FRONT RUNNER: 12 Years a Slave has a good chance of winning at the Bafta film awards, thanks in large part to the hype it has created and the reviews of American film critics.

Next month, all eyes will turn to the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden for the glittering annual Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards ceremony.

On February 16, the great and the good of the film world will walk the red carpet and prizes will be handed out for Best Actor and Actress, Best Director and, the biggie, the Best Film of 2013.

A Bafta is one of the most prestigious prizes in the business, and winning one represents the pinnacle of most people’s careers. Even being nominated can catapult you into the major league.

So you would imagine that the 6 500-strong voting membership of the Baftas has a thoughtful, fair and well-considered procedure for choosing the five nominees in each category and then for picking the ultimate winner.

You might be surprised.

As a Bafta voter for many years I can reveal that the voting process is based less on artistic merit than on coercion, trend-following and pot luck. Here’s how it works.

Maybe 100 films released over the past 12 months have a realistic chance of winning a Bafta, and probably 70 to 80 of those are released in the last two months of the year. Distributors seem to think Bafta voters have short memories and, given the average age of the Bafta voter – there are a lot of retired film people in the Academy – they might be right.

So, around November, you start getting invited to screenings and Q&A sessions with cast and crew. Gone are the days of the lavish dinners and all-expenses-paid jollies – but you are certainly looked after. A Mayfair hotel. A complimentary glass of champagne. Not an inducement, of course. But we hope you enjoyed the film.

These events are expensive to put on. So already the field of competitors is being narrowed down to the Hollywood studios with their big marketing budgets.

And while everyone wants to see films on the big screen, that’s not always possible.

So, as the year draws to a close, you start receiving “screeners”. These DVDs are one of the great perks of being a Bafta member and mean you can watch the main awards contenders in the comfort of your own home.

But still, you now have 50 or 60 films to get through.

It’s just not possible to watch them all. So which ones rise to the top of the pile? The ones you’ve already heard about. And the ones that have already started winning.

From late November, reviewers and film critic groups start to publish their Top 10 lists. The New York Film Critics’ Circle is an early big one at the start of December, followed by the American National Board of Review a few days later, and the Golden Globe nominations a week after that. (Can you see a pattern emerging? The Americans are already setting the pace.)

This year, films such as 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle received a lot of early momentum. Other much-hyped films such as The Great Gatsby started to fall away.

So, very quickly, the front runners are anointed. And they ride that wave all the way to the Baftas and beyond.

The point is clear. We’re sheep. And we follow the sheep in front of us. And the little guys fall by the wayside.

But the days are still ticking by, and you still have all these films to watch, and you’ve been meaning to get to them but you can’t, and there are all these obvious front runners.

And so you do it. You vote for a film you haven’t seen.

Let’s be clear. Bafta voting guidelines state explicitly that you must vote only for films you have seen. Which makes perfect sense. But I’ve done it. And I bet everyone else has, too. You vote for the ones you think are going to win.

It’s why the same old names appear year after year. Dame Judi Dench could blow her nose and she’d be nominated (she famously won a Bafta for her eight minutes of screen time as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare In Love). Emma Thompson, check. Tom Hanks, check.

Are these really the crowning performances of their careers? No, but they’ll be nominated anyway.

You back winners, and winners are the ones with momentum, and momentum is generated by marketing muscle, pure and simple.

There are two problems at play here. The first is this insistence on pushing out every quality movie in the last two months of the year. It overloads us and leaves cinemas empty of decent material the rest of the time.

The second is more worrying. Bafta is still happy – desperate even – to be seen as the Oscars’ younger brother, the penultimate awards ceremony in a months-long band-wagon leading up to the big daddy. So Hollywood stars turn up to an event they might otherwise avoid, and TV ratings boom. – Daily Mail