Oscars Diversity -- New Academy Rules Will Have Little Impact

An Oscar statue stands during a media preview, Los Angeles, Calif., 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The changes will be much less dramatic than the headlines and social-media buzz implies.


n Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced new guidelines for film eligibility.

These new guidelines emphasize diversity, but in more complicated ways than you might assume. Before considering the effects of the new rules, it is worth contemplating the old rules, both explicit and implicit.

Previously, the only formal requirements for eligibility were that a movie had to have been screened and advertised for a week for paid admission in Los Angeles County in the preceding calendar year. Hence Oscar eligibility lists published by the academy includes movies that nobody expects to get Oscars — such as Pokémon Detective Pikachu and the remake of Charlie’s Angels. Of course, those are the official rules for eligibility, but as everyone intuitively knows — and Oliver Schilke and I showed in a 2014 article for the American Sociological Review — there are implicit criteria for getting an Oscar. Notably, Oscar bait is typically released in November or December; has IMDb genres of drama, war, biography, and/or history; has plot elements such as disability, scandal, investigative reporting, human-rights abuses, or show business; has a director with a track record of nominations; and is released by the specialty division of a major studio. The new rules would add that the film must substantially reflect diversity on the screen or behind it.

The new rules emphasize diversity in a level of detail that is unprecedented for the mainstream Oscar categories. (Categories such as foreign and documentary have long had complicated rules.) The new rules require Oscar-eligible films to meet any two of four “standards.” Standard “A” requires that the film has a non-white lead actor or much of the supporting cast are intersectionally diverse or the story centers on women, non-white people, LGBTQ+, or disabled people.

Standard “B” has similar criteria to standard “A,” but applies to behind-the-scenes roles, including those where the goals are met routinely. For instance, most costume designers are women and so most films could meet Standard “B” simply by having one additional major behind-the-scenes role filled by a person who is not white. (Throughout the new standards, we see attention to various forms of diversity but with racial diversity occasionally being flagged as more important than other kinds.) Hire a Latino cinematographer or an Asian production designer and you’re good.

Standard “C” doesn’t even apply to the film but to the distributor. It requires that the distributor has entry-level affirmative action for both white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Standard “D” requires that the production company have diversity in senior roles for marketing, publicity, and distribution teams.

There are a few things to note about the new guidelines. First, they are an attempt to create a set of regulations for an industry through withholding access to a resource — what sociologists call “coercive isomorphism.” This is how affirmative action came into being in the first place. A series of executive orders and other federal actions required federal contractors to engage in affirmative action. In theory, if your company didn’t want to sell to the federal government you didn’t have to deal with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the federal government is a big customer and the customer is always right. Similarly, as Schilke and I showed in our 2014 paper, Oscars are very valuable for small films on challenging subjects, and so studios may very well decide to create this internship program or take a chance on making that up-and-comer the head hair stylist, especially if it’s relatively low-cost to do so and they are under pressure from other directions to do so anyway.

Another thing to note is that the changes will be much less dramatic than the headlines and social-media buzz implies, both because Oscar films are already pretty diverse and because it is possible to meet the standards in ways that don’t appear on screen. Oscar films have had a healthy representation of stories about disabilities and sexuality for decades, and since 2010, the Oscars have had extremely strong racial diversity, with half the best-picture winners starring non-white leads. It might be a consequential change if going forward this would have to characterize all best-picture nominees, as this would preclude telling certain stories (or at least preclude telling them with period-accurate casting). However, the on-screen rule, Standard “A,” is only one of the four standards. The Academy has made it relatively easy for studios to comply with the other standards. You can expect female publicists to be as important to the woke Oscars rules as Canadian producers are to certifying pop songs as sufficiently Canadian to be played on Canadian radio. And notably, Standard “C” applies to the distribution company, which means that, as is typical of regulations, there will be economies of scale to regulatory compliance. It will be much easier for Disney to create a “substantive” paid internship program that blesses all its releases than it will be for an independent distributor to put two paid internships on its humble books.

Five years from now, we could still have best-picture winners about straight white men such as The King’s Speech, Hurt Locker, No Country for Old Men, or The Departed. And even The King’s Speech and Hurt Locker might qualify under the thematic new rules if you interpret stuttering or PTSD as disabilities. Likewise, a Jane Austen adaptation would count, as it is about women. In the long run, the new Oscars rules could have as little public salience as the largely forgotten diversity internships that several television networks created to appease critics of the notably white 1999 television season.

Gabriel Rossman is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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