If you watched this year’s Oscars all the way until best actress was announced, you may have come away scratching your head. “I have two words to leave you with tonight,” Frances McDormand, who won the category for her role in Two Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, said in her speech: “Inclusion. Rider.”
Inclusion riders are brand new and haven’t been widely adopted yet. The idea piggybacks off of the often banal riders that Hollywood stars or their agents insert into their contracts; many actors already request things like a certain number of assistants or fresh flowers in their trailers every day in return for signing on to a movie or show, although some address compensation and other important terms. An inclusion rider uses the same vehicle for something entirely different: It requires an inclusive hiring practice for the project that brings on women, people of color, LGBT people, those with disabilities, and others from marginalized groups. It envisions demanding diversity not just in the on-screen hires, but for the off-screen crew as well.
Inclusion riders had been in the works for over a year before the Oscars. It’s accepted by many now, even by those in Hollywood itself, that the industry needs to get less white and less male, and fast. Discussion of how white and male Hollywood is—including the hashtag #Oscarssowhite, among other things—are nothing new, and yet little has changed. People of color still make up about 14 percent of film leads and less than 13 percent of directors, while women are less than a third of film leads and barely seven percent of directors. “No matter how much the leadership at the top of the industry says it’s committed to more diverse representation and more diverse storytelling, that hasn’t actually manifested,” said Kalpana Kotagal, a partner at law firm Cohen Milstein.
But about 18 months ago, Anita Hill—yes, the Anita Hill, who testified, in 1991, that she’d been sexually harassed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and who is now of counsel at Kotagal’s law firm—introduced Kotagal to Stacy Smith, the founder of the Annenberg Inclusions Initiative at the University of Southern California, in the hopes that the two could come up with a solution. They met with a third “partner in crime,” as Kotagal calls her: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, an actor and producer who is Head of Strategic Outreach at Pearl Street Films, a production company founded by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (whose own records in this arena have been less than stellar), about a week before the 2016 presidential election to talk about fixing the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
The three of them discussed existing structures that have been used to try to increase diversity, such as the Rooney Rule, a policy implemented by the NFL in 2003 that requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coach and general manager positions. But they worried about the pitfalls of something that could be seen as an inflexible quota or “reverse discrimination” against men and white people. Instead, they came up with “this idea of relying on those who already have the power in the industry to help drive change [and] developing it in a contractual form,” Kotagal said. Thus the inclusion rider was born. “Having addendums to contracts or riders to contracts, that is not an unusual concept,” she said, but “the idea of developing a contractual provision to use the existing power structures of an industry to help drive change in that industry—I think that dimension of the inclusion rider is absolutely a new concept.”
“There is a tremendous pool of qualified actors and crew members from these underrepresented groups who have been waiting to break into this industry and are struggling to do so. We think if you look for those folks, seek them out and slow down the hiring process, there will be no shortage of talented people ready to fill these roles,” said Kotagal.
The riders are meant to be used by actors who wield power and influence. “What this rider does is it asks those who have already benefitted from the power structure in Hollywood to use their privilege to help lift up those who have not been so privileged because of structural problems,” she said. It’s therefore aimed primarily at “straight white powerful men in the industry,” she said. “It is those folks with that power who have the responsibility to help fix the system.” And they will likely work best if they’re adopted early on in the process of making a film so that the decision to make diverse hires is set from the beginning.
Kotagal and her co-creators believe that inclusion riders hold the potential to actually change diversity in Hollywood after years, if not decades, of talk. She predicts that, if inclusion riders become adopted widely enough they will, in effect, put themselves out of business. “If we commit to doing this and people step up, then in a number of years the inclusion riders should be obsolete,” she said. “This should be adopted by the industry, by studios, by agencies as just the best practice.”
“It is really my hope, my wish, my dream that this becomes obsolete,” she added.
The team behind inclusion riders started their work even before the New York Times exposed Harvey Weinstein’s decades of harassment and abuse and the resulting #MeToo and Time’s Up movements got going with the momentum they now have. “These problems have been systemic in Hollywood for a long time,” she explained. But that activism has only intensified interest in their proposal. “That kind of bravery and activism and dynamism… has created the energy around this,” she said.
They had also already begun rolling them out for several months before the Oscars. “We had been working quietly and meeting with agents and lawyers and hearing from interested talent quietly all behind the scenes,” Kotagal said. She can’t “name names” of who’s already signed on to use them, but did say “the energy that was building before [the Oscars] was tangible and meaningful.”
And then Frances McDormand name-dropped the riders at the Oscars, creating a huge turning point. “Now it’s a completely different game,” Kotagal said. “We are very busy.” In just the week since the awards show, Michael B. Jordan has said that his production company, Outlier Society, will adopt them as part of its hiring policy, while Endeavor Content co-president Graham Taylor has said that his company will suggest them on all of its projects. Meanwhile, others are creating products that could dovetail with inclusion riders, such as a new database called Akuarel created by April Reign, the woman behind #Oscarssowhite, a repository of people from marginalized groups who are trying to break into creative fields.
All of that momentum could “turn what was a rolling snowball into an avalanche,” Kotagal said.
The idea need not only apply to Hollywood casting. Stars could include similar riders that demand better pay and benefits for the rest of the cast and crew, a more codified version of Jessica Chastain’s effort on behalf of Octavia Spencer, to ensure they made the same amount for comparable work.
Kotagal also thinks it could apply anywhere a powerful person is being courted for a job. Sought after hires in technology could request diversity for the rest of the company in their negotiations, as could high profile TV anchors or journalists in media. “If you’re an in-demand executive, why not take something like this into negotiations over a job offer?” she asked. “Why not start to think about how you can use your leverage and your bargaining power to change the industry in which you work?”
But the importance of diversifying Hollywood goes beyond the normal case for hiring more people from marginalized backgrounds. “Hollywood is more than just a business,” Kotagal said. “It is the industry whose content shapes perspectives and culture and affects the way that boys and girls in America and around the world grow up, what they see, what they understand to be norms.”
“There is a responsibility for the industry to get this right,” she added.
Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled Kalpana Kotagal’s name. Jezebel regrets this error.
Bryce Covert is an independent journalist writing about the economy. She is a contributing op-ed writer at the New York Times and a contributing writer at The Nation.