Speaker 1: Finally all voting members of the Academy have nominated the following films for best picture.
Tanzina Vega: Last week the Oscars announced a new set of standards that best picture nominees will need to meet starting in 2024. Films will be required to satisfy two out of four categories, which include onscreen representation, creative leadership, industry opportunities, and audience development. The overall goal is clear to make the Oscars less white, but the new rules aren't exactly a game-changer, recent best picture nominees with mainly white cast, including the Irishman and Lala land would still have no problem making the cut. For more, I'm joined by April Reign, the creator of #OscarsSoWhite. April, great to have you on the show.
April Reign: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Also, joining us is Fanshen Cox head of strategic outreach for Pearl Street Films and one of the co-founders of Hollywood's inclusion writer. Fanshen thanks for joining us.
Fanshen Cox: Thank you so much. I have to say that I am such a huge fan of both of your work. Tanzina, your intersectional lens has brought me back to NPR in April. Of course, you're my daily inspiration to keep pushing. I'm so glad to be here.
Tanzina: Fanshen, I can just have you on the show every day and we can repeat that. I'm really taken aback. I'm very grateful. Thank you so much for those words we really appreciate them. Let's start with that Fanshen. I mean, what were your thoughts on what just happened with these new rules from the Academy?
Fanshen: I think it's exciting. I think every time there's a new tool that we can utilize to change. Hollywood is a good thing. I think then you dig in and do the work of critique and making sure that it really is following the path to change. I know we've learned that about the inclusion rider over the last couple years, but I'm excited for it. I think it addresses a lot of the things that we're looking to do with the inclusion rider and for that, I'm really grateful.
Tanzina: April, you are the pioneer behind OscarSoWhite, the hashtag that resonated around the world just a couple of years ago, when you see these new rules coming out of the Academy, will this mean the Oscars will be not so white?
April: I don't think so. I'm a little glass less full than Fanshen is, but she always has such a wonderful spirit. I take inspiration from that. As you mentioned in the intro, there's so many films I think the Annenberg study said that nearly 90% of the films from 2019 would have qualified. If you can qualify for these new diversity and inclusion standards without making any changes at all, especially when we look at films like, Greenbook, for example, which was widely criticized for its portrayal of traditionally underrepresented communities. If you can still make the rubric under the Academy's new standards without making any changes, then it clearly doesn't go far enough.
Tanzina: April one of the things that when we talk about things like affirmative action, for example, and putting these rules in place, often the beneficiaries of these rules are white women. As opposed to people of color are these new Oscar rules really going to increase the percentages of people of color specifically?
April: It remains to be seen, but I truly am not hopeful. I mean, let's remember in 2016, year two of OscarsSoWhite when yet, again, for two consecutive years, no people of color were nominated for any of the acting categories. The Academy committed to doubling the number of people of color and doubling the number of women within its ranks by this year, by 2020. They made this breathless announcement about how they had actually hit their numbers, which is great because we want more marginalized communities within the Academy.
Again, when you peel back the layers you see that there is very little change. From 2016 to 2020, the Academy went from 92% white to 81% white. It went from 75% male to 67% male. Now, is that progress? Yes, but it still means that the Academy is overwhelmingly white and male. In addition, the Academy still does not require its membership to view the films or performances before they vote. That means it's not a meritocracy as we would like to believe. It truly is something closer to a popularity contest amongst older white men.
Tanzina: Fanshen, your work has been largely on inclusion and equity writers. For those of us who are not traveling in Hollywood circles regularly, what does that mean?
Fanshen: It means that an A-lister such as Matt Damon or Ben Affleck, who I work with, would include a clause in their contracts as they're negotiating, let's say, with a studio for the next role. Some people have very frivolous clauses. I spoke to someone and this isn't frivolous who said that she wants cruelty free makeup in her trailer. That was easy for her to implement and that was part of her clause. Our clause says that we want the cast and crew to represent what the world actually looks like. That's what the inclusion writer is. That's the purpose for it. I just want to say, I 100% agree with April that this is a tiny, tiny change in the sense of hoping that people will self-reflect as they choose who they're going to hire.
In reality, what we have to know is that all of these changes are only happening because of people like April because of Black Twitter, because of those of us who are standing up and saying, "We're not going to take this anymore." What's really happening is that nobody's watching the Academy awards anymore and that's why they're making this change. The way that I see these things, the inclusion writer and these new stipulations by the Academy is that we can now hold people accountable. That's what's important to me is that when you say it publicly like this when these films get nominated in 2024, we can say, "Listen you said your purpose was to do this and it's still isn't doing that." That is if people are still watching it all.
Tanzina: There you go. April, to that point, one of the things that often happens when we have diversity efforts, if you will, like this is that the people that are hired to bring in that "Diversity" can sometimes be tokenized. I mean, it's something that's happened to me in my career where people will say, "Well, you're here to write some racial wrong or gender wrong," but at the end of the day how do we avoid tokenizing those people who are brought in under these new rules for example?
April: I think the important thing is that we normalize inclusion. We all hate the word normalize, but we need to be more intentional and we have to get buy-in from the top down. From the people that greenlight the films from the studio heads, they need to make a commitment to these changes. Then that information having support and therefore resources for the rest of the studio to make the changes and decisions that we'd like to see will be more easily implemented.
Tanzina: Fanshen are you optimistic that that will happen? We've got about 50 seconds left.
Fanshen: The top-down approach is exactly where the change needs to happen. Currently that is a lot of older white cisgendered men. They probably will have to die out. I'm sorry to say, well, no, I'm not. I think that ultimately because they are the ones who really make these decisions about what gets greenlit, that is where the change is going to happen. The beautiful thing is that we've got incredible young folks in the that are coming up as emerging storytellers who are going to push for this change.
Tanzina: One question that comes up is about how awards are really just one part of the film industry. You talk about this in any industry. Journalism has similar issues with diversity and lack thereof. Then we think about who wins the Pulitzer and who doesn't. Is there too much focus on overhauling the Oscars rather than changing the industry more broadly? I'd love to hear both of your thoughts, April.
April: Absolutely, I always say that it must begin at the beginning. Meaning, we need to talk about what's going on with the screenwriter when they open their laptop or pick up a writing utensil. When a screenwriter sits down and says, "I'm going to write the next big-budget action film and that my protagonist is going to be a tall leggy blonde from the midwest." Well, that's fine, but by the time the script is finished and it goes to the agent, the producer, and the director and then going to casting, the only person that anyone is thinking about is Scarlet Johanson or Jennifer Lawrence. Then we have to ask, "What does the person's hair color have to do with them being a badass protagonist?" Nothing.
We need to change where we are at the very beginning. I've always said that it's about whose story is being told and who is telling the story. Hollywood as you mentioned, is the Oscars are [inaudible 00:09:43] after the film has been made. That's why I think these new standards from the Academy are so interesting because you can qualify by hitting at least two of the four, two of them being regardless of where you are in the production of the film. You can hit it after the fact. Your film can be as homogenous and generic as The Irishman or any other film and yet still qualify for best picture.
Tanzina: Fanshen, when we think about a lot of these writers and when you're talking about frivolous things, I kept thinking about the joke that I only want green M&Ms or something only Evian water, things like that, but these are really serious asks especially in this moment. Do you often hear pushback from folks who say, "I don't really think that's necessary." Or "Why do we need to do that?"
Fanshen: All the time. That's part of these lessons that we've had to learn in the last couple of years are, how to respond to the pushback immediately to shut it down and to keep moving forward? The initial pushback was that you're forcing us to hire people that don't exist. We started to collaborate with people who are creating databases full of women of color. For example, women of color storytellers like the JTC list.
I created a podcast called Sista Brunch which is highlighting black women working in entertainment and precisely for these reasons is they are out there you just are not looking for us. That was our first point another piece of pushback we get a lot and this was really interesting to figure out how to respond to was, "We're already going above and beyond that we don't need to sign that writer because we're so committed to this."
Of course, this is that performative statement like we've seen recently around the George Floyd protests because then when the film comes out it never actually reflects that. When someone says, "We're already doing that," how do you respond to that? Of course, our response now is, "Great. Go ahead and sign this as well." There's one of the pieces in the inclusion rider that gets lost often is that we have tied in after the fact analysis. The film comes out we go back and we work with Annenberg to examine the numbers, really do an analysis of the numbers.
Then that production company or studio pays a fee for the places where they weren't able to meet what they had committed to. That fee then goes back into our emerging storytellers, to April's point around starting from that point of the process. Then finally what we're getting right now is we have to deal with COVID. We just don't have time to do anything else. Our attorneys are really busy so they can't spend the time on looking over this which is a three-page template with very easy to meet standards, but they don't have the time. That's our latest.
Tanzina: April, do you see any potential points of pressure that could be applied to the industry moving forward to increase diversity? Obviously, the public accountability is one thing, but we are in a pandemic and that's really shifted the industry and how people are viewing the industry, the dollars that are flowing into at least from movie theaters and the like and so the industry itself is in this weird place, but are there potential areas that consumers and entertainment consumers can put pressure on Hollywood if they want to see more change?
April: Absolutely, and we do that with our dollars either through streaming services because most of us are still at home and so we're not going into movie theaters, or when we go eventually to the movie theater, we choose what we want to see. I think that consumers are becoming much savvy in saying, "We will choose those things that represent us." We see that at the box office time and time again with films like Coco, Crazy Rich Asians, and obviously Black Panther $1.4 billion worldwide.
I think that we are in a really interesting place right now with respect to the death of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and Aman Aubery. Right now, I think the entire country regardless of race and ethnicity is sitting up and saying, You know what? Things are bad. Let's be more intentional with respect to the choices that we make." We see that brands are shifting. Everybody put their little Black Lives Matter flyer out there, but again consumers are savvy and saying, "Okay, that's great for social media, but what money are you putting into these changes?"
We also see people like Michael B Jordan who was an early adopter of the inclusion rider and other producers saying, "We're no longer going to wait for a seat at the table in Hollywood. We're going to create our own mansion and put our tables in it," and people are responding positively with respect to those choices and making their determinations about where they're going to spend their hard-earned dollars.
Fanshen: I think the pandemic really made it clear to a lot of us how lacking we are. Many of us knew already, but others who have just gotten used to not being able to see ourselves and watching streaming content or TV or films, and here we are in the pandemic. I know so many of my friends and myself said, "I'm only going to watch things with Black and Brown people in them." I ran out of content within a couple of weeks. It's also just saying we are refusing to continue to watch content that reflects whiteness as the default for human being.
We are not going to watch this anymore and we have to be both vocal about it, but also not choose to actually not watch it.
April: I also want to just point out I know the inclusion rider OscarsSoWhite is not just race-based. We're talking about all traditionally underrepresented communities. That's race and ethnicity that's disability whether cognitive or physical visible or not. That's age, that's sexual orientation, that's gender identity, that's indigenous people. It's all people who have been marginalized in this country. They deserve to have their stories told and we all will be richer people for having watched and consume those stories.
Tanzina: I have to say I agree. I think we have a similar issue in journalism and I'm a Latina from a working-class background who is 45 years old. Fanshen, to your earlier point about just the intersectional lens I think that's often lost a lot in conversations around media as well and how those layers really add to our lived experience and what we can offer to audiences.
Fanshen: It's interesting that in the opening statement for the Academy changes they say that they're making these changes to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience. They've left out a huge swath of movie-going audience because we don't see ourselves. That is exactly the point, is that we all have the right to see ourselves reflected in our media and in our entertainment. Until we do that all of these minor changes will be minor.
Tanzina: On that note, we will continue to pay attention. Fanshen, April. Thank you so much.
Fanshen: Thank you so much.
April: Thank you for having us.
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