The Oscars’ New Diversity Rules Are Sweeping but Safe

Although the initiative is meant to encourage major changes, the best-picture qualifications aren’t as strict as they may seem.

In 2015, after the Oscars announced a set of 20 all-white acting nominees, the then-president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was asked whether the group had a diversity problem.

“Not at all,” the leader, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, replied. “Not at all.”

What a difference five years makes. After a second all-white group of actors was nominated and the activist April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag became a rallying cry, the academy began taking great strides to diversify a membership that had been largely white and male for nine decades. Those inclusion goals were met months ago, but this week, the academy unveiled an even more ambitious diversity initiative with the intention of reshaping not just how movies are rewarded, but also who’s hired to make them in the first place.

Meant to take effect by the 96th Oscars in 2024, these new guidelines will require films to meet two of four diversity standards to be eligible for a best-picture nomination. It’s an initiative that could, on its face, encourage studios to enact more equitable hiring practices and broaden the range of stories that are told.

Still, though the announcement has sent shock waves through Hollywood, the new guidelines aren’t as strict as they may initially appear.

The first set of stipulations, grouped as Standard A, has already earned the most attention, and with good reason: It’s meant to encourage diversity in front of the camera for an industry that still defaults to white actors. To satisfy the demands of Standard A, only one of these three criteria needs to be met:

  • At least one actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group must be cast in a significant role.
  • The story must center on women, L.G.T.B.Q. people, a racial or ethnic group or the disabled.
  • At least 30 percent of the cast must be actors from at least two of those four underrepresented categories.

An emphasis on the latter two criteria would radically change the stories that are greenlit and the people who appear in them. But the first criterion, which mandates that “at least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors is from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group,” will prove easy for most films to satisfy. Recent best-picture nominees like “Joker,” which is top-heavy with white stars but features Zazie Beetz as the would-be love interest, or “La La Land,” a white-led love story with John Legend in a supporting role, could still sail through Standard A with little to worry about.

Standard B is focused on hiring behind the scenes and asks productions to meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Two or more department heads — meaning jobs like director, cinematographer or composer — must be female, L.G.T.B.Q., disabled or part of an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.
  • At least six other crew members must be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.
  • At least 30 percent of the film’s crew must hail from the four underrepresented groups continually laid out in these guidelines.

The first criterion initially appears easiest to satisfy, as department heads like costume designers, makeup artists, hairstylists and casting directors skew heavily female, though there is a further stipulation: At least one of those jobs must also go to someone from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, which means that simply hiring white women won’t fulfill the requirement. Still, largely white best-picture nominees like “The Irishman” and “The Tree of Life,” which each employed female casting directors and Mexican cinematographers, would have no problem meeting the demands of Standard B.

If it’s starting to dawn on you that most best-picture contenders wouldn’t have to change a thing under the new guidelines, just wait until you get to Standards C and D. Standard C requires one of two criteria be met:

  • The film’s distributor or financing company must have at least two interns from an underrepresented group.
  • The film’s production, distribution or financing company must offer training or work opportunities to people from those underrepresented groups.

Just about any studio with a robust internship program would already meet those stipulations, and Standard D is even simpler: It merely asks that some of the senior marketing, publicity and distribution executives on a film are from an underrepresented group. Given the number of women and gay men who work in the field of publicity, that is an easy bar for any studio to clear.

Since only two of the four standards must be met for a film to qualify for the Oscars top prize, and Standards C and D are so easy for most studios to satisfy, best-picture contenders could remain fairly homogeneous both behind and in front of the camera. In other words, if a filmmaker still wants to make a war movie about white men like “1917” or “American Sniper,” that’s permitted by the new Oscar guidelines as long as the studio distributing it has done the bare minimum when hiring interns and marketing executives.

Given that, will anything truly change? Yes, but it’s something far harder to measure: perception. Even if the new guidelines allow ample workarounds, they will probably spur filmmakers, financiers and studio executives to take the issue of diversity more seriously, and could especially be a boon to department heads of color. And now that the issue is on the table, Oscar voters may be interested to learn just how specifically a contender’s diversity standards were met, and which films skated by with a handful of interns.

At the very least, all this is a tacit admission that the academy is not a passive participant when it comes to diversity in Hollywood, merely beholden to films made outside the organization’s purview. The Oscars can bestow a mighty significance, and their imprimatur has long influenced the films that are greenlit and the filmmakers trusted to tell stories. If these new guidelines say anything loud and clear, it’s that a lack of diversity isn’t just the Oscars’ problem. It’s everybody’s.

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