“I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.”
When Frances McDormand ended her Best Actress acceptance speech at the 2018 Oscars with those two words, it was the first time most people had heard of the concept of an inclusion rider.
The Oscar winner’s call to arms amplified the work of the three women who had been developing the concept for several years: film executive Fanshen Cox, the head of strategic outreach at Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s production company Pearl Street Films; civil rights attorney Kalpana Kotagal; and University of Southern California professor Dr. Stacy L. Smith, the founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The inclusion rider is an attachment to a film or television contract which delineates that the project’s production team must take steps to seek out and hire cast and crew members from historically underrepresented backgrounds. In 2018, the team posted a template online for any actor, director or other industry leader to use when negotiating a new project.
At the time, it seemed like McDormand’s speech was part of a perfect storm. April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite hashtag had accelerated public pressure on the entertainment industry to correct long-standing racial inequities on and off the screen. More industry leaders were at least saying they were committed to more equitable inclusion and representation. While the overall trajectory has slowly moved in the right direction, it has been an uphill battle. Just as movies and shows can often take years to get off the ground, a lot of the day-to-day work involved in overhauling entire ways of doing things, at institutions that often haven’t changed their ways for decades, will likely take a long time. The challenges of implementing inclusion riders are a reminder that behind each big announcement of an initiative that could help build a more inclusive Hollywood, there are a lot of granular and procedural changes that have to happen in order to implement the idea.
“We’ve learned lots of lessons around all of the resources that a production company or studio would need in order to really adopt it and to give us leverage in the negotiation,” Cox said in an interview. “Now, we have this opportunity for systemic change instead of just production by production or individuals with leverage. What would happen if an entire company adopted it?”
Cox and Kotagal have created a new and improved version of the inclusion rider, in partnership with civil rights advocacy organization Color of Change and Endeavor Content, the film and TV development arm of one of Hollywood’s biggest talent agencies. In late April, they launched a site that’s a one-stop shop for all things inclusion riders: the template, plus an implementation guide developed by Dr. Tasmin Plater, Endeavor Content’s head of human resources, who drew from his own challenges in trying to implement the inclusion rider on the company’s projects.
At Endeavor Content, company executives adopted the original inclusion rider in 2018. Yet, it has taken much of those three years to change the company’s day-to-day processes and actually be able to implement the rider’s provisions, Plater said. For instance, it took him nine months just to build a companywide database to track the demographic data for the cast and crew on all of their projects — a fundamental step in being able to start the process of setting goals and evaluating how the company is doing.
Our industry has been this way for a very long time … What we’re doing is trying to make sure we spend all the time we need building a foundation, because when it’s time to build the building, you know, we’re going to be sturdy.
Dr. Tasmin Plater, head of human resources at Endeavor Content
Kotagal said the new template includes “more robust and more precisely defined” ways to set hiring goals, collect data on who is being hired, measure progress and hold people and companies accountable for improving. There’s also a greater emphasis on intersectionality and diversity within underrepresented groups — for instance, taking colorism into account, or making sure both visible and invisible disabilities are represented. The new version also includes provisions for making sets and audition rooms accessible, providing gender-neutral facilities, and issuing a land acknowledgement when a production is using Native or Indigenous land.
Perhaps the most significant shift in this new phase of their work is putting the onus on studios and production companies to adopt inclusion riders on a wider scale. Several have recently committed to using the new version of the inclusion rider on their projects, including AMC Studios, Forest Whitaker’s Significant Productions, Stephanie Allain’s HomeGrown Pictures, Lynette Howell Taylor’s 51 Entertainment and Harry and Gina Belafonte’s Sankofa.org.
There are now two versions of the template: one for individuals and one for companies. According to Cox, when she, Kotagal and Smith began developing the legal language of the inclusion rider in 2016, they initially aimed to enlist A-list actors and directors because A-listers could use their influence to get their projects to adopt more inclusive hiring practices. And on a more basic level, getting big stars on board could help ignite the larger conversation.
“We had been advised, like, ‘Oh, don’t make individuals do this, don’t let them put themselves at risk. Just go straight to the companies,’” Cox said. “And we knew that, especially at that time, that was not going to get this done in the way that we wanted to get the conversation started.”
McDormand’s Oscar speech was a groundswell moment, leading other stars to pledge to implement the inclusion rider on their own projects. But Cox and Kotagal discovered they still had a lot of work to do in convincing institutions to actually change their day-to-day processes. And for those that did, they still needed a lot of help in getting started.
Cox said that she often found that “people and organizations and companies believed they were already getting it right” — when in fact, they may have made a stated commitment to diversity and inclusion, but hadn’t been taking concrete steps to evaluate their progress.
“I was on a production recently that said, ‘Listen, we are all about this, like, we’re spiritually aligned with this,’” Cox said. “And we say, ‘Fantastic. Just let us measure it afterwards so that we can all know how we did, so we can all see what actually is contributing to the problems in Hollywood.’”
The website also contains a list of responses to common areas of concern, pushback or excuses. For example, it notes that the inclusion rider does not mean establishing a hiring quota: it’s a way to set goals and make commitments toward inclusive hiring.
In addition, the collection of resources includes lists of people from underrepresented groups in the industry — many of which started organically — giving industry gatekeepers no excuse to say they “couldn’t find anyone.”
The templates are also designed to be flexible and adaptable, depending on a company’s needs or goals.
“The idea here is that the companies that have signed on, they will take the next chunk of time, with any help that we can provide, to figure out how this works for them, whether it’s on a project-by-project basis or across their slate of productions,” Kotagal said. “We recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all.”
The group is quick to stress that the inclusion rider is just a starting point. It can be an important step forward in inclusive hiring. But it doesn’t begin to solve other long-standing problems, like making sure a company’s culture is hospitable toward people from underrepresented backgrounds, and that the company is taking steps to retain and promote them. It also doesn’t guarantee that a story will be inclusive or culturally sensitive, though having a more diverse range of storytellers is certainly a key step.
Let’s do it in a way that leads to meaningful equity and not tokenism. Let’s do it in a way that recognizes the deep pool of talent in the industry. Let’s do it in a way that is systemic, not one-off.
Civil rights attorney and inclusion rider co-creator Kalpana Kotagal
However, putting the ball in the court of major studios and production companies could go a long way in making the inclusion rider a more widely implemented practice and encouraging collaboration across the entire industry.
“This is not the silver bullet that’s going to solve the issue in Hollywood,” Plater said. “But I now have a network where I can pick up the phone and call, you know, AMC, and say: ‘I’m having trouble. I’m only getting 40% on a data collection. What else are you doing to get more folks to fill out the survey?’ I can now have a network of individuals that’s all focused on the same thing, that can help us move the needle forward in each one of these areas.”
A lot of what they have incorporated into this new phase of their work came from the often very difficult experience of getting people and companies on board and encountering pushback, they said.
“It was not easy for periods of time there because what we were advocating for was [something] people were not comfortable with,” Kotagal said.
She said the work of building a more inclusive Hollywood means having to “hold two things in tension”: balancing the frustration of watching the glacial pace of change in the industry, with the reality that this work is like trying to move an entire mountain.
“I think we are capable of holding both at once,” Kotagal said. “There’s no time to wait, and there’s a deep sense of urgency around making these changes. And also, let’s do it in a way that leads to meaningful equity and not tokenism. Let’s do it in a way that recognizes the deep pool of talent in the industry. Let’s do it in a way that is systemic, not one-off.”
They’ve seen this tension — trying to correct decades of inequities, but taking the time to do it right — play out in their own work. For example, it took a year and a half just to draft the original inclusion rider template, according to Kotagal.
And it’s one thing to “flip the switch” and change one specific way of doing things, Plater said. It’s another thing to transform entire systems and implement changes that will outlast one person or one film or TV show, and “make this muscle memory for the way we hire on our productions.”
“Our industry has been this way for a very long time,” he said. “What we’re doing is trying to make sure we spend all the time we need building a foundation, because when it’s time to build the building, you know, we’re going to be sturdy.”
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