Academy on Fallout From New Oscar Best Picture Rules: ‘You Aren’t Creating Change If You Don’t Get Criticized’

“We knew that both sides would come at us,” says Academy governor DeVon Franklin, who co-chaired the committee that came up with the new inclusion and diversity standards

steve pond

When the Academy announced on Tuesday that it was instituting new inclusion and diversity requirements that films would have to meet to qualify for the Best Picture Oscar, it headed into an area in which it has rarely ventured. Until now, the eligibility standards have had to do with how long a film is and its date and method of distribution; who made the film or how many women or people of color were employed in its production or distribution never came into play.

But beginning in 2024, those will all be factors: A film must meet diversity and inclusion standards — what some describe as quotas and two-time Oscar nominee James Woods called “madness” — in two of four different areas in order to become eligible for Best Picture. The new rules are patterned after similar rules used by the British Film Institute for grants, and by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for two of its awards categories. They were assembled by an Academy committee chaired by Paramount Pictures CEO Jim Gianopulos and producer DeVon Franklin, and approved by the AMPAS Board of Governors.

Some critics of the move have compared it to the Academy’s short-lived rule in the 1950s denying Oscar eligibility to members of the Communist Party and those who’d refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, though the new standards do not remove eligibility from specific individuals, as that rule did. In fact, the new rules are closer to the existing standards in the Oscars’ Best International Feature Film race, in which a certain number of members from a film’s creative team must be from the country that submitted the film.

But that’s not an entirely accurate comparison, either; in reality, the new rules take the Oscars into uncharted territory. The day after they were announced to approval from some quarters, as well as criticism that they shouldn’t exist or were either too strong or weren’t strong enough, DeVon Franklin spoke to TheWrap about the process, the backlash and the future.

It seems to me that the essential step here that had to be made before anything else was the decision on the part of the Academy that the time has come to step beyond their usual role and use the Oscars as a means to create change in the industry. I know that option had been discussed in the past, but it seems as if the tipping point something like was the aftermath of the George Floyd killing and the nationwide acknowledgement of systemic racism. Is that accurate?
Well, I have been a governor for a year, and before that I’d been active in the Academy chairing the 2020 initiative for the previous year. And as part of that initiative, we actually had started a conversation then about looking at modifying the standards to broaden the definition of excellence.

So this conversation has actually been going on for some time. We started meeting over a year ago with the BFI (British Film Institute) and various constituents, just talking about how they went about their changes, what we needed to learn about inclusion and the methods that had been used all across the board.

So this process, believe it or not, has been in the works for some time. And recently, we were like, “All right, let’s accelerate this and begin to look at what this would actually would look like.” The standards that we published yesterday represent a great deal of work, a lot of collaboration across the board — within our industry, within the Academy, outside the Academy, with the guilds to really make sure that we got it right in terms of a place to start.

Obviously, it’s a very significant step to use the Oscars in this way. Was that a difficult decision to make, or did it seem necessary?
When you say difficult decision — difficult in what way, and on whose part?

On the part of the Academy, which had to take the unusual step of putting in place qualifying standards that didn’t have to do with how long a movie was or how it was distributed, in an effort to push inclusion forward in the industry.
Got it. Here’s what I will say: This board (of directors) has been incredibly committed to this. So I wouldn’t say that that has been difficult. The Academy started the 2020 initiative five years ago. Every branch has their own 2020 chair, and that initiative has really gained a lot of traction. So I think over time, uh, all roads have led us to this moment. So the actual specificity of getting this done wasn’t that challenging, but it has been a long time in the making.

After the standards were announced, we saw a pushback from people saying the Academy shouldn’t be setting quotas or tying these standards to the Oscars. But at the same time, there was also pushback saying that the standards are too lax, and that they’ll let films qualify and feel good about themselves without really making substantial changes.
Well, look, this was no surprise. We knew this was going to come. We knew that both sides would come at us. One side would say, “This is too much.” One side would say, “It’s not enough.”

We did not want perfection to get in the way of progress. We acknowledge that there is more that we could do. But we also acknowledge that for an Academy that’s been around for nine decades, this is the first time in the organization’s history to make a step in the direction of broadening the definition of excellence and really being clear about the desire for more inclusion. This is progress. We knew that not everyone would be happy, but we wanted to have standards that would allow filmmakers and studios and distributors of all kinds to have flexibility in how they meet the standards.

And we understand that to some people we have not gone far enough, but we also acknowledge that this is a great place to start. That’s why we have two years to get data, to learn and see what more we may need to know about how we may want to refine these standards. And we’ll take criticism in both directions. Whenever you’re creating change, it’s going to come with criticism. You probably aren’t creating change if you don’t get criticized for it.

So can we take it as a sign that we’re moving in the right direction and we want to make sure that excellence is considered in all ways and that everyone — no matter their agenda, no matter their race, no matter their sexual orientation — that everyone knows that they are welcomed.

I looked at the BFI and BAFTA standards, which the Oscar standards are based on, and it looks like yours are a little less stringent in the A and B categories, the creative standards categories, and a little more stringent in C and D, which is industry access and the audience development. Was that a deliberate choice?
No, we didn’t look at it that way. We looked at it holistically in terms of tailoring the standards to our needs. So there wasn’t a differentiation between lessening the creative standard and tightening the standard behind the camera. That wasn’t a consideration.

The consideration was, let’s use the BFI as a framework, but let’s go through every standard and tailor it for our purposes. We workshopped these standards with so many of our colleagues in the industry, within the Academy and with the guilds. We got a lot of feedback. And so what we published represents a lot of collective effort, and the goal was to make sure that it was user friendly and that it was meaningful and that it was a step in the right direction. But there was never any consideration like you’re suggesting in that way. We weren’t thinking, “Let’s go easier here and harder there.” It was more holistically. Let’s just make sure that these standards serve our purposes because our purposes are slightly different than those of the BFI.

When I looked over the standards, it struck me that it might well trigger companies to hire women and people from underrepresented communities as marketing and distribution executives, because that way you can meet one of the standards for every movie you release. Was that a particular goal?
No, the goal was to look at every area of the industry where underrepresented groups have not gotten the opportunity to be considered. I’ve been in Hollywood for 24 years, I’ve been Black all my life and as a kid growing up, I would watch the Academy Awards and I would be inspired. But at the same time, I didn’t see very many people that looked like me on that stage. And so coming into this business and now being a producer and now being a governor, being a part of this change, it’s been a mission to make sure that this industry looks like the very audiences that we dependent on.

The goal was, how do we create standards that really allow everyone an opportunity for their work to be considered? And when you look at the marketing departments, often those get overlooked. Every standard was about, OK, how do we address what’s going on in front of the cameras? How do we address this going on behind the camera? How do we look at crews? How do we look at internships in the pipeline? Hollywood is an apprenticeship business — if you’re not bringing up people from underrepresented groups, they may never get the chance to have those jobs.

And when you look at marketing and distribution, that’s an area that so often gets overlooked. But it’s a critical area because it translates the message to the world. Historically, there’s been very little representation from underrepresented groups in there. So we really wanted the standards to address all of the various areas, and we wanted to make sure no stone is left unturned.

Your point is right, that a studio could meet that particular standard and that would help their films qualify. That is true, and we wanted to make sure, again, that there was enough flexibility. We’re going to collect the data for two years. We’ll analyze, we’ll look at it and be open to make modifications if necessary.

The fact that you’re collecting data for two years before the standards go into effect suggests that you could take that information and make changes in these standards before they go into effect. Is that a possibility?
That is a possibility, for sure. But it’s not something that we have identified as what we would do. You know, the movie business is a long-lead business. And when you look at the impact of COVID, productions has been pushed back and schedules have been upended. So there needs to be adequate runway for these standards to really be socialized within the industry, so that the change that we’re all committed to can actually take place.

If we were to move faster than that, we could have actually done ourselves a disservice. So we really think this two years will give the industry a chance to react and for the changes to be made in the third year. If there is something glaring that we learn in these next two years, then of course we would look at that and proceed accordingly. But the intent is that these will be the standards as they are right now.

And then maybe what we would do is use the data that we’ve seen and what we’ve learned to maybe make modifications after the fact. If we’re preparing the industry that in three years these are going to be the standards and everyone begins to modify their practices accordingly, it would be challenging to make a change right before the standards are active.

Maybe it’s something where we would say, if it makes sense, “Hey, you know what? Let’s go ahead and enact the standards now, but the change may not come until after these standards are already official.”

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • steve@thewrap.com • Twitter: @stevepond



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