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What's An Inclusion Rider? Here's The Story Behind Frances McDormand's Closing Words

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.

    And with the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, which are working to call attention to sexual harassment and workplace inequality, Smith said she thinks something of a sea change may be underway.

    "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."

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.