There’s No Excuse for Failing the Oscars’ Diversity Requirements

The awards’ new Best Picture eligibility rules are so lenient, they’d shame any film that can’t meet them.

The Atlantic

Five years after the #OscarsSoWhite movement began, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is again turning its attention to Hollywood diversity. Yesterday, the organization announced new inclusion requirements that seem bold at first glance, a drastic remit to studios about the kinds of stories that deserve a Best Picture Oscar. One way a movie can qualify for the top prize is by meeting standards for onscreen racial diversity—that is, by featuring underrepresented groups through a nonwhite major actor, through 30 percent of its ensemble, or in the story itself. You can immediately think of films that would be affected by such a rule—period war movies such as 1917 or Saving Private Ryan, for example, or gangster films like The Irishman.

But studios can also meet the new requirements, which won’t take effect until 2024, in off-screen ways. The lengthy criteria are manifold (and can be parsed here). They address the demographics of not only a film’s cast and crew, but also the studio’s marketing team, executive leadership, and internship programs. These rules are hardly a sea change for the industry. Instead, they’re an explicit acknowledgment of the baseline that studios should operate by. On one hand, the requirements are lenient enough that they’re unlikely to cause studios to overhaul their staff. On the other, the standards are so low that it would be embarrassing for an awards contender not to meet them.

Avoiding embarrassment has been a driving factor in much of AMPAS’s work to improve the diversity of its membership since the much-derided 2016 Oscar nominations, which honored an all-white slate of actors for the second year running. Although some have speculated as to which recent Best Picture nominees might not have made the cut under these rules, no definitive examples are being given because of how broad the requirements are. Only two of the four standards have to be met, and one can be done so by a movie’s studio having an internship or training program that promotes diversity, and will likely be easy for multibillion-dollar companies to game. The rules also affect only the Best Picture category, given that other Oscar categories are focused on more individual achievement.

So why didn’t the academy go further? One could imagine much stricter requirements, demanding representation both on- and off-screen, extending to the boardroom and sets, to above-the-line casting and personal assistants. But it’s also easy to imagine such rules backfiring. Corporate Hollywood efforts at “diversity” (which AMPAS defines as including women, racial or ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community) typically come off as patronizing. They can also reward tokenism, where people of color are hired merely to satisfy a quota.

Simply presenting studios with hiring checklists—stringent or otherwise—isn’t enough to encourage meaningful systemic change and more diverse storytelling. Above all, the academy’s new requirements seem to be a warning. They’re a signal to the conglomerates controlling most Oscar campaigns to avoid employing overwhelming majorities of white men. Although AMPAS has tried to work on its own membership (doubling the number of women and people of color over the past five years), it has also clearly recognized the value of a Best Picture nomination to every studio, and is seeking to leverage that power. A broader voting body and codified hiring requirements alone cannot upend the industry; the ideal result would be studios going beyond doing the bare minimum, in their own creative and organic ways.

Perhaps the most fascinating detail in this entire rollout is how films will have to report their qualifications to the academy. Starting in 2022, each movie must submit an “inclusion standard form,” essentially a confidential breakdown of the movie’s demographic data. These forms are the training wheels that will prepare studios for the requirements being enforced in 2024, and could help highlight areas where diversity in hiring is particularly wanting. (Spot checks and interviews with filmmakers and distributors will back up those forms.)

Being forced to put everything on paper could make Hollywood’s long-standing issues on these fronts feel starker, and demonstrate to directors, producers, and studio heads just how much more work needs to be done. The academy has introduced a new standard of accountability in an industry where financial success—which can be boosted by a Best Picture win—is the only real yardstick by which everything is measured. The Oscar rules themselves may not be rigorous, but they’re Hollywood’s latest concrete step toward what could be significant change.