In a now famous Oscar speech from 2018, Frances McDormand encouraged more diverse hiring in the film industry. “I have two words to leave you with tonight,” she told the audience as she accepted her Best Actress trophy,—“Inclusion Rider.” Most viewers had no idea what she meant, prompting immediate online searches of the term.
Prior to this, April Reign had created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in response to the lack of diversity at the 2015 Oscars, when all twenty acting nominations were awarded to white actors. This criticism of an awards season that failed to reflect the actual makeup of those working in the industry and of movie-goers nationwide seemed to take the Academy by surprise. The issue persisted, however, when the miniseries Hollywood, about a diverse group of aspiring actors and filmmakers trying to make their dreams come true during the post-World War II era, hit our screens this spring. While some criticized the tone, writing, and artistic license taken, many viewed the show as illustrative of what Hollywood could have been if it had allowed for more diversity, both in front of and behind the camera.
This summer, as racial justice protestors poured into our streets, the issue of diversity in Hollywood—and in every industry—became even more urgent.
On September 8, 2020, Hollywood appears to have embarked on a new chapter in its journey toward diversity when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences surprised the public by announcing new eligibility requirements for Best Picture contenders. Starting with the 2024 Oscars, any film seeking Best Picture consideration will need to reflect inclusion standards both on screen and behind the camera.
Although the public may have been surprised by this news, it is in fact the culmination of a series of measures undertaken by the Academy to improve its diversity profile. In 2015, the A2020 initiative was launched with the goal of doubling the number of women and people of color in the Academy. That initiative, led by membership executives Meredith Shea, producer DeVon Franklin, and Lorenza Munoz, surpassed its goals, with female Academy membership growing from around 24 percent in 2015 to 32 percent in 2019, while membership among people of color grew from 8 to 15 percent in the same period.
Then the Academy announced a new initiative in June: Academy Aperture 2025, modeled in part on the British Institute Diversity Standards used for certain funding eligibility in the UK and in some categories of the BAFTA Awards. The Academy also consulted with the Producers Guild of America (PGA), as it currently does for Oscars eligibility. The initiative’s goal, according to its website, is “to further the dialogue and challenge our history to create a more equitable and inclusive community.” The new Best Picture requirements for the 2024 Oscars are just one component of the Academy Aperture 2025 initiative.
The new 2024 Oscars’ standards require films to fill a certain percentage of on- and off-screen roles with people from underrepresented groups, including women, people of color, people with disabilities, and people from the LGTBQ community. The requirements fall into four categories: on-screen representation, creative leadership and project team, industry access and opportunities, and audience development. Starting in 2024—for the 96th Oscars—a film must meet two out of four standards to be considered.
According to the Academy, these new standards apply only to Best Picture and do not affect other categories, which will stick to their current eligibility requirements.
The decision did not come without controversy and criticism. Some think the standards are too soft, while others criticized the Academy for compromising excellence and artistic freedom, or for ordering the industry to do what it is already doing. According to Vulture magazine, however, there is value in codifying standards many already abide by. “A norm can be easily thrown aside; a rule can’t.”
“The aperture must widen to reflect our diverse global population in both the creation of motion pictures and in the audiences who connect with them,” Academy President David Rubin and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson recently said. “The Academy is committed to playing a vital role in helping make this a reality. We believe these inclusion standards will be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry.”
I am often asked why it is important to have a legal voice on this issue and why I continue to write about it.
We, as counsel, advise companies on best practices. We also formulate deals for clients with the hope that those deals will be successful for all parties involved. That gives us a real insight into what it looks like when companies get it right and what it looks like when companies get it wrong, as well as on how an industry can build and advocate for best practices, both in terms of hiring and retaining diverse talent and in contributing to the growth of that industry. Growth can mean both in the way that company leadership reflects the communities that it serves, but also in terms of diversity in perspective, which undeniably adds to innovation and, in turn, revenue.
Having the Academy set benchmarks helps other industries, including all those we counsel, to ensure that workplace diversity continues to be top of mind as we face societal challenges. In the end, what the Academy can teach us is that setting thoughtful and disciplined goals, memorializing those goals as standards and policy, and maintaining persistence in the face of challenges can lead to change.