With that cryptic salvo from the stage at Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, lead actress winner Frances McDormand sent much of Hollywood frantically Googling and speed-dialing their attorneys to figure out what exactly an “inclusion rider” is and what repercussions it could have at a time when studios are facing pressure to showcase more diverse casts in movies and TV shows.
The term trended on Twitter after the Oscars broadcast and was Merriam-Webster's most-searched term of the night. McDormand's words quickly elicited social media support from other prominent actresses including Brie Larson, who tweeted after the ceremony: “I’m committed to the Inclusion Rider. Who’s with me?”
At its most basic level, an inclusion rider is a clause that a major star can negotiate into his or her contract to ensure that a certain number of women and minorities are considered for jobs on a movie or series. The concept has its root in the NFL's Rooney Rule, the 2003 policy that requires teams to consider minority candidates for head coaching and other managerial jobs.
The inclusion rider is a relatively new concept developed by Stacy L. Smith, director of USC Annenberg's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, where she studies gender representation in the entertainment industry and larger media landscape.
Smith said in an interview that she was surprised by McDormand's speech.
“I had no idea it was coming,” she said, adding that she hadn't been in contact with the actress. “I have a sneaking suspicion it emerged from individuals and actors I’ve been talking to about this for months.”
Smith’s initiative at USC publishes an annual report on diversity in Hollywood, but she said she felt stymied by an industry that was stubborn in its hiring practices.
“More research doesn't seem to be the key to moving the industry,” she said.
The idea for the rider arose when Smith partnered with Kalpana Kotagal, an attorney at Cohen Milstein, and Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, the head of strategic outreach at Pearl Street Films, the production company launched by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.
“All of a sudden it became this opportunity to employ what I knew but from a policy perspective,” Smith said.
The rider enumerates the underrepresented groups to be included in the interviewing and auditioning processes, though an actor can alter the language to suit his or her particular desires. The initiative specifically targets small speaking roles that don't interfere with the financing or the story arc of the movie, as well as certain technical personnel and crew.
Smith said the key to implementing the rider will be A-list stars who can use their professional leverage to persuade studios to act. The major talent agencies are also an important party for implementation.
“As with all things, this will take some time,” said Kotagal of Cohen Milstein. “Our hope is that the inclusion rider could become a standard part of the negotiating of client rosters for the biggest agencies.”
Hollywood has been under fire from activists in recent years who have accused the industry of overlooking women and other minorities for key jobs and roles. The pressure has been compounded by the sexual harassment scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein and many other prominent entertainment figures.
“I think it is potentially a good initiative that could help bring about more gender parity and diversity,” said Ivy Kagan Bierman, a partner at Loeb & Loeb, where she represents many of the largest Hollywood studios on labor issues. She isn’t involved in the inclusion rider initiative.
Bierman said there could be some push-back in the industry.
“I think the studios are very focused on gender parity and diversity right now but will be reticent to agree to anything that has particular numbers and percentages they have to meet,” she said.
But McDormand’s speech at the Oscars has given the rider visibility and momentum, according to Smith of USC.
“I’m very optimistic at the moment, but I think that the pressure and the passion need to continue because oftentimes, things in Hollywood are exciting in the moment,” she said. “Our goal is to create sustainable change.”
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