TORONTO — Canadian film and television stars might not have the clout of Hollywood A-listers, but they can still play a role in forcing film and television projects to be more diverse, say industry observers intrigued by the notion of "inclusion riders."
Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand used her acceptance speech Sunday to encourage fellow stars to negotiate a clause in their contracts that would demand equity on their sets.
The best actress winner for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" was referring to the idea that an actor could further gender and racial diversity simply by demanding it in their contract.
It's not something talent agent Pam Winter has ever seen in her career, but the longtime Toronto partner at the Gary Goddard Agency says there are stars big enough in Canada who could wield such unilateral influence.
"It's definitely worth discussing," says Winter, whose roster includes actors and filmmakers Sarah Polley, Stephen Amell and Scott Speedman.
The club is relatively small, she adds.
"It would have to be the leading players that would really be blazing the trail there," says Winter, seeing the potential for a ripple effect.
Polley also hadn't heard of the concept before it was raised by McDormand.
"I'm so grateful to her for introducing this information to so many people," Polley said in a statement. "We can be pretty certain, at this point, that left to their own volition, most producers and studios are not going to insist on diversity or take any campaigning for diversity seriously enough as an ethical obligation."
Polley called it "a brilliant way of ensuring that we stop systemically excluding people from our industry while using all manner of creative excuses for doing so."
The challenge is that the star system isn't as developed in Canada as it is in the United States, adds actress and producer Jennifer Podemski.
And because so much production here depends on government funding, she sees the onus better placed on the public agencies that hold the purse strings.
"In the States, it's celebrity-generated," says Podemski.
"Here, it's funding-generated and funding is tied to regulations put into place by government bodies. It should be mandated."
She called out the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates broadcasting and telecommunications in the country, and the Department of Canadian Heritage, which oversees Telefilm, the National Film Board of Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to be more aggressive.
"The industry at large in Canada should be responsible for being inclusive, especially when it comes to women and Indigenous peoples," says the longtime actress, whose credits include CTV's "Cardinal" and the features "Empire of Dirt" and "Dance Me Outside."
"It's just so whitewashed still, and patriarchal," she adds. "I am 100 per cent in support of that rider."
Canada does have some unique equity measures.
Private broadcasters must adhere to an "equitable portrayal code" developed by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, however its application is left to the individual licensee and any complaints are dealt with by the broadcaster involved.
Meanwhile, Telefilm, the Canada Media Fund and the National Film Board have each announced or reaffirmed commitments to increasing balance and diversity in the projects they fund. The NFB in particular has an ambitious gender-equity plan to have half its projects directed by women by 2019, and parity in male-dominated positions including cinematography, editing, and screenwriting by 2020.
It's also working on a three-year plan to ensure 15 per cent of production spending goes to Indigenous-directed projects, while its involvement in the new Indigenous Screen Office is focused on developing a long-term strategy.
But the battle cry for actors to take on the diversity challenge is new.
Oscar-winning producer J. Miles Dale, who shared a best picture win Sunday with Guillermo del Toro for "The Shape of Water," was wary of surrendering control of his hiring decisions.
"It's tough to impose a hard-and-fast rule on any creative process but I think the principle is important and valuable," says Dale, encouraging diversity efforts to also focus on building a broad talent pool.
"The training programs are important, I think that even quotas in certain places in training programs are valuable."
The talent is there if you look for it, says Toronto producer Sudz Sutherland, adding that his company Hungry Eyes goes out of its way to make its film and television projects racially diverse and gender balanced.
But it's not easy to achieve, and requires a conscious effort to realize, he says.
"For example, traditionally, the art department has been very tough to integrate," says Sutherland. "Gender-wise, there are a lot of females in the art department but they're not at the designer and first assistant art director level."
Still, mandating diversity would not be the answer, he suggests. He doubts the talent pool is big enough yet and also bristles at the prospect of a government official vetoing his hiring decisions.
"We want to hire the most talented crew, we happen to know that there is a diverse pool of talent out there (but) sometimes we try to get some people who we work with and nope, they're working for 'Suicide Squad,'" says Sutherland. "There are diverse members but you're not always going to get as many people as you want. It's a numbers game."
And that's where mentoring comes in, he says, seeing a role to play in bringing in new blood that can change things for the future.
"Producers are generally risk-averse," adds Sutherland, calling McDormand "a hero" for her rallying cry.
"You're not going to change unless pushed from the outside — there has to be some sort of catalyst and I think she's providing a catalyst. But it's not going to happen overnight."
— With files from Victoria Ahearn
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press