In a statement released Tuesday, September 8, 2020, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences outlined its sweeping new standards for Best Picture nominees, slated to take effect in 2024. The new criteria, part of the Academy’s Aperture 25 initiative, are designed to “encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience,” according to The Academy’s preamble. These new benchmarks are an important first step, but a more accurate summation would read “on or off screen.”
The criteria — which cover onscreen representation (standard A), creative leadership and project team (standard B), industry access and opportunities (standard C), and audience development (standard D) — must be filled by meeting two of the four categories, and do not mandate a correlation between on and off screen representation. Indeed, under The Academy’s new standards, a racial or ethnic minority filmmaker taking their Best Picture-hopeful film, which meets standards A and B, to a distribution company only to be greeted by a team full of white faces is perfectly acceptable, if unfortunate. This cannot be the solution. To make equitable strides towards diversifying the American film landscape, onscreen representation cannot justify the persistence of offscreen discrimination.
To grow on and off screen representation simultaneously, the only equitable strategy for dismantling the inequalities of the filmmaking industry, The Academy could group standards AB and standards C-D, then stipulate both must be met using at least one component of each section — maintaining a one-to-two ratio of required categories to total categories. Alternatively, The Academy could require standards C and D be met outright, bringing the total number of sections required for Best Picture eligibility up to three. Either of these adjustments would prevent onscreen representation from masking off screen discrimination, still ensure an increase in the number of women, racial or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and disabled storytellers in a studio’s employ, and mark a more robust effort to dismantle systemic biases in the American film industry.
I am not advocating for the elimination of standards A and B. Even if standards C and D prove effective by themselves, it would take years before enough people from traditionally underrepresented groups gained enough power to ensure an equitable number of films featuring racial or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and disabled characters reach audiences each year; change must happen now. Sadly, the majority of studio executives do not reliably greenlight enough predominately non-white, non-male, non-cis-heterosexual content to make standards A and B unnecessary. Standards A and B are not the “quotas on art” some on the internet are mistakenly griping; they are commendable if not modest failsafes against a woefully unequal system, and must remain in place.
In addition to grouping criteria or making standards C and D compulsory, The Academy should use the private tabulations of how many criteria a studio’s film meets — a sort of rehearsal for the standards’ eventual launch — as initial data-sets for a website where actors, directors, crew members, and audiences can track the progress (or lack thereof) made by major studios in the interim between 2020 and 2024. This website would increase the transparency of diversity efforts in a privatized industry with a history of whitewashing and unequal treatment, and little oversight, while allowing aspiring filmmakers who are racial or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, or disabled to see which companies are consequently investing in their talents — and take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by the criteria accordingly.
Adopting any of these amendments would help ensure The Academy’s new criteria do not allow the same shortcomings as their predecessors. A July report from the London School of Economics and Science found that the British Film Institute’s (BFI) Diversity Standards — upon which the academy’s criteria were modeled — while still evolving four years since their inception, are “not yet a robust enough model for responding to the intersectional and multidimensional nature of inequality in the [film] industry.” The report cites “tremendous levels of exclusion” for Black and ethnic minority groups, and recommends creating an “online system to assist in capturing data on how Diversity Standards are being satisfied by each production.” The report also recommends BFI raise the number of required criteria from two to three.
Areas of The Academy’s requirements do seem more targeted than aspects of BFI’s standards, yet I fear — though I hope I am wrong — there is little reason to expect a sea of new storytellers to wash over American screens in response to the new Best Picture criteria unless The Academy acts quickly to identify and address potential shortcomings. To The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences I say: why wait?