Pandering, Publicity, or Power? The Oscars’ New Inclusion Rules: A Breakdown of the New Best Picture Eligibly Part 2

In a previous article, I explained the circumstances leading up to the announcement of the new Best Picture eligibility standards. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the criteria is to “further the dialogue and challenge our history to create a more equitable and inclusive community.” The new standards seem to be a good faith effort to promote inclusion. However, for the Academy to create a more equitable and inclusive community as they state, the Best Picture criteria has room for improvement.

A New Plan for the Academy

Before we analyze the rules, it is important to read the rules in its entirety. Most of the myths come from people reading brief headlines instead of reading the rules as a whole. Starting in 2024, movies wanting to get nominated for Best Picture must have some sort of representation for minority groups. The AMPAS defines these groups as women, racial or ethnic groups, LGBTQA+, and/or people with cognitive or physical disabilities. The Academy defines the racial or ethnic groups as: Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Black/African American, Indigenous/Native American, Middle Eastern, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and others.

For a film to be eligible for the Best Picture category for the 96th Oscars (2024) the film must meet the standards of two out of four following standards:

  • The film must contain A) a lead character who is a member of an under-represented racial/ethnic group OR B) substantial supporting casts with significant representation of under-represented groups (broadly defined as women, racial/ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities) OR C) subject matter or themes relevant to the broadly defined under-represented groups described above.
  • There must be significant representation from under-represented groups among A) creative leadership or department heads, B) key technical roles, or C) the crew.
  • The film’s distribution or financing company must have either A) paid internship/apprenticeship opportunities or B) substantial training opportunities that are open to and utilized by members of under-represent groups.
  • The studio or film company must have multiple in-house senior executives from under-represented groups on their marketing, publicity, and/or distribution teams.

Killing Hollywood: Wokeness, Anti-Artist Rules, Stripping Old Films of Awards, and Other Hot (Negative) Takes

People against the new rules have accused the Academy of killing creativity and favoring "wokeness" instead of true talent. One viral reaction is from actress Kirstie Alley. She argued in a series of tweets that, “This is a disgrace to artists everywhere! Can you imagine telling Picasso what had to be in his f****** paintings. You people have lost your minds. The new RULES to qualify for ‘Best Picture’ are dictatorial and anti-artist.”  

Alley deleted her tweets, opting for a cooled-down approach. She clarified she wants diversity and inclusion but not mandated diversity and inclusion. People voicing their outrage online over the new standards after reading a misleading headline or tweet led to more outrage. Luckily, the most commonly spread criticisms are myths that can be easily debunked.

The first and most damaging myth is that the problem of inclusion isn’t that bad. If you have enough talent, then you will win an award no matter your identity. USC Annenberg produces an end of the year report on inequality in the entertainment industry. The latest report evaluated the top 1,300 films from 2007 to 2019 for diversity and inclusion. USC Annenberg found there were 57,629 total speaking roles. Only 34% of speaking roles were female characters. 34.3% were characters from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. Characters with disabilities only had 2.3% of speaking roles despite making up 27.2% of America’s population. LGBTQA+ speaking characters made up 1.4% of speaking roles. Data about lead characters and intersectional identity (e.g. women of color) are much worse having even lower representation on and off screen. There are 92 white male directors to every woman of color. If one agrees that diverse stories should be told respectfully then the ratio is concerning.

Some may argue the data points aren't alarming because the groups represent a tiny fraction of the U.S. population. Yet, current data tells a different story. When you remove women, racial groups, sexual and gender minorities, and disabled people, the only group left is white, cisgender, heterosexual, and able-bodied men. Depending on current numbers and the definition of these social constructs, the remaining group makes up only 25% of the American population. Through the introduction of the new criteria, the Academy is making their stance on inclusion clear. The problem of inclusion in Hollywood is bad. Studios haven’t taken it upon themselves to open the doors, so the Academy is stepping in to take charge. The Academy is saying that the remaining 75% of Americans who are in various minority groups deserve to have representation that is reflective of their large demographic makeup.

As Medium writer Richard LeBeau asks, “Is requiring that a multi-billion-dollar industry in 2020 to include some representation among groups that comprise 75% of America really that draconian? Or, rather, is it a remarkably low bar that reflects how poorly the industry has historically performed with regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion?” “Requiring” is not even the best word. The Academy is not requiring studios and talent to adhere to these rules. Even if a film cannot pass the low bar, it is still eligible in the 22 other nomination categories.

People have argued that Hollywood is a meritocracy. Anyone, regardless of identity, can make it if they have the talent. However, this take is idealistic. Like many industries, there is systemic racism and barriers to entry against the underrepresented groups in the entertainment industry. Take one of the most prominent actors in recent history: Chadwick Boseman. As society celebrated the late Chadwick Boseman, the public came to know that his path to stardom wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Boseman required financial assistance from someone already in Hollywood to continue his acting education. Chadwick Boseman also talked about the power dynamics holding systemic racism in place. Like many people in the entertainment industry before he became a prominent actor, Boseman didn’t have the power to question the system and still be financially safe. Boseman recalled being fired from a major network after questioning the racial stereotypes of his role. People just starting out in the industry in front or behind the camera are afraid to “rock the boat” in fear or retribution they might especially because getting jobs  in the entertainment industry is about connections.

Making it in the entertainment industry on the “behind the scenes” sides isn’t easy either. It can be easier to get an internship with a major entertainment company if you’ve had experience working in the entertainment industry before. The experience often comes in the form of an unpaid internship which has financial requirements many don't have. Even if someone receives an offer, internships are often located in NYC or Southern California. Being able to afford to drop everything and move to a big city where rent prices are high for three months is an obstacle for many.

The second myth people perpetuate is that the Academy is anti-artist because the Academy is dictating what stories get told and who can work on them. First of all, as much power the AMPAS has, it is still a private organization. As a private organization, it can decide on rules for their award show. Simply put, the Academy lacks the power to censor films or dictate who can watch the films. The power of censorship and ratings belongs to government bodies and the Motion Picture Association of America.

What people often forget is the Academy changes rules every single year. Some changes stick around while others (based on valid feedback) do not. For example, in 2019 the Academy sought to introduce a Best Popular Film category. However, after a huge backlash from the general public, the Academy scrapped the category. The Academy has also made changes that have stuck. In 2017, all branches could vote for which animated films received a nomination for Best Animated Film. In 2019 the Best Foreign Language film category changed to Best International Film. In other words, changing eligibility is not new to the Oscars. Changes once thought to be drastic are now considered the norm. Studios adjust to changes.

Also, every year movies have enjoyed commercial and critical success despite being ineligible for the Best Picture Oscar. After all, many filmmakers don't have Best Picture eligibility in mind when they begin a new project. They want to create meaningful art.

The third myth is that many great movies will no longer be eligible because they aren’t diverse. This myth is widely perpetuated thanks to short “clickbait-y” headlines or social media posts that can’t go in-depth. Consequently, people believe films like 1917 and even past great films like Saving Private Ryan or Braveheart wouldn’t be eligible for Best Picture under the new eligibility criteria.

The three films have all-white casts making it ineligible to meet criteria A. If a film has an all-white cast, they have three other criteria to choose from. The easiest category to meet is C because many studios already have established famous internship programs, especially bigger studios. This means movies are halfway to Best Picture eligibility without having to consider film personnel at all. Take 1917 for example: while 1917 has an all-white cast, co-screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns and two of its producers, Pippa Jarris and Jayne-Ann Tenngren are women. Universal Pictures distributed 1917 in the United States. Its parent company, NBCUniversal, has a well-known and intensive internship program. Therefore, 1917 meets standards B and C and is eligible for Best Picture.

The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative (an industry leader in tracking minority data in the entertainment industry) found that 95 of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 meet standard A.  71 of the 2018 top-grossing films meet standard B. As stated before, if a film fails to meet on one standard, it has three more standards to qualify for. An investigation by The Washington Post found that 11 of the 15 past Oscar winners would meet the first two standards without any changes.

The remaining four (Argo, The Artist, No Country for Old Men, and The Departed) meet either standard A or B, but not both. Therefore, they would need two minorities as an intern or one minority working as a lead in the marketing, publicity, or distribution department. Both Warner Brothers (Argo and The Departed) and the Walt Disney Company (Miramax Films distributed No Country For Old Men while a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company) have huge internship programs, qualifying them for standard C. The Weinstein Company (which produced The Artist and won Best Picture in 2011), while no longer in existence, did in 2011 meet criteria for standard B; a quick search on LinkedIn and old industry trade news sites reports that Dani Weinstein was the executive vice president of publicity at The Weinstein Company in 2011. She overlooked the studio’s award campaigns from 2005-2017. Therefore, all past fifteen Best Picture winners are eligible for Best Picture. Not to mention that the Academy is not taking away awards for past winners--another myth spread around the internet. The bar the Academy set for inclusion is on the ground. It will be more telling if a film doesn’t meet the criteria.

Patronizing, Lacking Power to Enforce, Favoring Diversity over Representation, and other Hot (Positive) Takes

Naturally, such a low bar poses the risk that the rules are more patronizing than helpful. By surveying social media reactions, people have valid concerns that by making inclusion a checklist item, inclusion will become tokenism. Studios may focus more on the numbers, favoring quantity over quality. People want to see themselves represented in a meaningful way, not subjected to the stereotypes already on screen. In other words, the new Oscars rules may improve diversity but not representation.

So, what’s the difference between diversity and representation? British Pakistan actor, rapper Riz Ahmed is a relentless advocate for representation. The UK Parliament invited him to speak on the subject in 2017. In an interview with The Daily Show Ahmed explains the difference with the metaphor of fries and burgers. “I don’t like to talk about ‘diversity’. I feel like it sounds like an added extra. It sounds like fries, not the burger. It [diversity] sounds like something you get on the side. You’ve got your main course going on and then you sprinkle a little bit of diversity on top. That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s about representation. Representation is absolutely fundamental in terms of what we expect from our culture, and from our politics. We all want to feel represented; we all want to feel seen and heard and valued.”

Ahmed added on to the metaphor when appearing on The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan. Ahmed explained that a win for representation is a win for everyone. “I just think it's important we all realize this isn't just a Muslim issue or a black issue. If Crazy Rich Asians does well, for example, that's not just a win for Asian people. That's a win for all of us because every time something like that happens, it stretches culture a little bit and it gives us all a little bit more space to be ourselves.”

In other words, diversity on screen is holding up talents like Denzel Washington or Awkwafina and saying, “We’ve solved diversity.” If you have a female studio president (e.g. Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy and Sony's Amy Pascal) but other female employees don't have opportunities open to them, then the female CEO is not symptomatic of a change to the culture. Instead, the female CEO serves as an exception. The Oscar inclusion rules give studios an excuse to have good publicity. They can say, “We are inclusive to women! We have a woman CEO!” and not change anything from the people who are struggling below. For example, there is much debate on the potential disingenuousness of internship programs. If internship programs give studios a leg up in Oscar criteria, then recruiting could turn into a facade of expanding more opportunities to minorities only to make more profits and win awards. This is especially concerning considering the prevalence of unpaid internships, particularly in the entertainment industry. Claiming your company has diversity while charging unpaid interns with the same amount and type of work as full-time, entry-level employees is a perfect example of not changing systemic issues of inclusion and only doing the bare minimum. 

When interviewed for Time Magazine Maggie Hennefeld reiterated Ahmed’s argument. Hennefeld points out films like The Birth of a Nation and Song of the South would fulfill Standard A. “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 because it’s so offensive and glorifies slavery, would breeze through the A standard because it features a Black male actor in a central role.”

Even more concerning is the guidelines are structured in ways that could solidify the status quo. Karin Chien, a veteran producer, and distributor who is part of the producers branch of the Academy shares her concern with Time Magazine. Criteria B1 requires diversity behind the camera in 2 out of 14 departments. Hair, makeup, casting, and costume design departments are often led by women already. But sound visual effects and cinematography have greater deficiencies in representation. Lumping all fourteen groups together instead of addressing the imbalance within the departments allows studios to justify not making efforts to make changes. "Those positions that they’ve included are not equal targets, in my opinion,” Chien says.

People have raised questions about the enforcement of the standards. Federal laws prohibit employers from using race, gender, sexual orientation, or disabilities in the hiring processes. Studios face a problem on how to quantify what percentage their cast and crew belong to the marginalized groups the Academy lists. When interviewed by Vanity Fair Academy President David Rubin responded, “It is self-reporting from the participants, the actual members of the crew who choose to do so. And in some cases, it will just be a matter of deciding where and when people have qualified without making inquiries they’re not permitted to do. We were quite aware of the fact that that is a limitation both for people and for companies, and that should be respected.”

In other words, the guidelines require voluntary participation. The eligibility criteria are self-reported. Filmmakers are on an honor code because the Academy is not intending to come out to sets or visit studios to verify the reports. The LA Times questioned the effectiveness of the standards because it relies on the truthfulness of the studios. Dawn Hudson the Academy’s CEO responded to the newspaper saying, “The British Film Institute [whose diversity and inclusion rules the Academy took inspiration from] did some spot-checking looking at applications, but they have found that people are eager to meet the standards...People want to meet them. They’re not looking to find loopholes.”

Optimism at the End of the Tunnel

Three major points argue the new rules are a huge step towards more representation. First, studios may now finance and take a risk on films with representation. Unfortunately, major studios still consider diverse films a financial risk. Consequently, films that have representation are often produced and distributed by smaller or independent studios rather than “The Big Five.” Now that filmmakers can argue that the Academy is advocating for representation, financiers may be more willing to invest and take a risk with such stories.

The inclusion of people with disabilities is a huge step. It is concerning that the Academy includes people with cognitive or physical disabilities in every category except for lead actors. However, their inclusion is a win in itself because all too often, disability is not included in diversity initiatives at all. "To see it was included was a huge step and something really to be celebrated," says Lauren Appelbaum vice president of communications at RespectAbility to Time Magazine. I am so excited that they will now have a chance to potentially be attached to an Oscar-nominated project.”

Secondly, the new rules set an example to the world. This is important to the ever-increasing globalization at the box office. The AMPAS has symbolic power more so than any other film organization. The new Best Picture eligibility criteria takes after the criteria required by the British Film Institute (BFI). The BFI has similar criteria already in place for the BAFTAs (the British equivalent of the Oscars and Emmys) for six years. Still, many people did not know this until the Academy came out with their rules. This speaks to the incredible influence and recognition the AMPAS have compared to other film organizations.

Even if the rules have no teeth to enforce, the Academy acknowledging that representation matters will have immense effects. Across the world, Hollywood is still considered "the Emerald City" of the filmmaking world. No matter if it's true or not, filmmakers still look to the Academy as the pinnacle. As Argentinian producer Axel Kushevatzy says, “even if most movies produced around the world aren’t gunning for Best Picture I think it will have a long-lasting effect in the sense that a lot of countries do watch closely what the Academy does.” Furthermore, the U.S. box office no longer makes up the percentage of box office returns. The guidelines can be beneficial from a business standpoint. As Kushchevatzy argues, "We are no longer talking about only an American audience. You are telling stories to the world. And the world is complex, diverse, and in need of visibility as much as minorities in the U.S.”

In conclusion, the rules are a living document. The BAFTA standards are in its third iteration. After a thorough analysis, one can conclude that the rules are far from perfect. The Academy needs to do a lot of work. The AMPAS will have challenging and potentially polarizing discussions like who counts as an under-represented minority (e.g. if Jewish people and people from the Middle East region are white or under-represented racial/ethnic minority). Thankfully, the rules will not come into effect for the next four years which means the rules can change. A lot can happen in four years whether it be the Academy completely scrapping the rules or adjusting them based on valid concerns and critique.

Even if the Academy scraps the rules, the criteria have already done one positive thing. They forced studios and filmmakers to evaluate what people they currently have on their team and what types of stories they are telling. Each year people in the entertainment industry will have to think about representation. The repetition will hopefully constitute mental retraining. From the #OscarsSoWhite controversy to the reactions to these new rules, representation has always been a hot spot for the Academy: good or bad. Cinema has always sought to not only entertain but reflect and reshape culture and society. Films get made because their storytellers believe the stories and messages are missing from society but important to share. 114 years after the release of the first feature film, everyone from the studio CEOS, actors, directors, industry experts, and film enthusiasts are having discussions about representation. The majority opinion is now that representation matters, and the debate is now how to go about achieving it. And to that I say: it’s about damn time.