Matt Damon, Ben Affleck get in on Hollywood’s latest craze: Inclusion riders

After Frances McDormand's rallying cry and Michael B. Jordan's lead, the stars commit to demanding equality on their sets.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck attend the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Live By Night" at TCL Chinese Theatre on January 9, 2017 in Hollywood, California.  CREDIT: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Matt Damon and Ben Affleck attend the premiere of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Live By Night" at TCL Chinese Theatre on January 9, 2017 in Hollywood, California. CREDIT: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

As Frances McDormand accepted her Oscar for best actress just over one week ago, she left the audience with two words: “Inclusion rider.”

Curiosities were piqued; Google searches spiked. On the Merriam-Webster site, “inclusion” was the most-searched word of the night, with “rider” not far behind. Soon the masses were fluent in some potentially profoundly impactful legalese: With an inclusion rider, an actor or power player on any film can stipulate that a minimum percentage of women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups to be hired or cast for a project. As McDormand put it to reporters backstage at the Oscars, “It means you can ask for and/or demand at least 50 percent diversity in, not only casting, but also the crew.”

After the Oscars, here at ThinkProgress, we wondered if McDormand’s rallying cry would take: “This is the inevitable ‘what comes next’ question: After McDormand’s urging, will her peers actually start insisting upon this kind of language in their contracts? And will audiences, in turn, begin to see the proportionate share of women and people of color, both on-screen and behind the camera, begin to rise?”

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We’re starting to find out. First up was Michael B. Jordan — Black Panther antihero, the DiCaprio to Ryan Coogler’s Scorsese, your imaginary boyfriend — who announced on Instagram five days ago, “In support of the women & men who are leading this fight, I will be adopting the Inclusion Rider for all projects produced by my company Outlier Society.”

Four days later, news broke that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck would be following Jordan’s lead.

Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni is head of strategic outreach at Pearl Street Films, the motion picture company Damon and Affleck founded in 2012. To date, four movies produced by Pearl Street have been released. All of them were directed by white men: 2012’s Promised Land was directed by Gus Van Sant (who also directed Affleck and Damon’s Good Will Hunting); Affleck directed Live By Night in 2016; that same year’s Jason Bourne, starring Damon, was directed by Paul Greengrass; and Kenneth Lonergan directed Manchester by the Sea, for which Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother, won the Oscar for best actor.

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The younger Affleck’s speedy path to last year’s turn on Oscar’s stage was hardly impeded by the sexual harassment allegations against him (he and his two accusers had settled out of court), but oh, what a difference a year makes: In this post-Weinstein world, Casey broke from tradition and skipped this year’s ceremony, with Jennifer Lawrence and Jodie Foster presenting McDormand her best actress trophy in his stead.

Damon’s last spin in the news cycle came in January amid ferocious backlash to his clumsy, out-of-touch comments about sexual assault in Hollywood. Damon, who won his first and, so far, only Oscar alongside Affleck for writing Good Will Hunting‘s original screenplay, launched his career with the assistance of none other than Harvey Weinstein, who both produced and hustled hard behind the scenes for the duo’s breakout movie.

Two days after the New York Times published its bombshell investigation into Harvey Weinstein's alleged pattern of sexual harassment, Ben Affleck, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Damon attend the Film Independent NYC "Live Read" at NYU Skirball Center on October 7, 2016 in New York City.  CREDIT: Mireya Acierto/WireImage
Two days after the New York Times published its bombshell investigation into Harvey Weinstein's alleged pattern of sexual harassment, Ben Affleck, Harvey Weinstein and Matt Damon attend the Film Independent NYC "Live Read" at NYU Skirball Center on October 7, 2016 in New York City. CREDIT: Mireya Acierto/WireImage

So it was in an especially harsh, unflattering light that Damon’s remarks about “this culture of outrage and injury” in which the savviest sex abusers are better off if they “deny it” than accept responsibility — and that in some instances, sexual assault is really more like “a terrible joke” —  landed. Held up next to his female peers leading the Time’s Up movement, who have addressed these issues with eloquence and nuance, Damon’s interview came off as remarkably ignorant, even cruel.

Within days, Damon apologized. “I really wish I’d listened a lot more before I weighed in on this,” he said on the Today show. “Ultimately, what it is for me is that I don’t want to further anybody’s pain with anything that I do or say. And so for that I’m really sorry.” He went on:

 “A lot of those women are my dear friends and I love them and respect them and support what they’re doing and want to be a part of that change and want to go along for that ride. But I should get in the back seat and close my mouth for a while.”

Along with Affleck, Damon, and Jordan, Brie Larson, who won the Oscar for best actress two years ago, has announced her commitment to the inclusion rider as well. Tuesday morning, producer Paul Feig announced his company, Feigco Entertainment, will do the same.

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Where did the idea for an “inclusion rider” come from? It was first introduced by Stacy L. Smith, director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiatives and the researcher behind the Annenberg studies that track representation in film. (If you’ve ever seen data about the representation of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups in film or on television — or, more to the point, the lack thereof — odds are you were benefitting from Smith’s research.)

Smith introduced the concept — at the time referring to it as an “equity rider” — in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter back in 2014:

The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it’s sensible for the plot. If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn’t necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls.

As Smith’s research has consistently found, diversity off-screen tends to result in diversity on-screen; the opposite, as one might expect, is also true.

In addition to making the stories that moviegoers flock to see more representative of the world in which they live — one where women can both talk and age over 35, for instance — an inclusion rider would go a long way toward addressing the hiring discrimination that plagues Hollywood. Hiring in the entertainment industry is so sexist that, a few years ago, the ACLU called on the government to conduct an official investigation into industry sexism, calling the status quo so prejudicial it constitutes a civil rights violation.