When Twitter and the Academy announced Feb. 14 that everyday moviegoers will be able to vote for their favorite films online to determine an award that will be presented at the Oscars this year, Whoopi Goldberg took up the topic on ABC’s The View. “People believe we are snooty,” explained the co-host, an Oscar winner, Academy voter and board of governors member representing the actors branch.
Goldberg was getting at the heart of the matter — for years, the Academy has been grappling with how to remain relevant to the broader public while preserving the elevated image that is central to its brand. It’s an issue that has become increasingly vital to the Academy as ratings for its Oscar telecast, the primary source of revenue for the nonprofit organization, have plummeted, dropping in 2021 to an all-time low of 9.85 million viewers.
The “Twitter Oscar,” as the award has been nicknamed, is the latest attempt to reverse that course, potentially pulling in fans of films that were the year’s box office juggernauts, like Sony’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, which has so far earned $1.8 billion worldwide, dwarfing lesser-known best picture nominees like Janus Films’ three-hour Japanese drama, Drive My Car ($3.8 million).
The announcement provoked a range of strong reactions. For some in the Academy, the group conferring a Twitter award is cringeworthy, reminiscent of the Steve Buscemi meme from 30 Rock, “How do you do, fellow kids?,” in which the actor, wearing a backward baseball cap and carrying a skateboard, masquerades as a high school student.
“It’s such an embarrassment,” says one Academy member. “They always back us into a corner with these ridiculous appeals to the quote-unquote masses. To bring the public back in the way they were 30 years ago is just not possible. All it does is showcase the chasm between them and us. All it does is spotlight the disconnect.”
Twitter users will be able to tweet their submissions up to 20 times a day using the hashtag #OscarsFanFavorite. The film that receives the most fan votes by March 3 will be recognized during the March 27 broadcast, and three participating Twitter users will be selected to win an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles to present an Oscar at the 2023 ceremony.
So far, studio and streamer marketing departments are not planning to finance FYC campaigns for the new prize, according to three awards strategists who work with them. But enthusiastic fans could spearhead their own grassroots campaigns. In order to stymie bot farms, the Academy is requiring participating Twitter accounts to be more than 24 hours old and have at least 10 followers. In early voting, Andrew Garfield fans pushing Netflix’s Tick, Tick … Boom! are making a strong showing, as are Camila Cabello admirers promoting Sony’s Cinderella and Johnny Depp diehards pushing for his tiny independent movie, Minamata, which Samuel Goldwyn quietly opened in December. Zack Snyder acolytes advocating for HBO Max’s four-hour cut of Justice League will be disappointed — it’s not on the list of eligible films.
The Twitter Oscar gets at one of the central questions the Academy has faced since the very first Oscars in 1929, at which the group conferred two prizes equivalent to today’s best picture — one for “outstanding picture” (William Wellman’s box office hit Wings) and one for “unique and artistic picture” (F.W. Murnau’s aesthetic achievement, Sunrise). The Academy dealt with the tension inherent in rewarding a popular art form — that you have to figure out whether you’re honoring popularity or art — by giving two awards. It later scrapped one of those prizes, but the dilemma never really went away.
For key stretches in its history, the tastes of the Academy and the public were more aligned, as when box office hits like The Godfather, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings trilogy were Oscar frontrunners. But after Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight failed to secure a best picture nomination in 2009, the group expanded the size of the category in hopes of making room for more populist fare; instead, the extra slots were filled by smaller, artier films. In 2018, after ABC demanded changes in a closed-door meeting, the Academy announced a new Oscar to recognize achievement in “popular film” but ended up scuttling it within a month amid a withering reaction from members and the media. In 2019, the Academy announced — and again, quickly reversed amid backlash — a plan to relegate four craft categories to the show’s commercial breaks to keep audiences engaged. This year the Twitter Fan Favorite award is expected to be given out live on the telecast, but eight real Oscars will be awarded on tape before the ceremony and then edited into the show, including original score, editing and sound.
The Twitter Oscar is the Academy’s latest attempt to hold on to the cultural importance it once had, rather than accept that watching the Oscars is becoming a niche habit. But even pop culture’s most successful Twitter activist is skeptical of the initiative. “This is another attempt by the Academy to fix its issues by putting them off on the public rather than being introspective and addressing them within themselves,” says media strategist April Reign, who launched the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015 that ended up helping catalyze the Academy’s multiyear inclusion initiative A2020. “This dilutes the importance of the other awards. I love Twitter. #OscarsSoWhite happened on Twitter. But I won’t be participating in the Twitter Oscar.”
This story first appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.