Updated at 3:13 p.m. ET
"I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider."
Two simple words they may be, but when Frances McDormand closed her acceptance speech with them at the Academy Awards, not a whole lot of people had heard those terms paired that way. The big spike in Google searches for the phrase Sunday night reflects the frantic clatter of people across the world summoning those key words.
So, what is an inclusion rider, exactly?
Simply put: It's a stipulation that actors and actresses can ask (or demand) to have inserted into their contracts, which would require a certain level of diversity among a film's cast and crew.
For instance, an A-list actor negotiating to join a film could use the inclusion rider to insist that "tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it's sensible for the plot," Stacy L. Smith explained in a 2014 column that introduced the idea in The Hollywood Reporter.
Smith, who directs the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California, told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly she had "absolutely no idea" McDormand would bring up the concept at the Oscars. "But," Smith added, "talk about being elated and thrilled to hear those two words broadcast around the world."
Smith has pushed for years for more diverse representation in film — delivering a TED Talk on the topic while she was at it — and the inclusion rider has been a crucial arrow in her quiver.
"The goal really is to figure out: How do we move from all the lip service in Hollywood to actually see the numbers that we study every year move?" Smith said.
And those numbers have been stark. Here's a brief look at some of the findings she and her colleagues published last year in a study of 900 films across a decade-long span:
- Just 31.4 percent of speaking characters were female, even though they represent a little more than half the U.S. population.
- Women represented 4.2 percent of the directors, and just 1.4 percent of the composers.
- About 29 percent of speaking characters were from nonwhite racial/ethnic groups, compared with nearly 40 percent in the U.S.
- Only 2.7 percent of speaking characters were depicted with a disability, despite the fact that nearly 20 percent of people in the U.S. has one.
Though Smith does not believe there are many film stars yet who have pushed for an inclusion rider, she said some indeed have asked for it. Smith said she and her colleagues work with civil rights attorney Kalpana Kotagal to craft language for these actors in their contract negotiations.
"I think there's an appetite now to ensure that equity and inclusion are part of the process in telling these stories," she said.
Enter: Frances McDormand.
The actress won an Oscar for her leading role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And not long after she picked up her statuette from the presenters, she put it down to ask all the female nominees in the building to stand: "Look around, everybody," she said, "because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed."
Then, she broke out the those two little words that made a big splash online.
"I just found out about this last week," McDormand told reporters after the ceremony, referring to the inclusion rider concept. "And so, the fact that I just learned that after 35 years of being in the film business — we're not going back."
Ronan Farrow, one of the journalists who helped bring attention to the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood megaproducer Harvey Weinstein, told NPR's Rachel Martin that McDormand's moment shows an equity movement "trying to turn this into more than just talk."
"It'll be interesting to see if there is an uptick in the use of [inclusion riders]," Farrow said. "This is going to be the struggle when it comes to representation, when it comes to harassment and assault. Is there going to be follow-on? Are the contracts going to change? Is the legislation going to change? Will the bylaws of the professional organizations change?"
If you ask McDormand, that answer is clear.
"The whole idea of women 'trending'? No. African-Americans 'trending'? No. It changes now," she said after the Oscars. "And I think the inclusion rider will have something to do with that — right? Power and rules."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In her Oscar acceptance speech last night Frances McDormand, who had just been handed the statue for best actress, asked every female nominee in the room to stand up.
(SOUNDBITE OF 90TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS)
FRANCES MCDORMAND: OK, look around, everybody. Look around, ladies and gentlemen.
KELLY: Look around, she told the crowd. We have stories to tell. We have projects we need financed. McDormand ended her speech with this.
(SOUNDBITE OF 90TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS)
MCDORMAND: I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen - inclusion rider.
KELLY: Inclusion rider. So what is that? Well, let's put the question to Stacy Smith, who pioneered the idea. Stacy Smith is founder and director of USC Annenberg's Inclusion Initiative. Welcome to the show.
STACY SMITH: It's great to be here. I'm smiling listening to the lines from last night.
KELLY: Listening to it, did you know that Frances McDormand was going to sound that battle cry last night?
SMITH: No, I had absolutely no idea. But talk about being elated and thrilled to hear those two words broadcast around the world. It was amazing.
KELLY: Because this is a relatively new concept, tell us what it is. What is an inclusion rider?
SMITH: Inclusion writer is a stipulation that is put in a content creator's contract. We wrote it thinking really about A-list talent. And it specifies that for onscreen, supporting and small parts that the world in which the story exists should reflect the world we actually live in, which is in the U.S. roughly 50 percent female, 40 percent people of color, 20 percent people with disabilities, 5 percent LGBT.
KELLY: So basically if I'm an A-list movie star and I'm about to sign a contract for a new film, I can say part of my contract is you have to have a cast and also staff on this film that reflects diversity.
SMITH: Well, I think the goal really is to figure out, how do we move from all the lip service in Hollywood to actually seeing the numbers that we study every year move?
KELLY: Yeah. It was interesting. I saw Frances McDormand was interviewed backstage afterward and she said, this is something I only heard of just really recently. And she's been in the business in Hollywood for decades.
SMITH: Right. The op-ed I wrote where I came up with the idea first appeared back in 2014 in the Hollywood Reporter.
SMITH: And the goal has really been to get it into the hands of notable people. And I can be really honest here. The Time's Up movement has really been the catalyst to see this spread in ways that it probably wouldn't have beforehand. But I think there's an appetite now to ensure that equity and inclusion are part of the process in telling these stories.
KELLY: What kind of pushback have you gotten? I can imagine, for example, that producers and directors would fight hard to make the casting decisions, the pay decisions that they think are the best ones for the film and not let a actor, no matter how A-list they might be, dictate that.
SMITH: It's a very low bar that we're asking to cross in terms of the typical feature film has 40 characters. Only about eight to 10 of those characters are really relevant to the storyline. And that leaves at least 30 that could easily be diversified and - in making sure that the ecosystem of that story looks like the world we live in.
KELLY: What is the difference, Stacy Smith, between an inclusion writer and a quota? If you say has to be 50 percent women or has to be X percentage people of color, I mean, a quota is something that, you know, has an awful reputation, has been widely discredited in, say, college admissions.
SMITH: When you see these scripts - and you might have a role, let's say, as a plumber, right? And the automatic go-to occupationally might be for a male actor to audition for that part or a firefighter or a police officer. So something is perpetuating a bias or an invisible quota year in and year out, and people don't seem to be complaining about that. So why not have tools to ensure that these biases that are clearly operating can be countered as well? And that's really the goal here, is to help have a tool to slow down the process and be more thoughtful.
KELLY: Stacy Smith, thanks very much.
SMITH: Thank you so much.
KELLY: Stacy Smith - she is director of USC Annenberg's Inclusion Initiative, and she's been talking to us about the inclusion rider.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.