The Oscar for Best Data-backed Inclusion Policy Goes To...

Green Book?

Hi everyone! It’s Claire’s husband, Brenden, back for another Wednesday newsletter. Today, I will be your red carpet correspondent. As has been the case throughout quarantine, I am wearing gym shorts by Champion and a t-shirt courtesy of America’s national parks. 

On Tuesday, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new inclusion standards that films will need to meet in order to be considered for Best Picture. 

The new rules require that to be nominated for Best Picture, a film must meet representation and inclusion requirements in at least two of four areas: on screen, behind the camera, industry development, and marketing, publicity, and distribution. 

The response on Twitter has been mixed, getting criticism from the right:

And the left:

But I will bravely step in the middle and say that I think they are pretty good but could be better. At the very least, these guidelines go beyond other entertainment industry attempts to mandate inclusion. Believe it or not, newslettering does not pay all the bills in our household (though perhaps your subscription could change that *wink*). Claire and I are both screenwriters. I served as a political coordinator for the writers assistants union (IATSE 871) and am currently a captain (similar to a shop steward) in the Writers Guild of America. So, I have seen many of the failures firsthand.

On the right, the argument against this is that quotas are bad. I disagree. There are tons of TV writing fellowship that aim to give BIPOC and female-identifying writers a foot in the door. The result has been more diverse lower-level writers while producer and showrunner level writers remain mostly white. 

Across all inclusion initiatives in the arts, you see the same results: more diverse at the bottom, white and male at the top. Internships and fellowships cannot dismantle unconscious biases, privilege, and the old boys club that dominate all aspects of society. 

It would follow then that a quota is the only way to bring about an equitable Hollywood. 

I am more sympathetic to the left’s argument: that these standards don’t go far enough. For example, in the acting category, a film must have at least one lead actor or significant supporting actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group OR 30% of the supporting cast must be comprised of underrepresented groups OR a main storyline which centers an underrepresented group. 

I feel like all of these parameters could go further. Still, I understand the strategy of creating criteria aimed at rewarding a good faith effort on the part of the production. It is essential that artists be given the space to tell the stories they want to tell and work with their preferred collaborators. But, at the same time, we need to make sure that a director can’t build a career only working with cis white men or that a producer is allowed to systemically exclude a group from their productions. It is a difficult balance to strike. 

But even with the most generous reading, the behind the camera rules seem incredibly lax: 

“At least two of the following creative leadership positions and department heads—Casting Director, Cinematographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Director, Editor, Hairstylist, Makeup Artist, Producer, Production Designer, Set Decorator, Sound, VFX Supervisor, Writer—are from the following underrepresented groups.’

Given that makeup, hair, and costumes are jobs that stereotypically go to women or gay men, four or five department heads seems like a more appropriate number here. The other criteria which require more general on-set diversity fail to account for known advancement bottlenecks on set—for example, there are many non-white grips but few non-white gaffers. Most script supervisors are women, and most directors with major credits are men. 

Another criticism that I have is that the “industry access and opportunities” option feels like the carbon tax credit of inclusion measures: if you don’t want to follow the law, you can buy your way out. And as I noted above, the data tells us that internships and apprenticeships alone aren’t getting the job done. 

Criticisms aside, in my view, the establishment and normalization of a quota system as just and reasonable are more critical than the initial details. Even the most inclusion-focused person would agree that there is a limit to how the creative process can be mandated and regulated. 

As has been mentioned online, most Best Picture nominees in recent memory would still be considered under these guidelines. I thought about going back through to do my own research, but the “industry access and opportunities” and “audience development” categories are nearly impossible for a layperson to analyze at a distance.

However, it is worth mentioning that films like Green Book and the vast majority of studio films being produced would still qualify under these new standards. While this is true, I think that tackling truly inclusive content is a more nuanced and challenging discussion, while firm inclusion quotas are data-based and are enacted immediately. 

No, this first concrete attempt at inclusion by the Academy doesn’t go far enough, but it does take numerous steps in the right direction. I suspect that once these standards are implemented, and both artists and audiences see no difference in the quality of the work on screen, the Academy can move towards a quota that is genuinely representative of the people they are making movies for.

Of course, the immediate problem we are facing is that due to COVID, there may only be four Best Picture nominees, and one of them might be Sonic the Hedgehog, but that is a conversation for another day.