How Inclusion Riders Could Help Fix Hollywood's Diversity Problem

Frances McDormand gave inclusion riders a shoutout in her Oscars acceptance speech—here's how the contract requirements help ensure racial and gender diversity.

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Mar 5 2018, 5:10am

Photo by Kevin Winter via Getty Images

You can always count on Frances McDormand to break away from Hollywood norms, and her Best Actress acceptance speech for her role in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri was no exception.

In her impassioned Oscars speech, she called for all nominated women in the audience to stand up and talked about the importance of representation, urging people in the industry to consider an "inclusion rider." If you went to Google upon hearing this phrase, you’re not the only one.

Social scientist Dr. Stacy Smith first coined the term with civil rights and employment practice lawyer Kalpana Kotagal as part of their work at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a University of Southern California think tank that studies diversity in entertainment.

The phrase refers to a contract stipulation calling for gender and/or race equity in cast and/or crew. The late, great Robin Williams had a similar call for inclusivity on his rider, requiring his films to provide crew work for the homeless.

Smith first pitched the idea in a 2014 column for the Hollywood Reporter, where it was described as an "equity rider." She called on A-lister actors and actresses to insert a clause in their contract that would mandate that "tertiary speaking characters should should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it's sensible for the plot."

"If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent," Smith wrote. "Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls."

In 2016, Smith suggested the idea of an equity rider again in her TED Talk on gender bias in cinema, explaining how it might work in practice.

"You probably don't know, but the typical feature film has about 40 to 45 speaking characters in it. I would argue that only eight to 10 of those characters are actually relevant to the story," she said. "The remaining 30 or so roles, there's no reason why those minor roles can't match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place. An equity rider by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live."

In an interview with Vanity Fair after the Oscars ceremony, Smith further elaborated on the requirements of the rider. “In small and supporting roles, characters should reflect the world we live in,” she said. "That includes 50 percent gender parity, 40 percent inclusion for people of color, five percent LGBTQ, and 20 percent disabled."

According to a document tweeted out by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative on Sunday, the inclusion rider can also be extended to diversify certain off-screen roles. The think tank also added that it was "currently working on making it even more compelling by working with state governments on providing tax incentives for studios when fulfilling the rider," and suggested that studios who did not "engage in good-faith efforts" to find and hire qualified individuals could face financial penalties.

Smith said that she and Kotagal had met with various agencies last year about the idea of an inclusion rider, though she had not met with McDormand personally to speak about a potential mention in an Oscars speech. “I’m utterly elated,” Smith told the Guardian. “It’s a complete surprise.”

McDormand told journalists in the Oscars press room that she herself had only heard of the clause last week. “The fact that I just learned that after 35 years of working in the film business—we’re not going back,” she said. “The whole idea of women ‘trending,’ no, no trending. African Americans ‘trending?’ No, no trending. It changes now. And I think the inclusion rider will have something to do with that.”

Actresses including Captain Marvel star Brie Larson have already co-signed the idea of an inclusion rider. "I’m committed to the Inclusion Rider," she tweeted. "Who’s with me?" Three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep praised McDormand's mention of the rider, telling Vanity Fair, "It's something we didn't know we could demand. It’s because girls ask for permission but now, we are just bursting."

The Oscars have—in this regard, at least—proved educational, and perhaps we’ll be hearing about inclusion riders more often in the future.

This article was updated to include further information on the inclusion rider.