By Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A year after best actress winner Frances McDormand used the Oscars stage to advocate for more women in front of and behind the camera, Hollywood is celebrating some progress - but remains far from reaching parity with men.
McDormand urged powerful celebrities to insist on inclusion riders: contractual provisions that require producers to interview female candidates for jobs ranging from gaffer to director.
In the aftermath of McDormand's speech, one major Hollywood studio, Warner Bros., adopted policies based on the idea, and A-list stars such as Matt Damon and Michael B. Jordan, who also work as producers, committed to pushing for inclusion riders.
"It's been remarkable," said Kalpana Kotagal, a civil rights attorney who co-developed the inclusion rider concept, which also is being used to encourage hiring of people of color, as well as gay, disabled and older people. "We are actually seeing it being implemented."
Kotagal pointed to coming-of-age movie "Hala," which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and will be distributed by Apple Inc. Producers adopted inclusion riders and filled many off-screen jobs, including the majority of department head positions, with women.
The publicity around the riders kick-started a nascent effort to pressure filmmakers into boosting female representation.
A study released this month showed some gains. Forty of the top 100 films in 2018 featured a female as a lead character, the highest number since tracking began 12 years earlier, according to University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Those movies included best picture nominees "A Star is Born," "The Favourite" and "Roma."
And 28 percent of this year's Oscar nominees are women, the highest percentage in history.
The industry is taking other steps to promote gender diversity.
The 4 Percent Challenge asks for a commitment to announcing at least one feature film with a female director in the next 18 months. Four percent refers to the pool of women-directed films among the top 1,200 movies of the past 10 years.
"For decades, directors have been viewed as a male job," said Oscar-nominated "Vice" director Adam McKay.
But he said that attitude is changing, and his production company has made five feature films with female directors.
"I think you are seeing the whole town rally around the idea that there are voices that need to heard," he said.
More than 120 actors, producers and writers, and seven studios, have signed on to the 4 Percent Challenge. Many studios also have established mentoring programs for women.
Still, "the work is far from done," Kotagal said.
The industry remains far below the 50/50 parity that advocates are pushing for among on-screen talent, behind-the-scenes workers and studio executives. The number of female cinematographers is particularly low, comprising just 3 percent of last year's 100 top-grossing films, according to data from San Diego State University.
And none of the major studios aside from AT&T Inc-owned Warner Bros. has committed to using inclusion riders across the board on productions.
Actress Natalie Portman said she had encountered resistance to the idea. "I think a lot of people are making the argument that you're hiring people for their talent, not their gender," she told Hollywood website Deadline in December.
A common refrain across the movie business is that decades of inequality make it hard to find qualified women to fill positions.
Betsy West, co-director of Oscar-nominated documentary "RBG" about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, rejected that argument. Key jobs on "RBG," including editor, producer and cinematographer, were performed by women.
"People say 'How did you find the people?'" West said. "It wasn't that hard. They are out there, and you just have to look."
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Omar Younis; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)
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