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The future of inclusion in Hollywood: How helpful are the new Oscars diversity standards?

David Oliver, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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Last fall, the Oscars updated its requirements for best-picture hopefuls come 2024 in the name of diversity and faced cheers and jeers from awards-watchers on Twitter.

But how will it really work?

In a test, USA TODAY fact-checked this year's slate of nominees to find out whether they would qualify under the future standards – and found that all the films passed. So what does that say about how inclusive the standards will be in practice?

Films will need to meet only two out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' four diversity standards, which include requirements spanning onscreen performers and behind-the-scenes production staff. To pass the standards, people of color don't have to necessarily appear in prominent roles onscreen – but if that's the case, they would have to have roles in several different areas behind the scenes.

Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List, an annual survey of the most-admired unproduced screenplays in the film industry, says the standards are not difficult to meet. "You have to be almost making an effort to not meet them," he says.

At the time of the announcement in September 2020, Leonard wrote on Twitter two ways one could view the academy's new standards.

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On the one hand, he said, some could view the new requirements as a mild statement suggesting producers and distributors simply "engage with content that’s not made by and about solely white straight cis men."

Or, he noted, the new rules for best picture could be interpreted as a "slightly stronger statement that you can’t be a corporate citizen in good industry standing without doing the absolute barest minimum to ensure that there’s SOME diverse talent below the line and at your company coming through the pipeline."

His points crystallize the key question at hand: What will these standards actually accomplish?

Experts say time will tell to see whether the standards – and other efforts across Hollywood – will lead to actual, meaningful inclusion.

Melissa Silverstein, founder of the website Women and Hollywood, agrees that the standards can be met easily. For example, women often hold titles in makeup, hairstyling and costume design (though employing white women alone won't help a film meet the standards). Requiring behind-the-scenes representation across a breadth of miscellaneous categories like these, she says, is different from requiring it in cinematography.

"You can fulfill a lot of these (standards) without necessarily moving the dial on inclusion," she says.

The poster for the Oscars 2021.
The poster for the Oscars 2021.

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How the Oscars have shifted

Since the #OscarsSoWhite fiasco of 2015 and years of nominations that inspired outrage, the motion picture academy has worked to diversify its membership to include more women and people of color.

The academy remains overwhelmingly white and male, but this year it indicated a shift toward more diversity in nominees, including two women nominated for best director for the first time. As of 2020, 33% of active academy members were women (up from 25%, in 2015) and 19% were from underrepresented racial or ethnic communities (up from 10% in 2015).

Still, many Black-led films didn't make it into the race for best picture this year, including "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "One Night in Miami."

Many Black-led films didn't make it into the best picture race this year, including "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" starring Viola Davis (center) and the late Chadwick Boseman (far left).
Many Black-led films didn't make it into the best picture race this year, including "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" starring Viola Davis (center) and the late Chadwick Boseman (far left).

The industry itself is far from diverse. A McKinsey & Co. study last month found that 92% of film executives are white and that the lack of diversity in Hollywood is costing the industry $10 billion a year.

Leonard – who is an academy member – believes the Academy Awards are a valuable time to talk about diversity, "but they are if anything a symptom of a broader problem that affects the entire industry."

As for how the new best-picture standards fit into this mission, it's unclear whether the standards will have an impact, says Darnell Hunt, dean of the division of social sciences in the University of California, Los Angeles College of Letters and Sciences, who also co-writes UCLA’s annual Hollywood Diversity Report.

The goal would be over time to see an increasing number of diverse nominees and ultimately more diverse awardees. If "we don't see that, then we know (the standards) are not working," he says. That's when the standards may require tweaking (such as meeting three or all four standards instead of just two, he says).

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How real inclusion can happen – and how the Oscars can help

The British film academy expanded its voting membership and shook up its rules last year in an attempt to address a glaring lack of diversity in the British Academy of Film and Television Arts nominations. In 2020, no women were nominated for best director for a seventh consecutive year, and all 20 nominees in the lead and supporting performer categories were white.

Under new rules that, among other things, made watching all long-listed films compulsory for BAFTA voters, this year's slate of acting nominees was strikingly more diverse, and four of the six filmmakers nominated for best director were women.

"They've instituted, I would argue, pretty substantially more aggressive standards, and changes in processes related to voting (and) membership that provide a really interesting roadmap for the academy," says Leonard, who participated in conversations and feedback sessions about the British academy rule changes.

Of course, the academy continuing to rejigger its membership and practices shows the institution is paying attention to a changing world.

"Anything that gives people cause to assess the inclusion and to push for more inclusion is good," Silverstein says.

Whether such efforts bear out substantial inclusion and not just serve as window dressing remains to be seen.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Oscars: What the new best picture rules really mean for inclusion