AMPAS’ Jeanell English on Implementing Inclusion Standards: “The Action of the Filmmaking Community is What’s Really Driving Change”

For the past two awards cycles, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has implemented a “soft rollout” of its representation and inclusion standards, collecting demographic information about the participants in front of and behind the camera for all Oscar best picture submissions before next season, when films must meet a minimum of diversity benchmarks — for example, offering paid internships for people from underrepresented groups — to be eligible to compete.

The inclusion standards, first announced in September 2020, were met with perhaps expected skepticism (or outright criticism) from those chafing at the idea of a personnel mandate on their commerce and creativity, but the Academy’s Jeanell English, who joined the organization in 2020 prior to being promoted to executive vice president of impact and inclusion last summer, says that there is more support for the work than some may think. “We’ve had incredible conversations with studios and filmmakers from around the world that are continuing to help us refine the process,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I do believe this industry is supportive of change; it’s just how do we break and challenge some of those systemic issues that keep us from moving forward.”

Halfway through the Academy’s Aperture 2025 campaign – its follow-up to the membership-focused A2020 drive that’s meant to drive inclusion efforts earlier in the film pipeline – English spoke with THR ahead of the Jan. 24 Oscars nominations announcement about lessons gleaned from the inclusion standards so far (room for improvement in disability access and diversity among creative leadership and department heads) and what the Academy intends to do (and not do) with its intel.

How did the Academy arrive at the idea of implementing inclusion standards?

#OscarsSoWhite did really kick off a lot of this internal reckoning for the Academy. One of the first goals was to look at the diversity of the membership base. We all carry biases, and if our members only represent a certain subset of the global film community, their votes are going to reflect that connection. So an aggressive goal was set [with A2020], and the Academy doubled the number of women and underrepresented racial and ethnic groups amongst membership. Yet there was still this realization that something else needs to happen beyond what we can directly control as an organization and who we’re bringing in from a membership side. What can we do to challenge the industry to continue to invest in more diverse films? That was really the birthplace of Aperture 2025. We’re doing what we can do within our own membership, but really the challenges are beyond what the Academy can directly control. Now we’re stepping into the space of what we can indirectly influence.

Let’s encourage the industry to think differently when it comes to the types of stories and films that they’re greenlighting and investing in. Let’s encourage our production companies to think about the diversity and representation amongst their crews. And let’s hold our studios and distributors accountable by saying, “Okay, who’s working on your marketing and distribution? And who are those creative execs that you have nurturing certain films and supporting them from the studio side?” We’re very appreciative because BAFTA and the BFI had done some incredible groundwork and laid a foundation that made sense and helped us be able to move forward confidently in saying, “This is the right way for us to really make a change in this industry.”

What have been the primary misconceptions about the standards?

The standards are designed to help facilitate and encourage progress in front of and behind the camera. It’s not a mandate, but a tool designed to encourage the industry to pause. Because so often we’re working so quickly, we go to the individuals we know first, the ones we’ve worked with before. It’s almost this process of automaticity, and the standards are a moment to say, “Hold up. Who are we missing? Who are we not engaging with, and what’s the potential impact of that?”

One of the first misconceptions is that we’re trying to tell filmmakers what they need to make. That’s not true. We want filmmakers to continue making the films they want to make. The other misconceptions that come up often is that this is something where we’re going to see change overnight, and that this is the Academy “mandating” something. The Academy is the industry, and the industry is the Academy. So this whole process has been collaborative. Even before I joined the Academy, there were conversations with the PGA and all of the studio heads to say, “Okay, we understand there are some real issues in our industry.” Even after year one of rolling this out, we’ve had incredible conversations with studios and filmmakers from around the world that are continuing to help us refine the process. So the collaboration is real, and it’s consistent. I do believe this industry is supportive of change; it’s just how do we break and challenge some of those systemic issues that keep us from moving forward.

But there are skeptics and critics of these initiatives.

Any time change is introduced, there’s always going to be resistance, because what we’re asking you to do is something different. We’re disrupting your process, whether it be thinking about how you’re collecting information on your crews, how you’re drafting contracts, how you’re developing certain films and what your development team looks like. We’re actively disrupting the momentum, and that’s where the resistance comes from. At the end of the day, the art of filmmaking genuinely does thrive from diversity. I think there’s a collective shared perspective of that.

If that’s the case, how much do you think the Academy’s inclusion initiatives have directly impacted the more diverse film slates we’ve seen in recent years, and how much of it is simply the tastes of filmmakers and studio gatekeepers also arriving at this awareness at the same time?

I’d like to take credit, but I don’t think we could. There’s something changing in the larger industry. Sure, the Academy is the industry and the industry is the Academy, but I think you’re finally seeing natural spaces for championship of certain stories, filmmakers, talent in front and behind the camera emerging. Are the inclusion standards one small impetus? Sure. Is it the realization that talent in this industry is getting bold and rightfully fighting for and able to demonstrate the beauty of some new and unique stories that haven’t been heard before? Sure. I think we’re all contributing in some small way. We’re at this point where everyone needs to be looking at every lever they can possibly pull to make sure the momentum continues. For us and for me, if the inclusion standards are accomplishing anything even in these two years of this soft rollout, it’s that we’re instigating conversation and disrupting processes. It’s not on us to then implement it. The conversation and the action of the filmmaking community is what’s really driving that change and making it happen.

If such progress is already happening, especially as we’ve transitioned to a new generation of filmmakers with increased globalization and awareness, how much is there a need to have standards at all? Aren’t you arming the critics to call inclusion a mandate if it was already happening in the industry?

This is where I lean on the data and the statisticians. You look at all the research and the reporting that [USC’s] Annenberg [Inclusion Initiative] and UCLA are doing, and you see there are still gaps. So while the inclusion standards might be needed today to instigate change, some of the results of that change are not going to be realized a year or even two years from now. What we’re looking at with these standards is trying to tackle some of the systemic challenges that still exist and might keep us from moving forward as quickly. There’s still validity in the research. I personally rely on that as a barometer of, okay, what’s changing, what’s not changing? Could this conversation evolve in the future? Could the standards evolve in the future? I certainly hope so. The reality is, doing diversity work and advocating for inclusion is never a single endpoint. There might be a point where we get in a room with our board and our equity and inclusion committee at the Academy and say, “Okay, what’s next? What are the barriers that are still in existence, and how do we tackle that?”

What have you learned about the current state of the industry from your two years of internal data collection?

It’s not only about you sharing information, it’s also about you giving feedback to us about how we’re rolling this out. The purpose of this slow rollout was two-fold: We get some information that’s helpful for us in assessing if these standards fit our purpose — are they hard enough, are they in the right place — but more importantly it’s enabled us to have conversations as we near these [standards] going into effect in the next cycle to make sure the process is right and making sense. We’re refining from that information.

It’s important to note we’re not an analytics institution. We rely heavily on data from great places, whether it’s USC or UCLA, to help demonstrate the trends. Based on the films that submitted last cycle — we haven’t completed fully this cycle — we haven’t seen anything wildly different from what we’re seeing from any data report on the industry. It’s another point of validation that what we’re seeing and what these universities are seeing are very real. There continue to be significant opportunities in terms of disability representation across all areas of the industry. That’s one thing that was very clear. There’s also an opportunity to continue to invest in the next generation of talent. That’s something that Standard C really looks at: what the industry is doing to grow and develop the future of film. How can we continue to create more opportunities for apprenticeships, trainees and interns to be part of this ecosystem, and how do we set them up for success in the long run?

Because you’re soliciting feedback, does that mean there might be adjustments to the standards? What would be the process for amending them?

We keep track of every conversation we have and say, “Okay, are we hearing enough to make a formal recommendation to the Academy, to the board, to make some changes to the standards?” A lot of the recommendations we’ve received thus far are more operational and less about the standards themselves. A really interesting example is the standards by design were very much focused on underrepresentation in Hollywood, and what has been incredibly rewarding in rolling this out is having conversations with filmmakers around the world who are sharing what “underrepresented” means in their specific country or territory, whether it’s about caste or challenging a more patriarchal narrative. So there’s also a space on our forms to share with us what “underrepresented” looks like in your specific country or territory. Having that write-in option – we didn’t change the standard, but we created a space for the global community to also participate in this process.

Is there a possibility of partnering with any of these research groups – like Annenberg, UCLA, the Geena Davis Institute – to see what they do with the data you’re collecting?

Our primary focus with the standards is to administer an awards process. To that point, part of the reason we’ve had such great collaboration and partnership is we’ve created a confidential process with studios, production companies and filmmakers. Our goal is to work with them to help those who are actually creating and distributing the films, and doing that on a more consultative basis. So we’d really have to think seriously about that, because we never want to be in a situation where we’re jeopardizing the confidentiality and the trust that we’ve built in creating these standards. If the goal is to stimulate conversations with filmmakers and the industry, if the goal is to help drive some accountability, I think we can do that without necessarily sharing any information that we’re receiving with another partner. So we’ll see, but first and foremost for us it’s respecting the confidentiality of the conversations and of the information that’s shared.

What level of detail can the public (including the media) expect to see from the information you receive from film submissions?

Time will tell. We’re not the watchdog of the industry. We are the industry, the industry is us. We’re here to support, to stimulate conversations, to enable change. If that position changes, then sure, I think you might expect more information coming from us, but as of now, the primary goal is to administer an awards process and to ensure that awards process is reflective of the incredible diversity that is represented in this industry.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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