March 05, 2018

Few people watching Sunday night’s Oscar awards knew what Frances McDormand was talking about as she ended her Best Actress acceptance speech with an obscure bit of legalese: “inclusion rider.” 

One exception was Kalpana Kotagal, a civil rights lawyer in Washington who has spent the last year or so crafting the concept with colleagues, but had no idea the novel method for increasing diversity in Hollywood would get such a high-profile shout-out.

The gist is this: powerful actors and film makers could use their star power to get a studio to hire more women, gay people, disabled people and people from racial minorities to the cast and crew by stipulating it as a rider in their contract.

“Frances McDormand surprised us,” Kotagal said in a telephone interview on Monday morning from her son’s school, where she had a pre-existing commitment to teach South Indian dance she was still trying to squeeze in between a deluge of calls. “At some point we knew this was going to blow up.”

Kotagal said they have been discussing the concept in recent months with stars and talent agencies but did not know how McDormand had come to know of the concept.

“I just found out about this last week,” McDormand, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a mother searching for her daughter’s killer in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” told reporters backstage during a ceremony notable for its activism.

Kotagal said she worked on creating model language for the rider with Stacy Smith, a communications professor at the University of Southern California who mentioned the “inclusion rider” idea in a 2016 talk on the lack of diversity in the film industry.

“The objective is to have the films that we see every day be a better reflection of the world that we live in,” Kotagal said, suggesting that casting directors look at a more diverse array of people when filling smaller speaking roles and background parts. “That means, for example, 50 percent women.”

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