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Schembri: Frances McDormand’s diversity call at the Oscars could backfire.

Jim Schembri

The acceptance speech that easily drew the biggest reaction at this year’s Oscars was the one given by Frances McDormand after deservedly winning Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

And the biggest part of her speech came with  her final two words. Having spoken eloquently about the need for diversity in Hollywood – this year’s big theme – she closed with the words “inclusion rider”. This was intended as a clarion call to her Hollywood sisters – and to every actor who presumably cherishes equality.

While those in the room showed by their thunderous reaction how familiar a term it was to them, most people watching at home would have had little idea what this industry term meant, or what she meant by it. Chances are Google experienced a spike in searches for the term.

Simply put, an “inclusion rider” is a clause in an actor’s contract that obliges a producer to impose a diversity policy mandating a given ethnic/racial/gender mix among the crew and/or cast. This is all in the interests of equality.

The good intentions behind such a demand is a reheating of the age-old affirmative action concept, where equality is meant to be achieved by the imposition of quotas. The goal is to bump up the presence of groups felt to have been historically under-represented.

The thrust behind McDormand’s proclamation – as everybody knows by now – is to redress the perceived dominance of white males in Hollywood. The #metoo, #timesup and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns have fuelled this noble cause.

“Inclusion riders” sound like a great idea, too, especially in today’s hyper-sensitive, politically correct environment. And it is – on paper. Trouble is, it’s only guaranteed to work if absolutely everybody signs up to it.

And in a business as competitive as Hollywood that’s unlikely.

Unlikely, though not impossible.

To wit: if you’re an actor with huge market value who can open a movie, you can pretty much have anything you like written into a contract as a condition of employment, including an “inclusion rider”.

In such cases, where your name represents a lot of power and money, a studio might be happy to yield to such a demand, provided the film goes on to become a hit.

The dream scenario presently swirling through everybody’s heads is that enough A-list actors will subscribe to McDormand’s crusade and the studios will churn out a string of diversity clause-driven films that are enormous hits, thus validating the “inclusion rider” ideal and making the world a better place.

The realisation of such a dream would be greeted with much applause. Big actors and studios might embrace the idea immediately, thus embedding it into common practice and making McDormand an icon of equality.

It’s more likely, though, that such a scenario is a long way off. And for good reasons.

Indeed, in the fickle, money-driven movie business, McDormand’s call for a sudden tsunami of “inclusion riders”, while pure of heart, is fraught with peril.

By and large, producers and directors don’t like being told how to make their movies, especially by actors.

Typically, producers go for the best available talent their budget will allow. To suddenly have to accommodate an “inclusion rider”, with quotas and ratios to meet, can be costly and time-consuming. Will film crews now have a “diversity division” to ensure the composition of the cast and crew adheres to a pre-determined pie chart?

Moreover, such a demand for diversity can burden films with the unavoidable issue that comes welded to any affirmative action policy, which is the hiring of people based on their gender, ethnicity and race rather than merit.

How will this benefit the art of cinema? Can you imagine a director being forced to work on a long-cherished passion project with a cinematographer who was not their first choice because of such a policy? Or a producer ending up having to use a second-rate director merely because they satisfied a racial profile?

And what if there aren’t enough people from a certain demographic? Will producers be hit with a penalty if they can’t get enough Hispanic electricians? (Apparently, fines are part of the “inclusion rider” arrangement. If a producer fails to meet a set quota, they can get penalised. Wonderful initiative.)

Producers have enough headaches to deal with ordinarily. An actor insisting on an “inclusion rider” could only add to them.

But what about the actor of similar standing with no such demand? In a cut-throat market they can readily undercut the actor who does. Such an actor can suddenly find, through no effort of their own, that they have a competitive edge.

Actors at the beginning of their careers who have no clout and aren’t in any position to make diversity demands could find their fortunes enhanced.

After all, they cause fewer headaches.

In the case of small, independent films, where there is less money at stake, one can easily see how an entire production can embrace the “inclusion rider” concept, and perhaps benefit from it.

With big productions, however, where hundreds of millions, if not billions, can be at stake, it’d be a brave producer indeed who would hire their cast and crew according to a diversity pie chart.

It’s not out of the question that this won’t happen where, with the support of diversity conscious A-list actors, a giant tentpole film follows McDormand’s cue.

But you’d better hope like heck the film makes an absolute killing at the box office, because if it flops the producers will look for things to blame, and the “inclusion rider” will be one of them.

The principle McDormand is championing works far more practically when applied to the equality of opportunity rather than the equality of outcome. Everyone, surely, should be allowed an equal shot at a gig. After that,  merit must rule.

Underlying all this, you also have to consider the very real possibility that not everyone – not even in Hollywood – believes there is a diversity problem, or that whatever diversity problems exist are being corrected organically, with quality being the prime driving force.

Prime examples are Mexicans, who have been a growing force in Hollywood over the past decade, and African-Americans, whose contribution is far larger than the diversity debate credits. The success of Black Panther might be seen as some sort of landmark, but the truth is that it sits on a mountain of achievements and breakthroughs by African-American artists that has been building for decades.

And though it’s not often spoken about, not everybody in Hollywood is a liberal who likes to go with the politically correct flow.

So don’t be surprised if there is some push back against the whole “inclusion rider” thing because it might end up grinding against some people’s notion of fairness and turn out not to be a thing at all.

Jim Schembri
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