The Oscars unveiled new guidelines this week that are designed to promote diversity and inclusion both in front of and behind the camera.
But the rules are inspiring confusion and controversy as studios and filmmakers try to figure out what the mandates mean for their movies. No worries: that’s where Variety comes in, with an “Oscar Rules for Dummies” that can serve as crib notes for awards hopefuls.
Does this go into effect immediately?
No, it does not. The 2020-2021 rules under the COVID-19 pandemic are unchanged. For the next two years, the requirements set forth by AMPAS are not mandatory. In an effort to collect data and put these practices into effect, studios will need to simply fill out the form and include it with the other filing paperwork when submitting for best picture. This will be for Oscars 2022 and Oscars 2023. The requirements will not go into effect until Oscars 2024.
I’m producing an Oscar hopeful that Sam Mendes is directing about two British soldiers in northern France during World War I. Do I have to scrap it?
No, you do not. First, even if the film were to not meet the threshold, it can still be submitted to the Academy in all categories except for best picture. But “1917” is a useful illustration of how the new standards would apply. Although it might not qualify for the A category of diversity in lead roles, ensemble cast or storyline, it could easily qualify in the required two of the four categories. In the case of that 2020 nominee, it would be eligible under Standard B1 (creative leadership and department heads) and B2 (other key roles) — with only one out of the two categories required to qualify. Mendes, who is part West Indian, would qualify, along with his co-writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns. Mendes’ film also has Naomi Donne as makeup department head, Rachael Tate as sound editor and Pippa Harris and Jayne-Ann Tenggren as producers.
Under Standard D (audience development), the Academy has left this purposefully vague. “The studio and/or film company has multiple in-house senior executives from among the following underrepresented groups in marketing, publicity and distribution.” This makes no mention of number or percentage requirements on the leadership level. In the case of distributor Universal Pictures, the team includes distribution president Veronika Kwan Vandenberg and co-president of domestic marketing Dwight Caines and it’s likely the executive makeup would meet the criteria.
To qualify for best picture in 2025, all you have to do is check two out of the four standards, and “1917” achieved it without much difficulty. A deeper dive would probably reveal that it likely went above and beyond the threshold.
So now the Academy is telling me how to make my movies?
No, they aren’t. In fact, they’re not telling you how to do anything. They are, in essence, redefining the term “best picture” and what it means. Obviously, that’s subjective, because the term is interpreted differently from group to group. You have one group that believes it’s the best “overall” quality of the film. Can a movie like “Grand Hotel” win best picture, without being nominated for any other single award and win justifiably? For this faction, the answer is yes. You may not have the best sets, costumes or performances within your film but the marriage of those entities together creates an experience that is both pleasant and memorable for a voter.
The second group looks at the movie as the sum of all of its parts. When a film wins best picture, the producers are the recipients of the statuette, and not the director (unless they also serve as a producer). This club has bad vibes about “Gladiator” winning the top prize in 2001 while its director, Ridley Scott, went home empty-handed. We often hear the term “labor of love” when referring to a film’s production and for this, filmmakers build a relationship with collaborators in the industry, based on respect and trust. The Academy’s decision does not infringe upon your process. It only asks that if you have a team you trust, you offer that expertise to the next generation and underrepresented groups. And when your process has ended, and it’s time to distribute your film, ensure that they also reflect the same values of inclusion and look at the cinematic world as a melting pot of different consumers, and not just the one-week qualifying theaters in New York and L.A.
What has the reception been like?
To be frank, mixed. The new rules are divisive and, more problematic, utterly confusing for members. After fielding more than three dozen questions over a 24-hour period, from multiple AMPAS voters, this writer realized that not many were clear on what the rules are and when they apply. Some of that is on them. A couple voters just read the headline, made their assumptions about it meant, and ran with it. Others skimmed articles, saw keywords and phrases, and thought this was the end of their creative process and dream projects. The majority didn’t feel comfortable going on the record about the regulations because they were still digesting the information. That latter group was cautiously optimistic about what it meant and where the industry is headed.
Once the dust settles and it’s clear that no one is infringing on the creative process, perhaps actors like Viggo Mortensen, who sees it as “exclusion” as he told Variety, will change their minds. Mortensen, who has been nominated for three Academy Awards (“Eastern Promises,” “Captain Fantastic” and “Green Book”) is under the impression that a film like “1917” wouldn’t be eligible under these new guidelines. We’ve proven that Mendes’ war film is, in fact, eligible. You can see the video with Mortensen’s full response below:
Is this going to make a difference?
A: We honestly do not know. The intentions are good and if the goal that was shared by Academy CEO Dawn Hudson is embraced that this is about “moving forward” and “looking ahead,” it will make a world of difference. Looking at the glass half-full, the Academy is ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to have a seat at the table. Too many people have related this to just race. But it’s so much deeper. Women are criminally underrepresented in the industry. There have been 278 films nominated for best picture since the first woman was nominated, and won in 1973 (Julia Phillips for “The Sting”). There have been 116 up until the 2020 ceremony. Eleven women have won best picture over 10 separate films.
An uninformed follower looks at those numbers and might say, “a 41% women representation is great, so there’s no problem.” As the tagline of the 1999 best picture winner “American Beauty” reads on its poster, “look closer…”
When a film is nominated for Oscars’ top prize, all the producers deemed eligible by the studio and Academy are nominated. Since 1973, there have been 638 total credited female producers that been nominated alongside their male counterparts. That once impressive 41% percent for woman representation has plummeted to a dismal 18%.
But “look closer…”
Of that 116 women, two are Black women (Oprah Winfrey for “Selma” and Kimberly Steward for “Manchester by the Sea”), one is Latina (Gabriela Rodríguez for “Roma”), and zero were Asian. Ninety-two years of rich, wonderful films but the industry’s inclusion of women has been grossly exclusionary and abundantly apparent.
We have to believe and hope this makes a difference. The Academy sees it and wants to do it. Writer Mark Harris said it best when he tweeted, “It’s good they have 2 yrs to work out the kinks, because…there are issues.”
On the LGBTQ front, it’s no better. The first known LGBTQ+ producer nominated was Tony Richardson for 1963’s “Tom Jones,” where it won best picture. Another nominee wouldn’t represent until “Airport” in 1970 and a winner wouldn’t emerge until Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks for “American Beauty” in 1999. Only two other winners round out the list including Scott Rudin for “No Country for Old Men” and Iain Canning for “The King’s Speech.” As noticed, that list only included men. Megan Ellison is the only woman to be nominated as a producer and she’s done it on four films (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “American Hustle,” “Her,” and “Phantom Thread”). No identifying bisexual, transgender, queer, or gender-neutral producers have found recognition.
For the disabled community, their voice has been mostly unheard until the Academy’s announcement. Just two disabled actors have been recognized by the Academy. Harold Russell won best supporting actor when he portrayed a veteran who loses both hands in war in the best picture winner “The Best Years of Our Lives” in 1947. It would be exactly 40 years later when deaf actress Marlee Matlin took home her Oscar for best actress for “Children of a Lesser God.” This is disheartening when you consider there have been over 50 actors and actresses who have been nominated for Oscars for playing characters with disabilities (i.e. Daniel Day-Lewis for “My Left Foot” or Patty Duke for “The Miracle Worker”). This initiative only asks that we open the door to include more.
If those get ironed out, an industry that needs to hear from more underrepresented voices that are not being amplified by Hollywood could be the big winner.