New Academy Rules Set Representation Standards For Best Picture Nominees (AWARDS/ANALYSIS)

Dramatic change is coming to Oscar’s biggest award category. Or is it?

The Oscar Academy has announced its most ambitious rule change yet in the effort to expand demographic representation for its highest honor. But is it substantive? Or even fair?

Without question, it’s detailed.

Clearly having put much thought into the proposal, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences released a lengthy list of requirements that films must meet in part in order to be eligible for a Best Picture nomination. These standards only apply to the top category; all other categories retain their current subjective parameters. Animated features, documentary features and international features hoping to receive best picture consideration will be addressed separately.

Despite years of discernable progress toward diversity in both nominations and wins (spearheaded by the Academy’s concerted effort to diversify its membership), the #OscarsSoWhite critique remains relevant in the eyes of most industry professionals. This new set of rules is a response to that ongoing shared sentiment, and is a part of the Academy Aperture 2025 Initiative that was formed to address these inequities.

The long, full list released by the Academy can be seen at the end of this article. In short, they come in four different categories. Each category details various hiring and inclusion standards for minority and under-represented people groups (essentially anyone who isn’t a straight white male).

These standards will be first implemented for the 96th Academy Awards in 2024. In an apparent “soft launch” transition period, a simpler application process will be employed for the awards ceremonies of 2022 and 2023. Films hoping to compete for the top prize during those two years will submit a confidential Academy Inclusion Standards form in order to be considered for best picture.

The new categories for 2024 are:

  • STANDARD A: On-Screen Representation, Themes & Narratives
  • STANDARD B: Creative Leadership and Project Team
  • STANDARD C: Industry Access and Opportunities
  • STANDARD D: Audience Development

Films submitting for Best Picture consideration will need to meet a certain minimum of standards in at least two of those four categories. (Again, see the full list of standards for each category at the end of this article.)

The initial upshot is this: for as rigorous as the standards are, nearly all studio films can meet two of the four necessary criteria right now. So, technically, studios and producers don’t have to change much of anything that they’re already doing, and so the likelihood of more diverse representation in future Best Picture races seems suspect.

Meanwhile, it’ll be much harder for scrappy, low budget indies to meet two of the four standards, so the unintended (?) consequence of all this could be that the Academy’s new rules would end up penalizing independent films.

In effect, the change in rules doesn’t appear to have a tangible effect on the most powerful yet simultaneously penalizes the least powerful. If that bears itself out, the actual result would be little more than superficial virtue-signaling.

Bearing the brunt of that save-face posturing would be risk-taking filmmakers on the margins. Meanwhile, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy may not be diminished, thus failing the whole point of this carefully-planned endeavor.

Likely anticipating these kind of questions, concerns and debates, the Academy smartly set the first year to implement the new rules for 2024. That gives them a good three-and-a-half years to work out the kinks and solve disparities.

Indeed, for the issue I cited above regarding the possible penalization of indies, the Academy could easily add a clause that says these rules apply to films with budgets of $20 million or more, thus inoculating low budget films from having to spend extra money (and time) in a desperate attempt to meet the quotas.

Other concerns have also been raised, including how productions will verify if a person is L, G, B, T or Q without asking invasive, inappropriate questions…to which I’d assume a production would simply look to hire people who are openly out, and require little more than having an optional box checked for orientation when applying for a job.

That may seem a tad awkward or a bit out-of-the-norm but, if optional, it’s hardly extreme or invasive and would simply allow the person who’s already out to express and verify that. For those hoping to increase representation, it seems like a very small ask.

As far as the Academy actually doing something like this, regardless of its efficacy, here’s the simple truth: they’re a private organization and can do whatever they want. They can set whatever standards of representation they want for their awards process, especially since the rules don’t discriminate per actual Academy membership. Moreover, these actions have been undertaken at the behest of the community and industry they represent.

And so, if movies like, say, Reservoir Dogs and Stand By Me would never be eligible under at least two of these standards, then the filmmakers can either rethink how they’re going to make their movies (not a prospect I’m particularly in favor of) or simply stick to their artistic integrity and make the movie they want to make even if it causes them to be ineligible for Best Picture.

Nobody’s “forcing” anyone to do anything. This isn’t a law that producers have to abide by, and the net effect is limited to films that set out to have Best Picture aspirations. Plus, from the FWIW department, many analyses of recent Best Picture nominees and winners have shown that none would have been disqualified under these rules.

Of more practical concern, however, is one unintended side effect that may put producers and studios into legal jeopardy. When it comes to the legality of these standards for the Academy, I doubt the organization itself could be sued on anti-discrimination grounds because no one is being hired, fired, or excluded from membership. On the other hand, if a producer or studio wants to meet these standards and consequently makes discriminatory hiring and firing decisions that can be proven in a court of law, that’s another thing.

Less prickly yet still no less a problem, the #OscarsSoWhite backlash often flares up most when it comes to the acting and directing categories. Best Picture is certainly in that discussion, too, but unless more diversity is shown in the top, highest profile individual awards (ones that aren’t bound by these new standards) then inroads with the Best Picture category will likely be muted and not seen as enough.

What this whole exercise shows is the extreme difficulty of implementing quotas of any kind while maintaining a position of merit-based principle. Setting aside however you may feel about quotas, the logistical implementation seen here by the Academy (carefully considered, no doubt) shows just how tough it is – nay impossible? – to walk that very fine line between a concerted effort to affect change (one that has been demanded by its community for years now) while still being fair to filmmakers about what they’ve achieved artistically.

But for the Academy and the industry it represents, some things have become more important than winning. Social change is one of them, and efforts to increase representation in their annual awards is their way of working to affect that change.

In the balance of trying to rectify one inequity (a lack of representation), the Academy is willing to risk increasing another (sacrificing pure subjective meritocracy). People and organizations make these kinds of choices all the time, especially when shared ideals are in tension with each other.

Also, there is likely a hope that the spirit of these standards will be embraced by producers even if the degree of change currently needed to meet them is negligible. These new rules are aspirational as much as anything, providing a clear goal for filmmakers to consider and meet, in a way they may not have thought through before.

If the Academy and its membership hope to see these standards make a discernable change, one where Best Picture nominees are truly more diverse in their cultural and representational makeup (and, by extension, nominees in other categories), it will ultimately be because producers and directors have embraced the spirit of what these rules are about, and thus exceeding the bare minimum requirements.

Given the liberal makeup of the industry, it’s likely that many filmmakers will welcome these standards as guideposts to help make their own efforts toward representation more intentional.

Here is the full list of standards, set to be implemented in 2024:

STANDARD A: ON-SCREEN REPRESENTATION, THEMES AND NARRATIVES
To achieve Standard A, the film must meet ONE of the following criteria:

A1. Lead or significant supporting actors

At least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors is from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.

• Asian
• Hispanic/Latinx
• Black/African American
• Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native
• Middle Eastern/North African
• Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
• Other underrepresented race or ethnicity

A2. General ensemble cast

At least 30% of all actors in secondary and more minor roles are from at least two of the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

A3. Main storyline/subject matter

The main storyline(s), theme or narrative of the film is centered on an underrepresented group(s).

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

STANDARD B: CREATIVE LEADERSHIP AND PROJECT TEAM
To achieve Standard B, the film must meet ONE of the criteria below:

B1. Creative leadership and department heads

At least two of the following creative leadership positions and department heads — Casting Director, Cinematographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Director, Editor, Hairstylist, Makeup Artist, Producer, Production Designer, Set Decorator, Sound, VFX Supervisor, Writer — are from the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

At least one of those positions must belong to the following underrepresented racial or ethnic group:

• Asian
• Hispanic/Latinx
• Black/African American
• Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native
• Middle Eastern/North African
• Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
• Other underrepresented race or ethnicity

B2. Other key roles

At least six other crew/team and technical positions (excluding Production Assistants) are from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. These positions include but are not limited to First AD, Gaffer, Script Supervisor, etc.

B3. Overall crew composition

At least 30% of the film’s crew is from the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

STANDARD C:  INDUSTRY ACCESS AND OPPORTUNITIES
To achieve Standard C, the film must meet BOTH criteria below:

C1. Paid apprenticeship and internship opportunities

The film’s distribution or financing company has paid apprenticeships or internships that are from the following underrepresented groups and satisfy the criteria below:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

The major studios/distributors are required to have substantive, ongoing paid apprenticeships/internships inclusive of underrepresented groups (must also include racial or ethnic groups) in most of the following departments: production/development, physical production, post-production, music, VFX, acquisitions, business affairs, distribution, marketing and publicity.

The mini-major or independent studios/distributors must have a minimum of two apprentices/interns from the above underrepresented groups (at least one from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group) in at least one of the following departments: production/development, physical production, post-production, music, VFX, acquisitions, business affairs, distribution, marketing and publicity.

C2. Training opportunities and skills development (crew)

The film’s production, distribution and/or financing company offers training and/or work opportunities for below-the-line skill development to people from the following underrepresented groups:

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

STANDARD D: AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT
To achieve Standard D, the film must meet the criterion below:

The studio and/or film company has multiple in-house senior executives from among the following underrepresented groups (must include individuals from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups) on their marketing, publicity, and/or distribution teams.

• Women
• Racial or ethnic group:
•Asian
•Hispanic/Latinx
•Black/African American
•Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native
•Middle Eastern/North African
•Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
•Other underrepresented race or ethnicity
•LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

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