And the Oscar goes to…social media.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC television network have been posting comedy bits on YouTube, designing interactive games for Facebook friends and installing cameras backstage to give Internet users a behind-the-scenes peek of Sunday's 84th Academy Awards. A "thank you cam" will be positioned off stage for Oscar winners to gush for fans who are watching the show on TV with a "second screen" — a smart phone, tablet or laptop — in their hands.
The social media push isn't just about being cool. Tens of millions of advertising dollars are at stake.
A burst of tweets and other social media comments this weekend could entice more young viewers to watch the show. The median age of the show's audience hovers around 50, and the academy would like to lower it because the Oscar broadcast provides the bulk of the organization's annual operating income. This year, ABC and the academy are relying more heavily on social media to compensate for the disadvantage of having a little-seen, black-and-white, nearly silent film,"The Artist,"as the front-runner for several top awards.
Advertisers who pay a premium for the commercial time — $1.7 million for each 30-second spot — are banking on the strategy.
"Second-screen viewing is a phenomenon that continues to grow, and we wanted to capitalize on that this year," said William White, group brand director for Diet Coke, which has a 60-second Hollywood-themed spot that will air twice during the show. Diet Coke will chime in with its own Twitter chatter.
"Tweets during the broadcast will be through the roof, and possibly even set a record," White predicted. "People want to watch the program live, and advertisers want to be part of it."
Advertisers have been weaving this year's show theme — "celebrate the movies in all of us" — into their online efforts.
"Now all of these brands are really investing in social media," said Josh Spector, who was hired in November as the academy's managing director of digital media. "Advertisers are not just buying commercials — they are buying into the conversation."
Social media have influenced the ads that will appear on Sunday's show. Model Kate Upton became a YouTube sensation with a clip of her doing a dance she called the "Dougie" at a basketball game. That won the attention of an ad director.
"Marshall McLuhan said the 'medium is the message,' and now the medium is YouTube," said Chris Applebaum, who directed Upton — cover model of this month's Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — in a spicy spot for Carl's Jr. that will debut during the Oscars.
On Monday, preliminary results of how the ads were received will start rolling in. Analytical firms have already been evaluating the tsunami of comments on Facebook and Twitter. Cambridge, Mass.-based Bluefin Labs and others parse social media chatter very narrowly — whether the person commenting is a male or female and whether they viewed the program or individual commercials in a positive light.
"The speed of the feedback is so much faster than ever before," said Tom Thai, vice president of marketing for Bluefin Labs. "You are no longer doing a focus group of 30 people. Instead you are putting your message out there to thousands, and in some cases hundreds of thousands, of people who are commenting right away, providing immediate feedback."
Advertisers, including JCPenney, AT&T and American Express, hope they get more than just high marks for the creativity of their ads.
"We want people to ultimately ring the cash register," said Steve Shannon, Hyundai's vice president of marketing in Costa Mesa.
Hyundai — the show's exclusive car advertiser — bought seven spots in the awards program and two in the pre-show. Two of its commercials were directed by quirky filmmaker Wes Anderson to launch the carmaker's 2012 Azera luxury sedan.
"The Academy Awards are about glamour, style, fashion and creativity," Shannon said. "It is especially perfect for the Azera by showing the sophisticated side of Hyundai."
The Oscars have long drawn an upscale audience, which is a key reason ad rates have remained high despite the show's slipping ratings.
Ratings for the Oscar broadcast have declined since 2008 as movies with limited commercial appeal such as best picture winner"The Hurt Locker"have cleaned up. Last year, the show attracted 38 million viewers and brought in $74.4 million in ad revenue. That is below the high-water mark four years ago, when the telecast generated $81 million, according to an analysis by Kantar Media. When "Titanic" won for best picture in 1998, more than 55 million tuned in.
The academy and ABC are hoping their stepped-up online crusade will produce a bump in ratings.
"The entertainment industry has become very savvy in generating word-of-mouth buzz online," said Blake Cahill, president of Seattle-based Banyon Branch, which analyzes social media traffic.
Understanding what resonates with the Internet generation "is going to help studios and advertisers determine in large scale — and in real time — whether their campaigns are working," Cahill said.
"For example, if Billy Crystal wasn't doing well [as this year's Oscar host] they could replace him in the middle of the show," he joked. "It's the Internet, and the people have spoken."