After winning the Academy Award for Best Actress, Frances McDormand approached the stage of the Dolby Theater trembling with energy. Powerful sentences were about to spool out from her; she just had to gather herself first. After a delivering a stunning speech — part thank you, part call to action — McDormand concluded with two words: inclusion rider.
What is an inclusion rider? We don’t blame you for not knowing immediately. As McDormand herself revealed in the Oscars press room, she only found out about the concept last week. But she believes inclusion riders can be a solution to Hollywood’s representation problem, and so do its creators: University of Southern California communications professor Stacy L. Smith, civil rights attorney Kalpana Kotagal, and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni of Pearl Street Films.
Briefly put, an inclusion rider is legal language that actors can embed in their movie contracts, which guarantees the project achieves a certain level of diversity both on-screen and off. Essentially, it’s a way for celebrities like McDormand to leverage their own power to disrupt the current system. “The inclusion rider gives power back to talent to advocate for what they care about, when it comes to equality on screen and behind the camera,” Smith, who initially conceived of the initiative, explained to Refinery29 via email.
The actual stipulations of the inclusion rider can vary on a case-by-case basis. “It’s not that rigid. It’s not like you need to have four women for these 20 roles. Rather, we strongly encourage you to build this diverse hiring pool, and then to look for opportunities to hire highly qualified folks from underrepresented groups in such a way that you’re matching the demographics of the world that you’re living [in],” says Kotagal, the Cohen Milstein attorney who collaborated with Smith to develop the inclusion rider’s language and pitch it to agents and lawyers (Anita Hill connected Kotagal with Smith).
The inclusion rider aims to build a diverse hiring pool on set, and thus create a fairer auditioning, casting, interviewing, and hiring process. The creators' emphasis is especially on establishing diversity in small speaking parts — the “fabric of the film,” as Kotagal says — and in the crew. “Having a teacher or the plumber or the police officer, having those roles more broadly reflect the world we live in and the demographics and the setting of the film — that’s not hard to do,” Kolpata said.
Smith first started writing about the inclusion rider, or something similar, as early as 2014, where she mentioned an "equity clause" in a column for the Hollywood Reporter. As the director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, Smith has made a career out of studying the numbers of media representation. From Smith's data-driven perspective, a solution was desperately needed to break Hollywood's inertia. “There has really been no change in front of or behind the camera in over a decade — for women, there has virtually been no progress since the late 1940s,” she told Refinery29. “The inclusion was one idea I had that would short circuit the bias we see in the casting and consideration process.”
But it took until fall 2017, when the #MeToo and Time's Up initiatives were in full swing, for Smith to start bringing the inclusion rider to lawyers, talent, and agents in earnest. Likely, McDormand heard of inclusion riders through the trickle-down effect of Smith and Kotagal’s meetings with agents and talent.
Smith's ultimate goal is for inclusion riders be a regular, assumed part of contract negotiations. “If you get the Hollywood elite to adopt it in their contracts, it becomes baked in,” Smith told Vanity Fair.
Once inclusion riders become a commonly implemented tool, the creators' next step is to monitor projects attached to inclusion riders. “We’re working to set flexible benchmarks or guideposts to measure whether we’re getting this done, whether we’re seeing change over time. If you don’t measure it, you don’t know where you are,” Kotagal said.
But Hollywood is slow to change. Kotagal and Smith recognize that — so they planned a solution in case studios breach the contract. “Where there are failures, as negotiated by the lawyers through this breach of contract process, we’ve provided for a scholarship fund to be paid into by these studios for filmmakers from underrepresented backgrounds. We hope that the fund never gets filled. We hope that every studio recognizes how straightforward it is to meet these objectives,” Kotagal said.
If actors want to implement inclusion riders in their contracts, they can do so tomorrow; the language is readily available. And they might actually do so. This is a particularly ideal moment for something like an inclusion rider to actually take hold. In the upheaval of recent months, many Hollywood A-listers have committed to using their own power to initiate change. In a recent talk given at the Wing, Jennifer Lawrence revealed the existence the of a Time's Up hotline, which allows figures like Lawrence to stick up for actors and crew members who might have less access to power.
“Nobody fucks with me now, but they did — how do I use that to help people that are not as ‘big’ in the world as me?,” she explained in a conversation with the Wing’s founder, Audrey Gelman. “So that’s when the idea of a hotline came up. If someone is experiencing abuse, then someone like me or Reese Witherspoon or Brie Larson, or any of these amazing women [who are] part of Times Up, [responds]. I know every head of the studio. I can call them and say, ‘I heard about this treatment. What’s going on?’"
Like to the Times Up hotline, the inclusion rider asks powerful players to help those with less status. Last night, Frances McDormand blew the door on it wide open.
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