Amid the keen struggle for an industry that better reflects the world we live in, Frances McDormand’s inclusion rider mic-drop at the Oscars will live long in the memory. It was needed. While movies such as Moonlight, Wonder Woman, Black Panther and A Quiet Place are pushing the envelope, research indicates that there was little year-on-year rise in inclusion in US films in the 10 years to 2016.
An inclusion rider is a concrete answer to that. The rider is a provision added to a contract of an actor to ensure that casting and production staff meet certain levels of diversity; for example, regarding the inclusion of women, people of color, LGBTQ people or people with disabilities. Soon after the Oscars, filmmakers Michael B. Jordan, Brie Larson, Paul Feig, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck committed to adopting it on all their future productions, while WME called for its adoption across its clients.
In the third in our series of interviews with women at the heart of industry change, we spoke to the architects of the inclusion rider, USC academic Stacy L. Smith, lawyer Kalpana Kotagal and actress, producer and advocate Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, who have been working on it since 2016.
Stacy, you have been conducting research in this area for a number of years. What changed this year?
Stacy L. Smith: We’re seeing a shift from individual activist engagement to company leaders seeking change. In the post-Weinstein period, walls have been coming down and there’s a real hunger to get information about best practice.
The inclusion rider is one tool which must function within a culture which values inclusion. There are many problems facing hiring practices in Hollywood. One problem which doesn’t seem to change is the ecosystem of the cast on screen. The inclusion rider protects story sovereignty; that is paramount. But the typical film features around 40 characters with only around 8-10 being relevant to the plot. The rest should look like the world we live in. Those actors should be able to build a resumé through getting strong supporting roles.
We need the attention of casting agents and studios in order to short-circuit bias because numbers around gender and race are not improving on screen. We have seen some improvement around LGBTQ, but characters with disabilities are virtually non-existent. Girls Trip, Black Panther, A Wrinkle in Time; these shouldn’t be anomalies.
The template includes a reporting mechanism to yourself and Fanshen?
Smith: The template calls for partners to create some kind of reporting mechanism. It can potentially be a third party. There’s also a stipulation that non-compliance should lead to a contribution being made to a scholarship fund for filmmakers from under-represented backgrounds.
Kalpana, how much work has gone into this from a legal perspective?
Kalpana Kotagal: It was a substantial amount. We had to craft this without creating quotas or reverse discrimination suits. We started working on this in the fall of 2016 and it took a year to come up with a solid template. We’ve made the template public so that studios, A-listers and producers can find it. With the advice of counsel there’s no reason this can’t be used widely by the industry. We’re on our way by virtue of WME taking this on. We understand discussions are underway at other agencies for them to take it on, too.
I’ve spoken to lawyers who still have concerns about its legality.
Kotagal: The two areas that people get concerned about are quotas and reverse discrimination. We’ve created a flexible framework whereby we have anticipated these concerns. The idea that advancing diversity and inclusion in the industry inherently brings us into conflict with anti-discrimination laws is a straw man. The employment law principles in the IR are best practice in many other industries.
How did the concept come to Frances McDormand? Fanshen, I understand you were instrumental in that through your work with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Pearl Street.
Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni: Having two powerful white men [Affleck and Damon] agree early on to support our work made a difference. Having that support helped validate our work to others, and helped in getting our phone calls answered and spreading the word around the industry.
What challenges have you encountered from the industry when presenting the inclusion rider?
DiGiovanni: A challenge I frequently face now is speaking to executives who hold the false notion that suddenly if you’re a white male, you can’t get hired anymore. It brings to mind Clay Shirky: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
On the whole, how would you assess the response to it?
Smith: It has been exhilarating. The goal is to make hiring practices transparent to the extent that the inclusion rider isn’t necessary and we have stamped out nepotism. We would like to see many of the closed networks of hiring talent broken up. When only four percent of directors across the last 1,100 Hollywood movies are women and only eight of those are women of color, it’s fair to say that the deep bench of talent is not being recognized. It’s a broken talent pipeline.
How confident are you that this will be adopted by networks and studios?
Smith: We haven’t seen anything like Time’s Up before. We haven’t seen a force like this with women coming together in unison. We’re also in a season in which there’s a huge return on investment for female-driven content and content with powerfully diverse elements. Seeing the choices that Disney has made around its directing talent is encouraging. The early numbers from the broadcast networks around female directors are encouraging.
For true change to happen we need film schools to see women and people of color leading classes. We need schools to ensure that this talent is encouraged and fostered. We need film festivals to have programmers and to have boards and lineups which reflect the world we live in. We need folks of VP and above to be hiring and fostering talent that doesn’t reflect narrow parameters. All of that needs to happen.
This is about people making choices that are different to those they have made in the past. We often hear executives saying, “We need the best person for the job.” That misses the point. That concept is a narrowly constructed ideal in someone’s mind. Why hasn’t a woman been considered to direct a tentpole? It’s not that they’re not available.
Festival heads say to me, “We deal with what we get.” Is that enough? Again this year, Cannes has only a few women in competition and it is the first year in four that there’s a black director in competition…
Katherine Pieper [Smith’s department colleague at USC]: One of the interesting things to consider is how applications are solicited. There are moves that can be made to encourage a diversity of applications. If you have a history of not being open to certain types of filmmakers, you may be missing out. It’s not about waiting to see what ends up in your inbox. That’s a fiction.