OPINION: Oscar guidelines encourage diversity

Diversity, representation are important; new Oscar guidelines will help ensure they are respected



The new guidelines for Oscar nominees will ensure that diversity is one of the key facets of the film experience.


Among the blazing hellfields of misinformation and internet outrage that define 2020, it can be difficult to muddle out which side you’re supposed to be screaming out. It can be even more difficult to determine what started the screaming to begin with.

As of September, the recent overhaul of guidelines for The Academy Awards, or Oscars, “Best Picture” nomination is one topic of debate that has drawn dividing lines in the sand yet again — as far as I’m concerned, celebrating diversity in film can only be a good thing. However, organic diversity and instituted diversity don’t always compliment each other..

Some are bemoaning the death of creative freedom, while some are lauding affirmative action. But what do the guidelines actually entail? Furthermore, what impact can they really have on the landscape of cinema going forward? Lay down your arms, Twitter — let’s break it down for the layman.

On Sept. 8, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the Academy in “and I’d like to thank the Academy,” in case you didn’t know — announced a set of shiny new standards a film has to meet in order to be eligible for the much-vaunted Oscar award under “Best Picture” category. These standards are built around inclusivity for underrepresented groups in a film’s cast, crew and thematic material. If a film doesn’t meet these standards, it will not have a shot at “Best Picture.”

If you listen, you can hear Grandma Betty yelling already: “I told you the Mexicans were invading! Look, they’re in my TV!”

I admit the standards might look a little daunting for a prospective filmmaker at first. There are four standards, each with their own bullet points and subsections and snappy formatting. Each standard comprises one category of representation: cast and narrative, crew and development, internship and mentoring, and marketing. Each category then has a selection of different criteria that a film must meet in order to fulfill that standard.

If you’re flashing back to an extra gnarly class rubric, don’t go into the light, Carol Anne — it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

See, in order to meet the eligibility requirements, all a film hoping for nomination has to do is fulfill two of the four standards. In order to fulfill those standards, it does not necessarily have to meet more than one of the listed criteria. To meet Standard A, a production would need either a lead or main supporting actor from an underrepresented racial group, or a secondary cast at least 30 percent comprised of underrepresented racial groups or thematic material related to underrepresented racial groups.

If this still sounds like a lot to keep track of, then we should probably define what “underrepresented racial and ethnic groups” means in this context. The Oscars website lists Asian, Hispanic/Latinx, Black/African American, Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native, Middle Eastern/North African and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander communities as qualifying, with an “other underrepresented races or [ethnicities]” catch-all thrown in at the end.

That’s a lot of groups, guys. That’s every group but white. All pretty broadly defined, too — from my experience, the average college literature class could pull off that level of casting eligibility (plus be delightful conversation in the meantime). See? Not so earth-shattering.

Now let’s move on to Standard B. To achieve Standard B, at least two creative leadership and development positions must be from underrepresented groups, with one position explicitly filled by an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. Alternatively, six additional crew positions could be filled by racial or ethnic groups or 30 percent of the overall crew composition can be from underrepresented groups.

But wait a minute, you might say. What does “underrepresented groups” consist of if it’s different from “underrepresented racial or ethnic groups?” I am glad to say that this much broader category not only covers all ethnic minorities, it covers the LGBTQ+, neurodivergent or people with disabilities, and women.

Yes, that’s right. Women. I don’t want to hear anyone out here stressing how difficult these new eligibility quotas are to meet when there are women on the list. Look hard, you’ll find one.

Hell, forget my literature class, the average family unit could probably stage an indie film eligible for “Best Picture.” Assuming it’s a heteronormative picket fence kind of situation, you have a mother, a father and then a couple of kids (we’ll say a boy and a girl). Without even getting into cultural heritage, disabilities or neurodivergence, sexual orientations, or gender identities this family might have, that’s already 50 percent underrepresented group by virtue of having two women.

Let me be very clear here: the only alternative to what the eligibility guidelines define as “underrepresented groups” is white neurotypical able-bodied cisgendered straight men. “Underrepresented groups” are everything but white neurotypical able-bodied cisgendered straight men.

I know America has a serious fetish for those guys, but I’m just going to come out and say it — if you’ve made a film whose supporting actors or development crew isn’t at least 30 percent underrepresented individuals, then you’ve made a film whose actors and developers are more than 70 percent white neurotypical able-bodied cisgendered straight men. I don’t think you deserve to win “Best Picture.”

Honestly, if you’ve made a film whose cast and crew aren’t at least 30 percent women, then I think you need to wake up from the ‘50s and smell the “women in the workplace.” To put things a bit more in perspective, my roommate and I have been watching the “Alien” franchise lately. If the first three movies don’t qualify for eligibility in terms of cast and crew percentages, then they’re at least not too far off.

This is as far back as 1979, people. Wake up from the ‘50s. What I’m trying to say here is that the changes to the “Best Picture” rules are not a massive change to iconic movies we already know and love. They are simply a new (and overdue) standard for what the Academy will use going forward to recognize what can be truly called a “Best Picture” — a “Best Picture” which qualifies for its nomination by a universal appeal to a diverse audience.

Standard C takes a different approach. Rather than focus on the makeup of the movie itself, it sets two industry-based criteria that must both be met. This standard requires “the film’s distributing or financial company” to have paid internships or apprenticeships for the broader set of underrepresented individuals.

Major studios have to have ongoing programs which include said individuals, while not-so-major studios have to have at least two of said individuals as interns or apprentices. In addition, crew training has to be offered to anyone under the underrepresentation umbrella.

The final category, Standard D, deals with marketing and only has one criterion. This requires “multiple in-house senior executives” who belong to any of the listed underrepresented groups being present on the marketing, publicity and distribution teams. No percentages or exact numbers.

That wraps up what you need to know about the 2024 “Best Picture” guidelines. The four standards are diversity in story or casting, crew, apprenticeships, and marketing, of which only two must be met to qualify for “Best Picture.” Note these standards do not apply to any other award categories, or to animated, international or documentary films competing for the honor.

These standards, according to the Academy President David Rubin and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson, are intended to “reflect our diverse global population in both the creation of motion pictures and in the audiences who connect with them.” They believe inclusion guidelines will force the industry to change for the better.

Matthew Jeffries, director of the Gender Identity/Expression and Sexual Orientation Resource Center said he was optimistic overall, but expressed hesitation to believe that enforcing diversity standards would solve deeper-rooted problems with representation.

“I’m excited because we do need more stories,” he said. “I think, you know, there’s gonna be always those folks who push forward storylines that are limiting, of course, and that’s what I’m apprehensive about.”

As an example, Jeffries brought up the 2016 film “Moonlight,” a story told in three pieces about one man’s struggle to navigate a queer Black adolescence. Among many other awards, in 2017 “Moonlight” won the Academy “Best Picture” Award, which Jeffries pointed out probably exposed a much wider and more generalized audience — including him — to its message and characters than might have seen it otherwise.

He also said even if the pressure to showcase underrepresented groups risks encouraging tokenization or misrepresentation, the diversification of “Best Picture” films will if nothing else open conversations on the topic that might never have happened otherwise.

“What if they’re really bold stories that finally get some space in that ‘Best Picture’ category, right?” Jeffries said. “That have maybe never been looked at before because they were seen as too whatever — too queer, too diverse, whatever.”

In regards to Rubin and Hudson’s claims of generating “long-term” change within the film industry, Jeffries said he agreed that the alteration of “Best Picture” guidelines is part of the long game, but isn’t one that can’t be won without lots of maintenance.

“A decision is made today, and we don’t know what the unintended consequences and impacts are going to be,” he said. “Therefore, when we do [diversity, equity and inclusion] work, we have to be diligent in following up to see what those impacts were. We can’t say ‘Ooh, we’re done, we did it.’ Instead, we need to say ‘Okay, we made a decision a couple of years ago — what has happened because of that decision?’”

Sherwin Sales, WSU graduate instructor and doctoral candidate, said he believes changing the eligibility rules for a “Best Picture” qualification is a positive move, but far from the end-all of diversity struggles in cinematic media.

“I’m pretty big on representation, and so the sentiment is good,” he said. “What I’m always skeptical [of] about initiatives like this is those things you pointed out — tokenism, and this myth of multiculturalism. Where if we have this set of standards, people who are, let’s say, anti-multiculturalist, are like, ‘Okay, everything is solved because now we have these standards … these unequal power balances are now equal.’”

Sales said he believes the initiative is a good start, but he doesn’t think the work stops there. Instead, we have to continue working on meaningful representation. He addressed not only the creative harm of haphazardly throwing minorities into media for the sake of having minorities but the harm to the identity of the people within those minorities who’ve been reduced to trophy pieces.

“People of color, or I should say minoritized groups, are constantly thinking about how they are being represented,” Sales said. “We’re kind of savvy, or we’re kind of smart in thinking ‘Okay, I kind of know why I’m here.’”

Technically, within the “Best Picture” rules, it would be pretty easy to meet the “underrepresented” threshold with queer actors who play straight characters, or people identifying with minorities who play white characters.

It would also be easy to do what plenty of media has historically done and have Black actors in a story about Black issues with a wholly non-Black team doing the writing. Replace “Black” with “women” or “transgender” or “Latinx” as needed. You can see the problems inherent in saying something like ‘It’s okay, guys, I brought my Black friend Greg — I’m ready to talk about apartheid.’

Upon examining the different groups falling into the “underrepresented” section, Sales said misrepresentation could also come in subtler ways by dint of how broad the inclusion standards are. For example, the term Asian could refer to any kind of Asian.

“Maybe they’re making a period piece about, I don’t know, the … Japanese internment camps,” he said, “and they can’t get enough Japanese-American actors to fill their background set or whatever. They’re just going to hire another Asian person who doesn’t identify as Japanese to fill that out.”

This is true. The film “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which is based on a book by a white American man, employed a cast of largely Chinese individuals to play Japanese characters. I myself certainly have concerns about misrepresentation as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and I’m hesitant to trust a writing team who isn’t LGBTQ+ itself to do a good job normalizing queer characters and storylines in an authentic way.

“Honestly, I feel like misrepresentation is going to happen,” he said. “And tokenism — you know, with these sorts of standards, it’s gonna happen. But I think it’s a step in the right direction for potential dialogue so that I’m happy for. At least some things are being done so we can start some discussion on how to move forward with these sorts of things.”

It’s important to keep in mind that whether people like the guidelines or despise them, the one thing everyone can agree on is that these changes weren’t made on accident. With the Black Lives Matter movement more prevalent than ever, publishers, advertisers, and content-creators need to reevaluate representation of America’s intersectional reality in media.

The new guidelines will go into effect in 2024, so if you and your dorm buddies shot an indie film during quarantine that doesn’t meet eligibility criteria and have your little hearts set on winning “Best Picture” in the next few years, you still have a shot. If you don’t get around to releasing it until 2024, well, you still might take home an award — the guidelines only apply to “Best Picture” for now.

I highly encourage everyone to poke around the eligibility webpage themselves or share this column with someone. Ask a friend about it. Start a conversation. Bring it up this Thanksgiving with the family, if you really want to see some fireworks.

The 2024 Oscars have given us the chance to tackle a small, digestible piece of creative diversity, and we should all be talking about it. The point of the change is to let every voice be heard, so open that dialogue and see where it takes you. Keep a critical eye on the 2024 “Best Picture” nominees. With any luck, the Oscars might see something they’ve never seen before.