Visual, Songs and Films categories. Categories where teams of people are jointly working together. There are smaller gains in Screenplay, Animated and Documentaries. For Acting it remains unchanged.
Songs and Films have seen an increase in the average number of people nominated per film. The Visual categories have seen a slight decrease in the average number of people nominated per film, though overall this has far been outweighed by the massive increase in the number of films being nominated.
The likely reason is the rules on the nomination criteria for categories is constantly changing. More films can usually get nominated and so the net result is that there is a greater opportunity for people to be nominated.
For example, in the Best Visual Effects award, a category Brits do well in, there was, for a number of years, a maximum of three films nominated. This then increased up to 14 films, and decreased to only 5 films since 2010. The number of British films getting nominated in this category has increased from 3.1 per year pre-1982 to 5.3 per year post-1982. Maybe it’s better films getting recognised, but more opportunities to get nominated in films helps.
We similar happen in other categories, for example since 2009 up to ten films can be nominated as Best Picture. Those nominated are producers, not the director. And there can be loads of producers. In 1998 Shakespeare in Love had 5 producers so received 5 awards. After that, the Academy decided on a maximum number of 3 producers being nominated.
Other categories have also seen rule changes and so we need to treat the number of nominations data carefully, perhaps it’s not a good indication of how truly well we’re doing in Holywood.
There’s no evidence that winning an Oscar is now easier though. There’s still only one winner and although voting is cloaked in secrecy, a Brit still has to convince 7000, mainly American voters, that they deserve the accolade. So looking at the data from the point of view of just British winners, the chart shows a small increase in success post-1982.
Breaking the data down, Britain has had an increase in the total number of Oscar winners since 1982 in 5 out of the 7 grouped categories. The higher nominations in the Visual categories hasn’t translated into more winners. In the high profile Acting categories, which dominates the post-media award coverage, Britain has had fewer winners.
Finally, there’s a small increase in awards for Best Picture, received by the relatively unknown producers of the film, and perhaps only Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle winning and known for Trainspotting) and The Kings Speech (it’s about an English King) were considered British films by the wider public and media. (And they may not be a British film. Few films are. The British Film Institute has a test containing 15 criteria to assess a film for “Britishness”)
The individual breakdown by individual Oscar category is below. Great for Sound Mixing, not so great for Production Design.
Let’s depart from looking at the awards and take a look at the overall theatrical market itself — have British Films made an impact in Holywood?
The BFI only release data from 2002 and so our analysis is limited, but we can compare the overall impact of British Films on the global stage, and compare that to Holywood.
It’s clear to see that while the British Share is increasing overall it’s only from 2014 that we’ve seen a real up tick in the share of the US market, reaching 29% in 2015 — a remarkable achievement.
This share though can fluctuate wildly depending on the success of just a few titles, the latest Star Wars trilogy being an example of “British” films seeing huge success and skewing figures.
The British Independent films share of this fares worse historically than the studio backed giants, with only recent years seeing more US success compared with the worldwide share.
Before his speech, Brit’s won lots of awards and this has continued since then. It’s not been the revolution Welland predicted, more evolution with some categories doing better than before, and some worse. The major awards aren’t won with anymore regularity than before. The last three years has perhaps seen American audiences looking more towards British films but that trend remains to be tested.
Britain in 1982 was an awful place. Record unemployment, the Falkland’s war and race riots across the country. It felt awful growing up in Britain.
Nigel Havers, nominated for best supporting actor in Chariots of Fire, claimed Welland speech was a joke and the result of the euphoria of winning. But Welland was at heart a political writer and you can’t can’t help thinking he was making a statement about the state of his home country. The British are coming because it’s awful back home.
Let’s not forget few Brits worked in the Hollywood then. Now every American TV series seems to have a full complement of British thespians (though we haven’t found data to explore it here). Welland has been proved right in some respects.
Welland died in 2015 aged 81 from that dreadful disease dementia. With his acceptance speech, his place in Hollywood is assured. But he never matched his Oscar success again. And so spare a thought for Roger Deakins who has failed to win with 14 nominations. Let’s hope the sumptuous and awe-inspiring visuals for Blade Runner 2049 will break his losing streak.
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Update 5th February 2018 :
At the 2018 awards, Roger Deakins finally won an Oscar for Blade Runner 2049. Five other Brits won awards including Gary Oldman for Best Actor.
The data comes from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_British_Academy_Award_nominees_and_winners
I’d like to say it was scraped and have a cool Alteryx workflow to show, but Rob cut and paste it from wikipedia and manually changed the data in Excel. Old school he knows.
We iterated many, many views using Tableau that didn’t make the article. For example….