On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its promised diversity requirements for upcoming Oscars nominees. And while instituting any diversity guidelines is sure to rile some—Kirstie Alley is already in a tizzy about the injustice of it all—the new rules don’t seem poised to revolutionize the movie business. Instead, they offer filmmakers and studios a path to the top prize that would do little to disrupt existing Hollywood hierarchies or increase on-screen inclusivity.
The Academy announced in June that the Best Picture category, which previously ranged from five to ten nominees, will be fixed at ten films each year. That alone will allow more, and hopefully more inclusive, films to be recognized, and the Academy also promised that specific diversity and inclusion guidelines would follow. The announcement came in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, but also after years of criticism of Oscars slates that honored few people of color and members of other marginalized groups. In 2015, activist April Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag—and we’ve been talking about inclusivity at the awards ceremony ever since. Now, the new rules are here. They go into effect for the 2024 ceremony, and would only allow films to be eligible for Best Picture if they meet inclusivity standards in two out of four categories: on-screen representation, creative leadership inclusivity, industry access and opportunities, and audience development. Each of these categories is filled with its own guidelines. For example, for a movie to fulfill the on-screen representation criteria, it would have to feature at least one lead or “significant supporting actor” who is non-white, or have 30 percent of secondary characters be women, people of color, LGBT people, or people with disabilities, with at least two of the above groups represented. A film also qualifies if its main storyline is about an underrepresented group.
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Notice all the “or”s. “Or” is huge for this thing, which looks like an impressively long list, but really offers a ton of easy-to-fulfill pathways to Best Picture qualification. And the difference between the on-screen and behind-the-camera leadership guidelines and the industry access and audience development criteria is huge.Here’s what the latter two involve. To tick the industry access box, a movie’s distribution company or financier must offer training opportunities to people from underrepresented groups and create paid internships for members of those groups. (For smaller studios, that requirement can be as simple as hiring just two interns.) And to meet the audience development standards, studios must have people of color and members of other marginalized groups as senior executives in their marketing and publicity departments. So let’s look at 2020’s nine Best Picture nominees. If the on-screen inclusivity guidelines were required for films to qualify, that would have been bad news for Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, and 1917—maybe Little Women, Marriage Story, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, too, if we’re going to get into the weeds about who counts as a “significant supporting character” and just how that 30% secondary character breakdown will work. But on-screen inclusivity is not required. Nor is behind-the-scenes diversity. With a couple of interns hired and some minorities on marketing teams, every single one of last year’s Best Picture nominees would be able to qualify for the honor.
Best Picture Award winners for “Parasite” pose onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California.Handout
Some people are likely going to be outraged about the new guidelines, because that’s what some people do. But every year, hundreds of Hollywood films are released, the majority of which are not gunning for a Best Picture nod in the first place—and you can still win all of the Academy’s other awards without meeting a single inclusivity requirement. Anyway, with a few new hires or promotions on their marketing teams and an internship program, studios will be able to give all their films blanket qualification for Best Picture. If the Academy were trying to make truly substantial change, they would have perhaps mandated that all films at least fulfill either the on-screen or creative leadership criteria. To meet the creative leadership qualifications, at least one department head (like the production designer, writer, makeup artist, composer, producer, director) would have to be a person of color, while one more would have to be a woman, LGBT person, disabled person, or racial minority. That would still allow white filmmakers to tell stories about white people—they’d just be doing so while hiring, say, an Asian-American editor and a Deaf costume designer. But they didn’t. The guidelines that could have made the most substantial changes in fields that cut right at the heart of filmmaking are entirely optional. So for those who are poised to channel Kirstie Alley’s righteous indignation, don’t bother working yourself up: movies are still allowed to be plenty white.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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