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A ‘Publicity Stunt’ or a ‘Huge Step’? Hollywood Is Divided on the Oscars’ New Diversity Rules

13 minute read

Ever since the #OscarsSoWhite campaign began four years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been searching for innovative ways to champion inclusivity across the white- and male-dominated film industry, including by diversifying its ranks. On Tuesday, they released their newest initiative: new inclusion standards for films seeking a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards.

Starting in 2024, Best Picture hopefuls will have to meet the standards of two out of four broad groups of criteria laid out in a 1,000-word memo: representation onscreen (addressed in Standard A), behind the camera (B) and in audience development (D); and pipelines for young, marginalized talent (C). The guidelines, which the Academy says were created following a far-reaching consultation process throughout the industry, specifically draw attention to the underrepresentation of people of color, women, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities.

DeVon Franklin, a film producer who co-led the initiative, said in an interview that while the guidelines had been in the works for over a year, they were successfully voted through by the Academy’s board of governors in June, in the wake of the global protests following the death of George Floyd. “It was a moment when the board said, ‘We, as the representatives of our constituents and the Academy, want to be a lighthouse for the future,’” he said.

Perhaps predictably, the announcement received backlash on social media, particularly from right-wing circles. Many, inside and out of these circles, accused the Academy of stifling creativity or promoting tokenization. “Honestly, I never want to be hired for these reasons. Ever,” the actor and director Justine Bateman wrote on Twitter. Kirstie Alley called it a “disgrace to artists everywhere,” though she later deleted the tweet, saying she is “100% behind diversity inclusion & tolerance” but opposed the Academy’s methods.

However, many others say that the rules are far less onerous than they’re perceived to be—and that most films won’t have to change their approach at all. Meanwhile, the rollout of the British inclusion initiative that inspired this one offers some clues about what the next few years in Hollywood could look like. TIME talked to several industry insiders, who were split on the impact the new rules might have; they talked about the ways in which the film industry might change, or stay the same, going forward.

“A publicity stunt”

On Tuesday, one of the big concerns about the industry’s announcement would be that directors wouldn’t be allowed to tell the stories they wanted to, or would be tempted to slap a cardboard version of diversity onto their films. Defenders of the announcement have pointed out that the Academy lacks the power to censor filmmakers outright: they can make whatever movie they want, fail all four standards, and still qualify for 22 of the 23 categories at the Oscars to boot.

And even if a filmmaker wants to create a Best Picture contender about white men, the new guidelines provide ample opportunities to pass two of the four barometers without having to change the story. Take The Two Popes, for example. The movie stars two white men (Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins), was directed by a white man (Fernando Meirelles) and written by a white man (Anthony McCarten); it makes virtually no effort or pretense toward achieving diversity or representation.

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in 'The Two Popes'
Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in 'The Two Popes'Peter Mountain

But it does have at least two female department heads—producer Tracey Seaward and hair and makeup designer Marese Langan—as well as Argentine department heads—who could conceivably self-identify as Hispanic or Latinx even if they are white—which means it passes Standard B, which applies to creative leadership and department heads. And the many women at upper levels of Netflix’s publicity team, who promoted the film, clinch Standard D for the film—and consequently its general eligibility for Best Picture.

The Irishman, cited by many online as a potential so-called “victim” of this rule change, falls into a similar category. Its boldface names are all white men: Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci and writer Steven Zaillian. But it, too, skates by on the same criteria, with female producers (Jane Rosenthal and Emma Tillinger Koskoff), a female editor (Thelma Schoonmaker), a Mexican cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) and Netflix’s publicity department. “I am really curious what films don’t already fulfill these requirements,” Karin Chien, a veteran film producer and distributor who is a member of the producers branch of the Academy, says. “I don’t think it will change the work of myself or nearly anyone else I know.” Not to mention that many filmmakers don’t have Best Picture eligibility in mind when they set out on a new project.

Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, his 3½-hour epic Mob movie for Netflix, received 10 nominations
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, his 3½-hour epic Mob movie for Netflix, received 10 nominationsNetflix

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which tracks race and gender data in Hollywood films, reported that 95 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 meet standard A, while 71 of the 100 top films of 2018 meet standard B. “It is the status quo. Will not make a difference,” the organization tweeted. The Washington Post reported that 11 of the 15 past Oscar winners would meet the first two standards without any changes.

And that’s to say nothing of perhaps the easiest hurdle to clear for studios: Standard C, which prompts movies to provide paid apprenticeships or internships, training opportunities and skill development. Many studios already have such opportunities which are linked to colleges, meaning their movies would be halfway to Best Picture eligibility without having to consider film personnel at all. (Some have argued this rule favors major studios who have the financial resources for internships, but independent production companies are perhaps more likely to meet the guidelines’ other standards. “I don’t see it as an issue,” the independent filmmaker Melodie Sisk says. “Why wouldn’t you just make sure your film meets A and B or A and D?”)

Chien says that the guidelines are structured in ways that could actually solidify the imbalance in representation of certain aspects of filmmaking. For instance, the rules require at least 2 out of 14 behind-the-camera areas to be led by underrepresented groups. But at least four of those categories—hair, makeup, casting and costume design—are already often led by women, meaning that categories with greater deficiencies in representation like sound, visual effects and cinematography could continue mostly unchanged. “Those positions that they’ve included are not equal targets, in my opinion,” Chien says.

Maggie Hennefeld, an associate professor of film and media at the University of Minnesota, is even more pessimistic about the guidelines’ capacity to bring about change. “I think it’s mainly a publicity stunt—the categories are so loose and flexible,” she says. “If anything, the main impact of these rule changes will be to scandalize the right.”

To drive her point home, Hennefeld turns to two historic films that are currently reviled for their racism: The Birth of a Nation and Song of the South. “A film like The Birth of a Nation, featuring black characters played by white actors in blackface, presumably would fulfill category A3,” she says, referring to the standard that “the main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).” “And Song of the South, which Disney has hidden in the vault because it’s so offensive and uniquely glorifies slavery, would breeze through the A standard because it features a Black male actor in a central role.”

“A huge step”

But others feel that the new guidelines do have the capacity to irrevocably alter the industry. Sisk, who co-runs the Atlanta-based independent production company Electrik Skin, is excited by the financial impact the guidelines could have if they attract potential investors to what the industry might deem as “atypical” projects. “So many people of color and queer people and women have been have been forced to make stories out of our change purse,” she says. “If we can encourage financiers to take a risk by saying, ‘Look, the Academy is putting this out there!’—then I think we have a better chance of getting them to invest.”

Axel Kuschevatzky is an Argentinian producer who runs the multinational independent film production company Infinity Hill, which has offices in Argentina, the U.S. and the U.K. He says that even if most movies produced around the world aren’t gunning for Best Picture, the guidelines still set a powerful example. “I think it will have a long-lasting effect in the sense that a lot of countries do watch closely what the Academy does,” Kuschevatzky says.

Over his career, Kuschevatzky also has watched as the percentage of box office returns from the U.S. slowly shrinks in comparison to those overseas; he says these new guidelines can only be beneficial to filmmakers from a business standpoint. “We are not talking about only an American audience anymore. You are telling stories to the world,” he says. “And the world is complex, diverse, and in need of visibility as much as minorities in the US.”

The guidelines could also have an outsize impact in increasing opportunities for another severely underrepresented group: people with disabilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 Americans has a disability. However, only about 2% of TV characters have a disability, while 95% of those that do are portrayed by non-disabled performers.

The new guidelines promote “People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing” in each category—except, mysteriously, for the lead actor of any prospective Best Picture nominee. “All too often, disability is not included in diversity initiatives,” Lauren Appelbaum, the vice president of communications at RespectAbility, a nonprofit that aims to advance opportunities for people with disabilities, says. “To see it included was a huge step and something to really be celebrated.”

Appelbaum is concerned about a few aspects of the guidelines: she wonders why people with disabilities are absent from the “lead” category of Standard A, and says that if characters with disabilities are written hastily into scripts to fulfill the standards, they could be “very harmful” in perpetuating ableist narratives.

But overall, she says it’s a step in the right direction. She co-leads RespectAbility Lab, a program that nurtures rising people with disabilities in various fields across film and TV, and says the work the lab has done has prepared a rising crop of artists for this exact moment. “I don’t want anyone to say, ‘I can’t find a director with a disability,’” she says. “They exist, I promise you. And I am so excited that they will now have a chance to potentially be attached to an Oscar-nominated project.”

‘This is a living document’

Given the fierce opposing factions for and against the guidelines, the fate of the initiative may seem uncertain. But an extremely similar situation played out just six years ago in Great Britain, when the British Film Institute implemented diversity standards for films seeking public funding. Like the Academy now, the BFI was accused by conservatives of political correctness gone amok and by liberals of meekly submitting to racist structures. And many film productions going up at the time weren’t affected at all by the guidelines.

Ben Roberts, who helped spearhead the standards and is now the CEO of BFI, says that the document’s initial malleability was crucial to it becoming culturally accepted—and that its establishment then enabled its creators to tweak as they saw fit. “Flexibility was important in making sure everyone adopted and didn’t feel scared of them,” he says. “We got something out there, and then would iterate based on what was working or being ignored, so we could ratchet the [rules] according to where more pressure was needed.”

Over the last six years, the BFI has engaged in a holistic and incremental approach: teaming up with the BAFTAs (the British equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys) to implement inclusion requirements for eligibility; working with studios on training programs; collecting data. This approach has borne some progress: more diverse stories and characters are being represented onscreen, according to a report they filed in January.

But the reports does not mince words about how little progress has been made in other areas. At the BAFTA film awards this year, all 20 of the acting nominations went to white actors, and all of the nominated directors were men. People with disabilities and Black people remain severely underrepresented on- and offscreen. And Roberts found that because their guidelines lumped women in along with people of color for leadership roles behind the scenes, most productions (71%) simply put white women in key roles. BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people were twice as unlikely to get department head and key offscreen roles than women. “It’s unacceptable,” Roberts says. “As we go into our next version, we’re probably going to have to go much more strongly on standard B.”

While some have deemed the BFI’s efforts a failure, DeVon Franklin says examining that organization’s trials and tribulations has been instrumental to the Academy’s devising its own set of guidelines. The Academy’s Standard B, for example, says that having female department heads isn’t enough—there must be at least one person of color in one of those roles to fulfill that category. If the Academy finds in a couple years that their guidelines pit underrepresented groups against each other in a similar way, they are likewise open to making changes. “One of the great lessons is they didn’t let perfection stand in the way of progress,” Franklin says. “This is a living document. We have to monitor the impact of it and consider adjustments accordingly.”

This sentiment—that the guidelines are not the final product but the start of a new effort—was echoed on Twitter by April Reign, who started the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. “This is another step forward toward equity and inclusion, but we are far from there,” she wrote. “The real change still has to start on the page, and with the studios who greenlight those films.”

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