Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri star Frances McDormand left many people scratching their heads with her Oscars 2018 Best Lead Actress acceptance speech, in which she emphatically referred to the concept of an "inclusion rider." The term refers to a clause in an actor's contract that requires a film to meet a minimum requirement for diversity. McDormand, who asked all of the female nominees to stand with her during her speech, wanted to raise awareness about how Hollywood's most powerful actors can use their influence to make movies more representative.
The scope of what an actor can demand in their contract is pretty vast. For example, Samuel L. Jackson has a requirement in his contracts that he must be allowed to play golf at least twice a week while working on a project, while Queen Latifah has an "anti-death" clause in her contracts that means her character cannot be killed off.
Related: 2018 Oscars Winners List
McDormand, however, wanted to raise awareness about how stars with a lot of pull can use their contracts to push for real change. Inclusion riders in actors' contracts were proposed in a 2016 TED talk by social scientist Stacy Smith, who argued:
"A-listers, as we all know, can make demands in their contracts, particularly the ones that work on the biggest Hollywood films. What if those A-listers simply added an equity clause or an inclusion rider into their contract? Now, what does that mean? Well, you probably don't know but the typical feature film has about 40 to 45 speaking characters in it. I would argue that only 8 to 10 of those characters are actually relevant to the story... The remaining 30 or so roles, there's no reason why those minor roles can't match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place. An equity rider by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live."
This year's Oscars saw the first ever female nominee for Best Cinematography (Rachael Morrison for Mudbound), as well as a directing nod for Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age tale, Lady Bird. Meanwhile, Get Out filmmaker Jordan Peele became the first ever black writer to win an award for Best Screenplay. A big theme of the Oscars this year was pushing to open up the film industry to more diverse talent, and to tell more stories about women and people of color. Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for Best Actress in 2016, voiced her support for the idea of inclusion riders on Twitter.
I’m committed to the Inclusion Rider. Who’s with me? https://t.co/yvQ0wR5D80
— Brie Larson (@brielarson) March 5, 2018
Smith has also proposed that Hollywood studios adopt the "Rooney Rule"," based on an NFL policy of interviewing people of color for coaching positions. The film industry equivalent would require studios to at least interview female directors for projects. Another idea that Smith suggested, in order to create greater gender parity on screen, is for filmmakers to "just add five":
"Did you know if we looked at the top 100 films next year and simply added five female speaking characters on-screen to each of those films, it would create a new norm. If we were to do this for three contiguous years, we would be at gender parity for the first time in over a half of a century."
The film industry has long been criticized for being overwhelmingly dominated by white men. A recent study by researchers at the University of San Diego, titled The Celluloid Ceiling, found that "women comprised 18% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films" - a number that has remained "virtually unchanged" from the demographics of the industry in 1998. Another study by USC found that, in 2016, less than one-third of all speaking roles in movies were female characters. The numbers are even worse for women of color: of the 100 top movies released in the same year, 47 had no black women, 66 had no Asian women, and 72 had no Latina women.
Speaking backstage after the Oscars ceremony (via THR), McDormand said that she hadn't even been aware that diversity could be made a clause in actors' contracts:
"I just found out about this last week. This has always been available to all — everybody who does a negotiation on a film — which means you can ask for or demand at least 50 percent diversity in not only the casting but the crew. The fact that I just learned that after 35 years in the film business — we aren’t going back.”
Despite the massive financial success of recent movies like Get Out, Black Panther and Wonder Woman, the film industry has been incredibly slow to diversify. In the end, change may only happen if those at the top are willing to use their power to force it.