Outrage gripped the Academy Awards in 2015 when, for the second year in a row, only white actors were nominated in the best acting categories. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag quickly took over social media as the public and celebrities alike demanded change.
In response, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the voting body that determines the Oscar nominees and winners – committed to diversifying itself. Six years later, six actors – or roughly 30 per cent of the acting nominees in 2023 – identify as part of a racial minority.
“I think this is a very positive signal,” says Daphne Baldassari, a Ph.D candidate in strategic management in the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and a research fellow at the Institute of Gender and the Economy.
She notes that in recent years, many industries have reckoned with racial discrimination and made efforts to diversify their workforces. But few have dealt with the issue as publicly as the film and television sector.
Following the 2015 backlash, the academy added 683 new members to its 5,700-plus voting body, 46 per cent of whom were women and 41 per cent of whom were from underrepresented racial groups. (The academy was previously 94 per cent white and 77 per cent male, according to the Los Angeles Times.)
The impact of this diversification goes beyond a more diverse nominee group, according to a chapter of Baldassari’s dissertation, “Oscars So White? Hiring Effects of an Evaluator’s Diversity Intervention.”
Many film companies seek the reputational bump from the academy, and after its membership changed to be more inclusive, studios looking to score an Oscar were more likely adjust their hiring practices to ensure more diverse representation, Baldassari found.
The 2022 hit film Everything Everywhere All at Once is nominated in 11 categories at this year's Oscars, including Best Picture (photo courtesy of A24 Films)
Working with Luminate Film & TV – the global entertainment data company formerly known as MRC Data and Nielsen Music – Baldassari analyzed the hiring data of 6,999 feature-length films released in the U.S. between 2010 and 2021. Overall, she examined more than 193,000 staffing choices in the industry.
She approached the research with three hypotheses. First, Baldassari posited that following the decision to create a more diverse judging committee for the Oscars, award-seeking companies would be more likely to do the same. Second, she believed that the positive hiring effect would be most prominent in visible roles – the top-billed or above-the-line positions such as producers, actors and directors. (These are in comparison to “below-the-line” roles, such cinematographers and costume designers.) And third, she surmised that people already affiliated with an award body – such as existing members and nominees – were most likely to see the benefits than those who were not.
Overall, her theories proved accurate. Following the academy's 2016 diversification efforts, there was an increase in racial diversity of the makeup of film crews – with some caveats. Across the board, women and racial minorities were about five per cent more likely to be hired to work on a film.
However, those in above-the-line roles saw their chance of getting hired increase by 3.3 percentage points, while those in below-the-line positions saw no statistical change to their chances of being hired.
“Change here is not necessarily driven by an intrinsic motivation of driving diversity,” Baldassari says. “Award-seeking films seek to appeal to the academy, so positive hiring effects stay in the most visible occupations.”
Women and racial minorities who had previously worked on award-seeking films saw a 1.6 per cent increase in the chance that they’d be re-hired, while those who had not worked on an award-seeking film saw no change.
Regardless of how small the changes were, they made a difference to what audiences see on screen and which movies get recognition.
“Recently we’ve been seeing new depictions of lots of people on screen, such as Asian Americans with movies like Minari and Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Baldassari says. “These movies are totally different from what we would have seen 20 years ago, and we’re moving away from the stereotypes.”
Baldassari believes her findings can be applied to other industries that have existing third-party evaluators or awards bodies. It is especially relevant for subjective work, she says, pointing to the culinary and literary sectors, which respectively have the James Beard Award and Pulitzer Prize to recognize their efforts.
As a first step, organizations should consider how their evaluation may sustain existing racial and gender inequalities, Baldassari suggests. Then, they should consider potential changes – such as diversifying evaluation bodies or adding new qualification requirements – and measure the impact.
“By changing the committees, you are opening up to more preferences and changing the standards – especially for companies that are driven by earning these awards.”