Movies

What is an inclusion rider? Explaining Frances McDormand’s call to action at the Oscars

Best actress winner Frances McDormand during her acceptance speech.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Best actress winner Frances McDormand during her acceptance speech.

In one of the most powerful moments of the first #MeToo Oscars, best actress winner Frances McDormand invited all the other female nominees in the room to stand up and be recognized. Then she told the men to look around.

‘‘We all have stories to tell and projects we need financed,’’ she said. ‘‘Invite us into your office in a couple of days, or you can come to ours, whichever suits you best, and we’ll tell you all about them.’’ Then she signed off with a phrase that sent many people to Google, or Merriam-Webster. ‘‘I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: Inclusion rider.’’

What the heck is an inclusion rider? It’s a way to make Hollywood more equitable. Actors sign contracts when they are cast in films, and they have the ability to negotiate for riders, or additional provisions. An inclusion rider is a stipulation that the cast and/or the crew in a film reflect real demographics, including a proportionate number of women, minorities, LGBTQ individuals, and people with disabilities. Big-name actors who have leverage in negotiations could put this stipulation into their contracts and drastically change representation in film.

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The idea was developed by Stacy Smith, founder and director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and drafted with Kalpana Kotagal of the law firm Cohen Milstein and the producer and actor Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni. Smith spoke about it in a TED talk in 2016, and the idea has gained ground ever since.

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When Smith heard McDormand’s call-out, she was thrilled. ‘‘How she acknowledged all the women standing up, and indicating that they had projects and ideas, was fantastic,’’ she told The Washington Post by phone after the Oscars.

Even though the inclusion rider might seem like an insidery Hollywood thing, she’s glad that the public knows about it.

‘‘The message of the industry is going out strong and clear that this matters and that it’s important and there are steps we can take to get there faster,’’ she said.

Of course, with every step forward, there’s inevitably some pushback, and Kotagal has already seen some of that since McDormand’s speech, especially as people refer to the rider as a ‘‘quota.’’

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‘‘It doesn’t say you have to hire somebody who fits this demographic group even if you don’t think they’re qualified,’’ she said. ‘‘And I think that quota is such a loaded and dangerous word in this society. It invokes this sense that somehow underqualified people are going to get my job.’’

The purpose of the inclusion rider is ‘‘to counter biases on the casting, auditioning, interviewing, and hiring process. For on-screen roles that are supporting and minor in nature, they have to be filled with norms that reflect the world in which we live,’’ Smith said. That means, for a contemporary drama, approximately 50 percent women, 50 percent minority, 20 percent people with disabilities, and five percent LGBTQ, she added. Historical dramas where this formula doesn’t make sense would be exempt.

With a rider, the exact language is always up to the person negotiating, and Kotagal also wanted to stress the importance of looking at the hiring not just of those on camera, but the people behind the scenes, as well.

It’s not as if this is simply charitable work; after all, some recent releases have proved the value of more inclusive hiring practices.

‘‘I mean, I don’t even have to mention ‘Black Panther’ or ‘Hidden Figures,’” she said. ‘‘Here is what can happen when the industry truly reflects the world in which we live.’’

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Since premiering in mid-February, the Marvel movie ‘‘Black Panther’’ has mowed down box office records, defying (yet again) the long-held assumption that a movie with a predominantly black cast can’t make major bank. The writers and director of that movie are also people of color, and the film’s cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, was the first woman nominated for an Oscar in that category, for her work on ‘‘Mudbound.’’ (She lost Sunday night to Roger Deakins, who won his first Oscar after 14 nominations.)

‘The message of the industry is going out strong and clear that this matters.’

Meanwhile, ‘‘Get Out’’ mastermind Jordan Peele became the first black screenwriter to take home a best original screenplay Oscar Sunday night. Of the best picture nominees, his small-budget satire about the horrors of racism was the second-most lucrative, bringing in more than $255 million worldwide.

According to Kotagal, before McDormand made the world aware of the term ‘‘inclusion rider,’’ A-listers had already started to use them during negotiations. Unfortunately, she can’t say who. (“I wish I could,’’ she said.) But there’s a good possibility that McDormand’s outspoken support of the contract stipulations could inspire others to be vocal as well.

‘‘The percentage of females on screen hasn’t changed since the late 1940s. That’s because small minor roles and supporting roles are very biased [toward] straight, white, able-bodied males,’’ Smith said. ‘‘The goal is that it could really change the entire ecosystem of what we see on screen in a short amount of time if it’s adopted by enough actors, where they ask for this in their contracts.’’