Oscars get a symbolic makeover
The best picture category has new diversity standards
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suffered embarrassment in 2015 when #OscarsSoWhite started trending on social media. April Reign, the activist who started the hashtag, noted at the time that the academy’s membership was 92 percent white and 75 percent male. The controversy went from bad to worse when the list of 2016 nominees for the Academy Awards had less ethnic diversity than the 2015 slate.
In response to the criticism, the film trade association announced over the summer it had inducted 819 new members, doubling the number of women and people from underrepresented ethnic groups. A more diverse group of nominators could result in a more diverse group of nominees, but the academy also decided to change the selection criteria for best picture.
Previously, best picture contenders had to be at least 40 minutes long and shown on a certain number of screens in a certain timeframe during the year. Starting in 2024, a film must also meet at least two of four new diversity standards to be considered for the Oscars’ top prize.
The first criteria, or standard A, requires a film to have a lead actor of nonwhite ethnicity or an ensemble cast with at least 30 percent of its members from two or more of the following groups: women, LGBT individuals, or people with a disability. The movie could also have a storyline that focused on one of those groups.
To fulfill standard B, a film must have a certain level of diversity in its creative leadership. Standard C asks whether a studio offers paid internships to underrepresented groups, and standard D promotes diversity in marketing and distribution.
For all the fanfare, the criteria won’t require sweeping changes of the film industry. Major studios can easily meet standards C and D. Vanity Fair noted all of the best picture nominees in the last 15 years have satisfied either A or B.
“Without even mandating it, the industry is going toward diversity,” said Andrei Constantinescu, who owns a casting company in Dallas.
He recalled uncomfortable conversations from his early days in the business, when producers would ask that 90 percent or more of the extras on set be white “because if there’s too many people of color on screen, then the audience is distracted.” He believes things have changed for the better—now he gets asked for more diversity on set rather than less.
Jesse GrothOlson, an independent filmmaker who teaches cinema at Houston Baptist University, thinks it will take time to see the effect of the academy’s changes, but he hopes some of his minority students will feel that the world wants to hear their stories.
“At best I see this as a way to initiate good trickle-down that will move standards at all levels of execution in the industry,” he said. “At worst, it could initiate a kind of industry overhaul that puts workers into positions for reasons that have nothing to do with their skills and everything to do with their sexual identity or racial makeup.”
Some members of the academy worry the diversity initiative will harm the Oscars’ reputation for honoring the best in artistic achievement. In January, author Stephen King, a voting member of the academy, tweeted, “I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” But movie making isn’t just an artform. It’s a business, and diversity is big business these days.
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