By Andrew Hampp
Like all things Hollywood, Oscar is getting some work done to keep up a more youthful appearance.
Along with the ballyhoo surrounding the Best Picture category, now with 10 nominees instead of five for this year’s 82nd annual telecast, airing March 7 on ABC, the ceremony is getting its first social-media push to attract younger viewers.
The Academy Awards show has lost a good deal of its golden luster in recent years as the entertainment telecast of the year, sinking to all-time ratings lows in 2008. Viewership increased only 13% last year, making it the third lowest-rated broadcast in Oscar’s televised history. The main culprit? Many of the nominated films in recent years have achieved less-than-blockbuster status at the box office, ultimately appealing to older, more-sophisticated audiences — last year’s median age was 49.5, just enough to age the telecast out of its advertisers’ most-coveted target audience.
But, until last year’s telecast, a lack of social media tie-ins also seems to have kept the Academy from realizing its full potential. Oscar pools and predictions have long been a parlor game that the Academy never harnessed through its online channels, and the ceremony has been notably absent from even its own websites, not to mention the lack of Facebook or Twitter applications to keep viewers engaged online in a real-time basis.
But the Academy is banking on a decidedly more populist list of nominees ("Avatar," "Up" and "The Blind Side" are among the 10 Best Picture candidates), a pair of new media-friendly producers (Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic), a team of agency partners (Omelet, Los Angeles, handling creative, Norwalk, Conn.-based Media Storm handling media) and an aggressive social-media strategy to change all that this year.
Janet Weiss, the Academy’s director of marketing, wanted to embrace the unique format of this year’s telecast in all of the awards show’s marketing, thus the tagline, "You’ve never seen Oscar like this." The controversial expansion of the Best Picture slot was the initial impetus behind the decision.
"There’s a lot of pros and cons in terms of people’s opinions about it, but we decided to embrace it," she said, citing Messrs. Shankman and Mechanic as key players in crafting the show’s marketing strategy. "There will be a lot of surprises that will make for a very entertaining show — it really is going to be an Oscars you’ve never seen before."
One of the Academy’s first milestones debuted last week, when the nominations were streamed live online for the first time at Oscars.org and on the Academy’s Facebook page, facebook.com/The Academy, which was watched by more than 170,000 unique viewers Tuesday morning. Oscar.com, a joint production from the Academy and ABC, is also being revamped this year, hosting more video and exclusive content from nominees, as well as widgets for Oscar pools and predictions for the second year in a row.
Also on deck is — wait for it — an Oscars iPhone app, launching later this month, which fans can use to see how their Oscar predictions stack up against others. The Academy plans to release behind-the-scenes footage from the preparations and rehearsals leading up to this year’s telecast, which is also being syndicated to online video sites and digital out-of-home networks.
"For a really conservative organization, we’re trying to push the envelope into new media and new strategies," Ms. Weiss said. "We’re giving people a peek behind the curtain, and hopefully they’ll see the Oscars is more relevant for them today."
One thing that won’t be present in the telecast, however, is an interactive integration of Twitter or Facebook, something the show’s producers would have liked to integrate, as Mr. Shankman is an avid Twitter user and has already made Academy execs nervous for tweeting too many details about the show’s rehearsals.
"We won’t get accomplished everything we want to this year," Mr. Mechanic, the show’s co-executive producer, told Ad Age. "If you look at the [Academy’s] site, it’s really better than it’s ever been, so hopefully next year we’ll be able to execute 50% of what we wanted to. This year we’ll probably only accomplish 20% of what we wanted. We always wanted Twitter and Facebook to be used, not just by Adam but by others to speak to an audience that has not traditionally viewed the Oscars as important as it certainly is."
But several social-media analysts said the Academy and its partners would be wise to walk before leaping into the awards show’s first fully interactive telecast.
Joseph Jaffe, a social-media blogger for Powered, pointed to the recent Grammys telecast for examples of what not to do when integrating new media into an awards telecast. The Black Eyed Peas’ attempts to incorporate fan-submitted videos into their performance went largely unnoticed; Bon Jovi’s fan-selected song seemed dated; and the 3-D tribute to Michael Jackson was poorly marketed in advance and left many viewers isolated when it came to viewing the performance properly at home, he said.
"One of the biggest mistakes being made is this idea that leaning forward is better than leaning back," he said. "All I can say is, it’s not too late for the Academy to achieve three goals with social media — one, to drive live tune-in; two, to enhance the experience; and three, continue the conversation afterward. It’s an elementary strategy, yet people are still neglecting the pre-, neglecting the post-, and butchering the during."
David Berkowitz, senior director-emerging media and innovation at digital hotshop 360i, argued that the Academy and its agency partners could still be doing more to engage viewers on platforms other than its home page, such as creating an easily searchable Twitter account.
"Right now their site seems stuck in a time when the web was a lot less social, and one of the most prominent features is the message board," he said of Oscar.com. "But then you look at their Livestream page on Facebook, and it’s this fantastic experience for sharing and embedding any video. They don’t have any of that on the Oscar site. It’ll be interesting to see if the Oscars tries to incorporate more of that closer to the awards show, given how much conversation there is around the Oscars right now."
Steven Amato, co-founding partner of Omelet, the Academy’s creative agency for the second year and agency of record for 2010, pointed to the collaborative process between all of this year’s partners as the driving force behind the Oscars’ long-awaited embrace of new media and marketing tactics.
"We’re working with some of the most innovative, smart-minded show producers, who are brilliant and very open and have great ideas themselves, and listening to them, working and interfacing daily with them," he said. "It really is about spanning all the touch points of the Oscar brand iteration to ABC and all the media channels."
And as Hollywood comes off its best year ever, Ms. Weiss is hopeful the record turnouts at the box office will have a halo effect on the awards.
"We believe the Oscars is about movies and watching movies in the theater. Our marketing campaign is going to seek to remind those moviegoers it’s for them. With this field of 10 nominees, we have such a broad range of films nominated in best picture category, we really hope there’s something for everybody this year."