By Katie Ryu
The Academy Awards, perhaps better known as the Oscars, is no stranger to criticism. Most notably, its lack of diversity has been a standing issue to which many have brought attention and directed scrutiny, as seen for example in the social media campaign #OscarsSoWhite that rose to prominence five years ago. Activist April Reign began the viral movement after noticing that there wasn’t a single person of color in any of the lead or supporting actor categories, subsequently tweeting: “#OscarsSoWhite, they asked to touch my hair.”
Diversity and inclusion, historically speaking, aren’t exactly the Oscars’ strong suit.
But in early September, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed new representation and inclusion standards for eligibility in the Best Picture category. These standards, which focus on women, underrepresented racial/ethic groups, LGBTQ+ people, and those with disabilities, are a part of the Academy Aperture 2025 initiative to further equity and inclusion in the entertainment and film industry.
Films will have to adhere to the threshold for eligibility not in the upcoming award season, but beginning in 2024 for the 96th Oscars. But in 2022 and 2023 for the 94th and 95th Oscars, films contending for Best Picture must submit a confidential Academy Inclusion Standards form to be considered eligible.
The Academy has issued four total standards. A film must meet at least two out of the four to be deemed eligible. Standard A is directed at on-screen representation, themes, and narratives; Standard B concentrates on creative leadership and the project team; Standard C involves industry access and opportunities with apprenticeships and internships; Standard D approaches audience development under representation in marketing, publicity, and distribution.
Since the announcement, the new rules and requirements have faced their own fair share of criticism. Actress Kirstie Alley called them “a disgrace to artists everywhere,” as well as “dictatorial” and “anti-artist” in a now-deleted tweet. Others have raised objections at the idea of the Academy judging based on considerations other than merit. According to IndieWire, however, director Spike Lee expressed more positive sentiments. He said the standards had “a lot of loopholes,” but still thought that “[the Academy’s] heart was in the right place.”
Lee’s understandings seem to be most accurate, considering that it’s not all that difficult to fulfill these requirements.
For example, in order to achieve Standard A, which has received the most attention, a film would have to meet just one of the three following criteria. It must have at least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors be from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group; at least 30 percent of the cast must be from at least two underrepresented groups; or the main storyline or theme must be centered on one or more underrepresented groups. Surprisingly, movies like “Joker” with its primarily white cast and “La La Land” with its white-led love story would satisfy Standard A relatively easily. Zazie Beetz and John Legend in their respective supporting roles would allow for comfortable, offhand fulfilment.
A lot of the regular contenders for Best Picture would hardly have to change under the new standards. There are enough loopholes for that. However, progress is progress.
“This is another step forward toward equity and inclusion, but we are far from there. As I’ve long said, the real change still has to start on the page, and with the studios who greenlight those films. The goal is to ensure more inclusive films get made that are told by/with/for traditionally underrepresented communities; the awards come much later,” Reign tweeted.
The representation and inclusion standards will likely be most meaningful in prompting filmmakers, financiers, and other impactful people in the industry to more seriously value diversity in film. The Oscars not only reflect Hollywood, but also set a kind of highly influential standard of their own.
This change might also be impactful with the inclusion standard form submission being required for eligibility in the 94th and 95th ceremonies. Though films will not have to meet any specific standards those years, the form will force filmmakers to really look at how diverse and inclusive their work is. Perhaps in analyzing their practices they’ll be able to garner something telling or transformative. If not, the forms will at least inform Oscar voters of the movies that were most diverse in hiring unpaid interns and the ones that made more genuine efforts.
It goes without saying that alternate points of view, non-white narratives, and varied forms of storytelling centered around different people are important and essential. It also goes without saying that the Oscars and Hollywood need more of that. The Oscars’ new standards, though they may not actually be as radical or groundbreaking as they might first appear, seem to be in recognition of the importance of diversity and inclusion.
“We believe these inclusion standards will be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry,” Academy President David Rubin and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson said in an official statement.
The eligibility rules are addressed annually, and may be subject to change in the future. For now, it’s worth being optimistic that the standards will indeed be some sort of catalyst in one way or another.