The Oscars are turning the corner towards his 100th birthday – next year’s ceremony, whatever form it takes, will be the 93rd – but the awards ceremony is far from set in its ways. Just in the last year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the professional organization that awards the Oscars, changed the rules for renaming a category and coping with a pandemic. Not long ago, the organization was playing with a new “Best Popular Film” category, though it’s unclear whether it will ever actually be awarded. And a few years ago, the membership guidelines changed to address its diversity issues.
And now, the guidelines are changing again. The Academy has announced changes to the Best Picture category, aimed at the high goal of making Hollywood more diverse.
But it caused some confusion with people (some of them doesn’t seem to have actually read the guidelines before weighing) alternately cheering and whistling changes. So here’s a quick guide to the guidelines, what they actually mean for the Oscars and whether they’ll have any effect on the show or the industry in general.
What are these new Oscars rules?
On September 8, the Academy announced a set of new eligibility guidelines for films aiming to compete for the best picture, considered the first prize at the Oscars.
There are four categories of inclusion standards. You can read the full standards on the Oscars website, but they basically break down into two big buckets: standards that promote more inclusive representation and standards that promote more inclusive employment. Films will need to meet standards in two of the four categories to qualify.
First, a note. This gets verbose quickly, so to make it easier, I’ll use the following terminology:
- The Academy designates “underrepresented racial or ethnic groups” within the standards to include Asian, Hispanic / Latino, Black / African American, Indigenous / Native American / Alaskan, Middle Eastern / North African, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander or “other race or underrepresented ethnicity”. I will refer to this category as underrepresented racial or ethnic groups.
- The Academy also designates a broader set of identity groups within the standards, which includes the underrepresented racial and ethnic groups listed above, as well as women, LBGTQ + people and people with cognitive or physical disabilities or who are deaf or hard of hearing. For simplicity, I will refer to this group taken together as underrepresented identity groups.
The first category of standards (which the Academy calls Group A) deals with the stories or characters on the real screen. In this category, films must have one of the following:
- At least one “significant major or non-leading actor” of an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. OR …
- At least 30 percent of a cast in secondary and secondary roles from two underrepresented identity groups. OR …
- A main story or topic that focuses on an underrepresented identity group.
Group B the standards relate to the creative and production team behind the film. To meet these standards, a film must meet one of the following criteria:
- At least two heads of the main departments (such as editing, director, make-up and hair, costumes or sound, as well as many others) must come from a group of underrepresented identities. In addition, at least one of these must come from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. OR …
- At least six people on the crew (excluding production assistants, usually the base position on set) are from an underrepresented ethnic or racial group. OR …
- At least 30 percent of the crew are from an underrepresented identity group.
Group C the standards have to do with the (paid) training opportunities that film companies offer to groups of underrepresented people in Hollywood. There are some fine print here that distinguish between large companies with deep pockets (like Disney and Warner Bros.) and smaller companies or independent productions. But in general, to qualify in this category, the production company or distributor of the film must satisfy both of these two standard:
- It must offer internship or paid apprenticeship opportunities, in a variety of departments, to people belonging to underrepresented identity groups and must actually hire people in those positions (numbers vary depending on the size of the company). IS …
- It must offer “below the line” training and work opportunities (essentially middle and low level positions) to people from underrepresented identity groups.
Group D the standards are about “audience development,” with the way Hollywood talks about the parts of the business that get people to buy movie tickets. To qualify in this category, the studio or company distributing the film must have “multiple” senior executives from underrepresented identity groups on their marketing, advertising or distribution teams.
Remember: films will only have to meet the standards in a minimum of two of these four groups in order to compete for the best film.
Additionally, these rules won’t go into effect until the 2024 Oscars (which, due to the way award calendars work, cover films released in 2023), which means they won’t apply to films coming out in 2021 or in 2022.
However, starting with films released in 2021, filmmakers will have to submit a confidential form indicating how well their films align with those standards to be eligible; presumably, they will still be eligible if they don’t comply, but the data will help both companies and the Academy see where there are still gaps in industry inclusion efforts.
It is important to note that this is it only for the Best Picture category, so a film might not meet these standards and still be eligible for other awards.
Why is the Academy changing the rules?
Great question! In short, although Hollywood is moving towards greater diversity, the problems persist. The first is that, for a variety of reasons, Hollywood – that is, the American film industry – is still predominantly a place where white men, and to a lesser extent white women, from affluent backgrounds occupy key decision-making positions. at major studios, as well as “mini-majors” and independent production companies.
White men still direct most of the movies, write most of the movies, and produce most of the movies, especially the big budget ones. (They are still most film critics, but the critics don’t work for Hollywood, so this is on media companies.) This has, for a long time, a visible effect on what stories are told, who gets the money to tell them. , who will fail and continue to work and, more pertinently to the Academy, which films will be awarded the Oscars.
The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC has done a great job documenting and studying the lack of diversity in Hollywood if you want to know more.
Since Academy membership is based on factors such as years spent working in Hollywood, awards won and name recognition, and since Academy membership is for life, the composition of the voting body was long strongly oriented towards older white men. A 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation found that the median voter for the Oscar was a white man of about 65. The membership consisted of 94% whites and 77% men; only 2% of the academy were black and less than 2% identified themselves as Latinx. The LA Times also found that only 14% of members were under the age of 50.
Following the investigations of the LA Times and, subsequently, of the #OscarsSoWhite embarrassed, the Academy began to make giant strides towards expanding its members, making it more representative of the general American public. This meant inviting more ethnically and racial people and more young people to join.
Today, after years of inviting record numbers of new members, the Academy has increased its diversity. Between 2015 and 2020, the percentage of female members increased from 25% to 33%. The percentage of people belonging to underrepresented ethnic and racial groups has grown from 10% to 19%. (Full stats are available through the Oscars website.) At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a huge increase, but as people who have been members for decades remain in the organization even as new members are added, that percentage will take years to move.
The percentage of Academy members is not directly related to or predictive of nominees for best film, nor of nominees in any other category. But the group is recognizing a wider range of experiences, one that comes closest to the actual viewing audience, in its voting body. And so, the Academy aims to expand the pool of possibilities away from what, in the past, has traditionally been considered an “Oscar movie” and what has been considered “niche”. The new eligibility guidelines are another move towards this goal.
It means a movie like The Irish would not be eligible for Best Picture in future years?
The Irish fits the bill perfectly.
Yes, it is a film directed by a white man, starring mainly white men. But many of Scorsese’s longtime collaborators are women (mostly white), including producer Emma Tillinger Koskoff; casting director Ellen Lewis; and publisher Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked with Scorsese from the start. The film’s director of photography, Rodrigo Preto, is Mexican. These personnel decisions meet Category B requirements. The film was funded and distributed by Netflix, a company that includes many women and people of color on its executive team, including in key positions in communications and advertising, and promotes programs internal development focuses on diversity and inclusion – all factors that meet categories C and D. And this doesn’t take into account LGBTQ + people or people with disabilities – factors that aren’t obvious if you’re just reading IMDb, or may not be publicly known – who might be involved.
What to say Little Women?
Little Women, being, well, women, she easily meets the criteria for category A, even though her main cast is entirely white. It is also directed by a woman, produced by a team of women and women largely employed as department heads. And while you certainly can’t tell if a person fits into one of the larger underrepresented groups designated by the Academy purely by name and image, a quick scan of the IMDb page makes it pretty clear that at least 30 percent of the crew meet the category B requirements. (This does not even take into account categories C and D at Sony Pictures Entertainment, the film’s distributor, which recently launched an initiative on diversity and inclusion, nor the categories of LGBTQ + people and people with disability.)
What to say Green book?
The 2019 Best Picture winner has received a lot of criticism (in my opinion, well-deserved) for his regressive, whitewashed view of race in America. But it also easily passes the test. Mahershala Ali won her second Oscar for her role in the film, which certainly qualifies as a “significant supporting actor” (and thus meets Category A). Among its executive producers are Octavia Spencer and Kwame L. Parker (who meets category B). It was released by Universal Pictures, led by President Donna Langley; Universal’s head of distribution is Veronika Kwan Vandenberg and its head of global communications is Cindy Gardner (Category D). And Universal has an established global talent development and inclusion program (Category C).
These three examples are all big studio movies with money to burn, of course. But a movie like, let’s say, Moonlight – the lowest budget film ever to win an Oscar for Best Picture, at $ 1.5 million – would have easily qualified, as most of its cast is black, its director Barry Jenkins is black, Jenkins Tarell co-writer Alvin McCraney is black (and gay), a number of key department heads are black, and the film’s main plot focuses on a gay and black character.
This is just an empty report, then? Or will the new guidelines have an effect on Hollywood?
It’s hard to say right now, of course. In fact, it looks like movies will have to work hard not be able to tick two of the four boxes.
But that could be the point.
Submitting a film for consideration for best film will require the submission of a confidential form for two years before the guidelines take effect. This means that film companies aspiring to awards will have a chance to see if they are missing in a key area and fix that blind spot before 2024.
The simplest way to ensure that a company’s films are eligible for the best film is to do two things: establish paid internships, apprenticeships and career opportunities for people from underrepresented groups; and ensure that people from underrepresented groups occupy key positions in audience development within the company. Then even the whitest, hetero, most cisgender film about people without disabilities, created, directed and produced by them, would still be suitable, provided that society itself promotes inclusion and diversity.
This is a more accessible option for large film studios because they have the resources to invest in talent development. Still, a significant number of low- and mid-budget films, which can be produced by companies with no such resources, generate good excitement at film festivals and are therefore bought by larger companies. They will then be able to benefit from their distributors’ investments in diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Obviously, a company may choose not to focus on these types of initiatives, either because it doesn’t have the resources or for some other reason. But if they produce or distribute a film about an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, women, LGBTQ + people or people with disabilities, and if the people from those groups are also in key artistic positions or comprise at least 30% of the crew, then the film will still qualify for consideration for best picture.
Overall, however, it seems clear that the Academy’s new eligibility guidelines are primarily designed to encourage different to hire is development practices, even more so than promoting greater diversity in the stories the audience sees on screen.
Are there any potential problems with this? Absolutely. You can imagine a film company where tokenism is promoted, with apprenticeship and internship programs that lead nowhere, the minimum number of people from underrepresented groups promoted to key positions, and a lot of words in favor of diversity and inclusion with very few results. You can also easily imagine – because it always happens right now – a world where films about black people are made by largely white creative teams (like, for example, Disney’s recent live-action remake of Mulan), but qualify for the production company’s diversity initiatives.
Likewise, the guidelines make many equivalences that seem problematic at best. Is being gay “the same” as being black? Is being trans “the same” as being deaf? Is being a woman “the same” as being of Asian descent? Some of the underrepresented categories are discriminated more consistently than others, explicitly or implicitly, and guidelines like these could simply lead to even tighter, unspoken hierarchies in hiring – a proposition that’s a bit horrible to consider.
The Academy has given itself a few years to see if this produces an effect and maybe smooth out some of the wrinkles, so it’s possible we may see tweaks and changes to the guidelines in the future. As of now, however, it’s a little hard to think about recent Best Picture nominees who wouldn’t qualify under these rules or easily qualify with some company or crew-level changes.
However, it appears this won’t fix the #OscarsSoWhite issue
Correct! These rules only apply to films submitted for consideration of the best film. And given that a film with an all-white cast, or a story focused primarily on men, is still eligible, it doesn’t even guarantee that Best Picture nominees will focus on significantly more different stories than ever before.
That said, movies usually try to qualify in a number of different categories, and most movies that aim for the Oscars at least secretly dream of getting a best picture slot. So the rules could have a cascading effect on casting choices and which movies get the “buzz” that can help push individual actors, directors, writers, and others into individual categories. But this is far from obvious.
This is always the problem with trying to generate massive systemic change at the industry level, especially in an industry like Hollywood, which pays a lot of attention to inclusiveness but is, fundamentally, conservative and contrary to what the people at the top perceive as. risks – if this risk is the perception that “black films do not travel” or that “men will not go to a film about women”.
So will the Oscars look significantly different in 2024 than in the past decade? It’s impossible to know, but there’s no guarantee that they will. However, if the goal of these eligibility guidelines is to incentivize investment in a more diverse and inclusive workforce, it could have some impact, even if it is limited.
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