What do the Oscars’ new diversity rules mean for cinema?

“We believe these inclusion standards will be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry,” said the Academy – but do they go far enough?

Remember the heady days of Bong mania? The South Korean maestro of mordant comedy and his four-time Oscar-winner Parasite felt like the last shred of hope and joy in 2020, but also provided a balm for the bitterness that arose when no actors of colour or female directors appeared on the nominations list.

The Academy needed a serious plan of action for when the Bong bubble burst. Overstepping the slow crawl towards parity within its voting body was vital – and the new diversity targets it announced this week seem like progress.

Bong Joon-ho Parasite Oscars 2020
Bong Joon-ho’s win at the 2020 Oscars was used by some to claim a diversity victory. Credit: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

In order to be considered for ‘Best Picture’ at the 2025 Oscars and beyond, new criteria must be met. Four categories have been established that call for a quota of marginalised creatives, and each film must qualify in two of those categories to be considered for the top prize (no requirements have been applied to any other category). The categories are: A. On-screen acting and storylines, B. Creative leadership positions, departmental heads and crew composition, C. Paid apprenticeships, internships and training and D. Audience development, from publicity and marketing to distribution.

“We believe these inclusion standards will be a catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry,” said Academy CEO Dawn Hudson in a written statement to accompany the news.

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‘Titanic’ wouldn’t have won ‘Best Picture’ in 1998, under the new measures. Credit: Alamy

Twitter critics were instantly triggered by category A, which today would disqualify films such as Ben-Hur, Titanic and Schindler’s List as they feature no leading or significant supporting actors from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group (to pass that particular category, films must now meet either of these or the main storyline, theme or narrative must be focused on an underrepresented group).

But boil down the faceless social media outrage (I beg of you) and you’ll see that the requirements put in place are lenient. They could have easily been passed by most ‘Best Picture’ winners in recent years. Even where category A. hasn’t been met on screen, winners like The Shape of Water, Spotlight and Birdman are halfway there by including at least two women in creative leadership roles, a requirement from category B. As long as they can prove that diversity is accounted for in the distribution and marketing bodies that support the film, they don’t have a problem.

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‘Spotlight’ features an all-white core cast, but doesn’t fall foul of the new guidelines. Credit: Alamy

It’s in proving diversity at face level, however, that this new system feels most problematic. The enforced requirement of literal box-checking goes hand-in-hand with another industry-wide issue: tokenism. A far greater concern than whether films from 20 years ago would theoretically be disqualified from the 2025 Oscars is that Black, female, disabled, LGBTQ+, Hispanic and every other marginalised person who falls under the category of “other underrepresented race or ethnicity” runs the risk of being hired for quota purposes and not because their talents are truly valued.

The standards also pose potentially harmful limitations on what films are made by whom. The rules imply that marginalised creatives should make films about marginalised people, and in an industry stacked so highly against people of colour, to impose further restrictions on them would be a backwards step.

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The cast of Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’. Credit: Alamy

Limited as the new measures are, this is still the Academy’s most urgent call for action yet. In spite of the annual fanfare around “record-breaking” numbers of new marginalised voters invited to join the Academy, last year women made up less than 40 per cent of the body, and non-white people under 20 per cent. Not exactly progressive.

The financial significance of the ‘Best Picture’ prize – which is the only category voted for by the entire body – is too great to ignore, even for megabucks studios. At the very least, this enforced change will help to diversify an industry controlled by predominantly white, male gatekeepers. Of course, the dream is that those who are shoe-horned into creative roles are instead rewarded on their own merit and talent. But for now, it is hoped that these new rules will open doors that, in the past, have remained firmly shut. Maybe next year, we won’t need the saving grace of Bong Joon-ho to paper over another whitewashed awards season.

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