The Oscars and Half-Hearted Diversity Quotas

Last week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences released new standards for what is necessary for a film to qualify for a nomination for Best Picture. This led to some predictable criticism and celebration. The basic rule is that in order to be considered for Best Picture, a film must meet two of four standards:

1. There should be significant representation of disadvantaged ethnic or racial groups in the cast, or the subject matter of the film should deal with underrepresented groups, including the disabled and women.

2. There should be significant representation of people from protected classes in the crew of the film.

3. There should be internship and training opportunities for people who aren’t able-bodied cis straight white men.

4. There should be people working in marketing and publicity who aren’t able-bodied cis white men.

The announcement led to a lot of misunderstandings, as some people thought that this meant that there would be changes to the subject matter of Oscarbait films, or something like Parasite wouldn’t be eligible because its cast and crew were largely Korean, and not actually diverse. The standards don’t require a film to be diverse, as any film that exceeds the minimum in terms of representation would certainly meet the quotas. The spreadsheet is complicated to allow any major studio to meet the standards with ease. That seems intentional.

Some have argued this will mean there’s going to be less of a particular type of film, which they see as a good thing, with one message board poster thinking we’ll see less of Oscarbait films like Little Women and The Favourite. This gets quite messy, since those stories would qualify as meeting the diversity standards due to the emphasis on women. That’s probably a good thing as there aren’t necessarily that many period pieces about the internal lives of multiple women. Green Book would also count in the first category, as a story with racial themes, and as a film with an African-American actor in a key supporting role.

The standards wouldn’t really affect the prestige films criticized for tone-deaf depictions of race as these tend to include significant minority performances and/ or significant numbers of minority actors in the cast, and even if the crew is mostly white straight men, there will likely be some members of racial and ethnic minority groups in the promotional department, just to have black and brown people on staff explaining why the film isn’t racist. It can also be a problem to suggest that something that was quite acclaimed should not exist. We can have Little Women and Green Book at the same time the industry is making Roma, Widows, and If Beale Street Can Talk.

There were defenses of the standards that were a little flawed. One response is that this is only going to apply to the small group of films that might reasonably expect to be nominated for Best Picture. I’m guessing it would very quickly be part of the campaign against another nomination that it’s part of a film that doesn’t meet a particular diversity quota.

Critic Frank Harris suggested that part of the point is an indication of what it takes to be in good standing in Hollywood.

The one good film that doesn’t meet the standard will probably become a political lighting rod, in a way that will be deeply unpleasant to the people involved. Progressive theater actors probably don’t want to be defended by divisive figures (especially in Hollywood) like Joe Rogan and Ben Shapiro. But another outcome is that some smaller films will not get made if the lack of a budget for internships/ publicity means it’ll fail to meet diversity quotas, which will guarantee bad publicity and potentially taint everyone involved.

Another point is that the Oscars do have major biases, so this is just one more example. While the Oscars have biases, against animated films, foreign language films, genre films, and more, it is different to set explicit standards about what qualifies for the industry’s most prestigious awards, especially if these standards can be politically controversial.

There was the belief that this could change the predictable Oscar races when often nominated white actors win in work by white directors who have been nominated many times before, like Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Daniel-Day Lewis in Lincoln, or Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine. However, you feel about those wins, the new rules aren’t necessarily going to fix that. The studio with white director with multiple nominations teaming up with white actors with multiple nominations is going to be able to afford the bare minimum for compliance. The stereotype also isn’t all that common, considering the number of first time nominations, or nominated performances in movies directed by women or people of color.

When it comes to nominations, it can take a long time for policies to pay dividends, and the results might not even occur in the same field. Five of the last seven Academy Awards for Best Director were won by three men who worked together in the Mexican television industry in the 90s, so fixes to Hollywood aren’t the entirety of the pipeline, since American films have so much international talent, and draw from other markets (theater, television, etc.) 

One accurate point is that the overwhelming majority of studio films would meet these standards already. A studio making a prestige picture in a setting where you would expect most of the characters to be straight white males (European prisoner of war camp, upper echelon of a bigoted industry, three Irish-American brothers on a road trip, police officers in Wyoming, etc.) would be able to afford the internship programs, and marketing consultants to meet standards 3 and 4, if they don’t meet the other two. A potential complication is that the emphasis on meeting diversity quotas will place a premium on crew from underrepresented groups, but that’s not a problem for A-list projects.

The main people who might be in trouble are the cast and crew of certain independent films that do not have the budgets to comply with additional regulations.

An additional problem with the checklists is determining what qualifies. Are White Hispanics Latinx or White? What counts as a cognitive disability?

One point is that this won’t affect the art side.  If it doesn’t affect the art side, how can we declare that something that doesn’t meet these standards is ineligible for Best Picture? But there may also be potential effects on quality if less talented or experienced individuals are given key jobs, or the narrative is shaped in a particular way, in order to meet the quotas.

In the immediate future, the only projects that might be effected are a handful of independent films. Either it does nothing, so it’s useless that way, or it’s an additional complication for indie filmmakers who need to establish their good standing in Hollywood. This also leads to the question of why we should stop here. When the precedent is set to have this requirement, why not require clear environmental standards? Why not dictate labor practices? Why shouldn’t conservatives and Christians say that the AMPAS’s clear lack of action shows they don’t care about Middle America?

There are two trends this fits. The first is a cultural disregard for certain types of white people. There are unambiguously certain subgroups of white men who are overrepresented in Hollywood relative to their share of the population (Obama voters, graduates of top-tier universities) and they’ll continue to be overrepresented in the future. The second trend is a carelessness or progressives about small business, since big business can comply, and has no problems with an industry body coming up with new regulations that multi-million dollar projects likely meet already. But it’ll be interesting to see where this goes, or if it’s abandoned as quickly as the “Best Popular Film” category.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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