“These are not tablets from the mountain,” Paramount Pictures Chairman Jim Gianopulos told me earlier this morning in explaining how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences went about creating new standards of inclusion and representation for entry in to the Best Picture race. The controversial new requirements, set to take full effect in 2024, are actually the result he says of taking a wide-ranging pulse of the industry. “This was discussed with the industry specifically to get their input and to make sure people embraced them. And that meant all the studios, all the independent companies, all the guilds, all the players, all the stakeholders in the industry to have their input and to help them understand the intention which was to move from everybody’s best intentions to objectivity and progress.”
Gianopulos, who also serves as Treasurer of the Academy, co-chaired with producer DeVon Franklin the committee that crafted the new set of four standards affecting all aspects of filmmaking, both on screen and behind the camera. In order to be eligible for a Best Picture nomination movies will have to meet at least two of the four, ranging from hiring a lead or significant supporting actor all the way to key creative leadership to crew composition to marketing and distribution areas of employment and opportunity for underrepresented groups (including women). But don’t call them quotas. When I mentioned that a longtime Academy member called me this morning to lament about the changes and said his favorite film, 1953’s WWII drama Stalag 17 (ironically a Paramount film) would not have qualified, Gianopulos disagreed.
“It would qualify. We weren’t completely oblivious to films like 1917 and Dunkirk and other films like that, that by their nature thematically and otherwise didn’t have diverse people in front of the camera, so that is what standards C and D (as opposed to standards A and B) sought to do which is to say ‘yes’ there are films that might not qualify in terms of front of the camera or even in their thematic elements, but you can make progress by institutionalizing access to the industry through internships, mentorships, the representation in marketing and distribution, and so that was the intent. To say, ‘Is it perfect?’– is every film going to have diverse elements by its nature? Obviously not. But there are other ways to measure progress and to make progress,” he said. “All the studios to a greater or lesser extent, but everyone is focused on these issues and has diversity and HR departments which are focused on it. I think what this does, at the highest levels of the industry at the Academy is provide some objective standards that we can all measure our progress by. That is the intent, and to create them both to be aspirational and to be objective.”
There have been well over 250 comments (so far) to the story I posted on Deadline yesterday announcing the new initiative, and a large number of them were negative. Reaction in the industry has been mixed, but some have vehemently opposed the new changes. In a since-deleted tweet, actress Kirstie Alley called them “a disgrace to artists everywhere.” Franklin said the blowback from some corners was not unexpected.
“We did anticipate this. Whenever you are implementing change it is going to come with conversation, it is going to come with conflict, it is going to come with consideration so we were not surprised,” Franklin said when I asked his opinion of the reaction on social media. “We do think that actually when people take a moment and read through the standards, and see that there is so much flexibility, it will actually help inform how they are looking at it. When you are just reading a headline it is easy to react but when you actually get into the standards and how much flexibility there is for filmmakers and studios and many major distributors to apply it really enhances the creative process. It doesn’t restrict it.”
I pointed to one of the comments posted to the original Deadline story, which came from a Black filmmaker. This is what it said: “I’m black and I deeply believe in telling diverse stories but THIS IS THE DUMBEST, MOST ANTI-ART IDEA I HAVE EVER HEARD. The deep level of obnoxious over-pandering here really disgusts me! Nice job ruining the experience for any underrepresented person(s) winning a Best Picture Oscar post-2025 and anybody wanting to make a movie the way THEY want to make a movie! Don’t talk about being inclusive, just be about it. You don’t have to REQUIRE it with quotas!!!! The Academy should be embarrassed!”
Franklin faced that criticism head on. “We anticipated there was going to be conversation, to people having different points of view. What I will say to that Black person who wrote that, I think after 2024, 2025 the Oscar will mean even more because there was equal consideration for excellence. The Academy has been around for over 90 years. There is a history at this institution of not giving equal opportunity and consideration for those who created art, especially from diverse backgrounds, so hopefully this will change that. So if anything after 2025 this award will mean more, because that consideration will have been given,” he said. “This is not about tokenism, this is not about restriction, this is about inclusion, this is about excellence, this is about merit. And it is about everyone getting equal consideration for their art. And the thing about it is what we think is going to be one of the great byproducts of this is there are so many great artists, specifically of color, in front of the camera and behind the camera who just aren’t getting to be recognized. We hope this will change that. My hope is that this Black filmmaker who wrote that will see and monitor and be a part of the process, and will see this is actually a positive step in the right direction and will actually add more meaning. There is nothing less meaningful than doing the same job, but just because your skin color is different or you are from a group that traditionally doesn’t get representation, there’s nothing worse than that. So we are trying to fix that, and hopefully we will.”
In the phone conversation that also included AMPAS President David Rubin and AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson, the group defended the moves as overdue and necessary. “There has been a growing focus on inclusion and diversity, socially, generally and certainly in the creative community. And this is an effort to give it some definition and make actionable progress through the ability of the Academy to influence its membership and the filmmaking process,” Gianopulos said.
Some Academy members we heard from mentioned they weren’t asked for their input, but Rubin feels the organization was fully represented. “The board members have been elected by their branches and have been entrusted to be custodians of the Academy’s mission and we are in touch with our branch members all the time, and the focus has been intense by the Board. On the subject of creative freedom and any concerns about that, the board is composed of creative artists and craftspeople who understand the need for creative freedom and what is involved in all aspects of the making of a film, and they have brought all of that experience to bear plus the input of the stakeholders across the industry, and I would like to think the membership would appreciate all that input and see themselves in the decision that we made,” he said.
Hudson noted that the British Film Institute standards for inclusion set in 2016 were a template AMPAS used, but then adapted to its own needs. They are currently working with groups like BFI and the Producers Guild in figuring out how to practically implement the paperwork and process the new requirements. But she says none of this is new to members of the Academy. “The Academy members are all through the process of filmmaking. Our members want the chance for more training, more opportunity to cast a wider net all across the industry, from the beginning of writing a film, to casting a film, to producing and distributing a film. Our members have been involved in that process always,” she said in emphasizing why it was important for AMPAS especially to take a more active stance in the journey to industry diversity.
Although the document outlining the new standards is very specific, it doesn’t use the word “qualified” in talking about hiring underrepresented people. That is a word the Academy has always emphasized when talking about diversifying their own membership, making sure they met the established standards to be in AMPAS. I asked Franklin, producer of such faith based hits as Miracles From Heaven and Breakthrough, about the wording.
“Why does that always have to be the adjective? For some reason people historically think that when we talk about giving people an equal shot that somehow that means lowering the standards. That was an intentional move. We did not lower the standards and we did not feel the need to qualify the adjectives. Of course the Academy only recognizes excellence, and only recognizes qualified so why do we need to use that adjective to describe underrepresented artists who aren’t getting the equal opportunity for inclusion? We felt that would have trivialized and downplayed it, and so we wanted to stand on the merit of what this is about and as a result that word was intentionally not mentioned because it is implied in everything we are about,” he said.
As for carrying on with more actions in this regard, Gianopulos said they will be watching the results of their efforts. “It is an ongoing thing in the sense of continuing to evaluate the response to the standards in the filmmaking community, and also their efficacy and the progress they represent, ” he said adding a note of optimism for the pandemic affected industry at large. “We are all about to get to work. Hopefully.”