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The 83rd Academy Awards: A Digital Backstage Pass
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Two PGA Producers Reach Across Platforms to Celebrate Everyone’s Love of the Movies

There’s something compelling about seeing the human side of Academy Award winners in triumphant moments. It’s personal. Their story is written on their face and in their gestures. The Awards this year allowed viewers to more of that than ever before, thanks to some technology, the forward-thinking leadership at the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences, ABC and a few PGA producers who worked collaboratively across their platforms to bring the Oscars into the second-screen space.

The push by ABC and the Academy to offer a multi-screen experience roped together many facets of television and digital production that have rarely had to co-exist in such an orchestrated manner. The entire production, from its inception, was dedicated to telling a story that translated fluidly from screen to screen.

You’re Invited

Don Mischer and Bruce Cohen, Producers of the 2011 Oscars
Photo by Susan B. Landau
It began when PGA member and former PGA Vice President of Motion Pictures Bruce Cohen was brought in back in July. Don Mischer and Cohen dreamt up the concept very early. As a result, all the marketing, PR and advertising was co-ordinated, including their overall campaign slogan, "You’re Invited.”  As Cohen explains, "This created a point of view for the people at home and a jumping off point for everything, including digital.  You have to evaluate what is most exciting for the audience. Don and I wanted to focus on the idea that everyone who has a love for the movies could discover them anew. Our ‘broad strokes’ challenge was to take an approach that the Oscars are for everybody.  We weren’t trying to make extensive format changes, but the Academy was excited to let us push the boundaries, including in the digital space.”

Meanwhile, ABC geared up to do what they do every year – make a website to promote the show. But this year was different. Albert Cheng, EVP of Digital at ABC, was involved heavily with Cohen, Mischer and the Academy from the very beginning. ABC’s digital department took a fresh approach and staffed up, bringing in a dedicated group of digital producers, engineers and artists, all focused on treating the Oscars like a story. The website and related iOS apps had to weave together a holistic proscenium that changed over time, showcased different content, and keep beat with the ramp-up to and different stages of the actual broadcast.

For instance, the iPhone/iPad app allowed viewers to see 22 different streaming camera views, including the red carpet, backstage and even in the exclusive Governor’s Ball. That, along with dedicated video, online galleries, nominee details and a play-along ballot game made for quite a digital footprint for the Academy Awards.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Vice Chair of the PGA New Media Council and Cohen’s fellow National Board Member Chris Thomes was brought in to show-run and manage the experience. His goal was simple: tell the story – digitally.

A veteran of the digital space, Thomes knew how to wrangle both ABC and Academy. From daily calls with key stakeholders to incorporating changes during rounds of reviews, everyone was on edge to get things done as quickly as possible, plus there were those inevitable last minute changes and additions that had to be managed.

"I think that’s why ABC called me. My experience with Disney and managing sensitive and challenging digital projects was a good fit. I literally stepped into the Oscar production without missing a beat.”


Chris Thomes helps bridge the digital divide at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards
"There were a lot of moving parts,” Thomes continues, "between the iPhone/iPad app, the site, and the TV production. I had worked on web/TV productions before with, Disney Channel and, but nothing ever of this magnitude… It was impressive. We were even synching the backgrounds of the website to change in conjunction with on-air graphics during the show. It was important to remain consistent in telling the story that Cohen and Mischer’s team had developed, and ensure that viewers could move as seamlessly as possible from platform to platform.”

Thomes admits that even with a well-planned operation, technology often throws unexpected hurdles. "We had Internet latency issues to contend with, technology limitations, and server capacity challenges. None of this was insurmountable, but it gets your heart beating pretty fast when you have to bring people together and motivate them to solve these bumps in the road and stay on schedule.”

But is this same approach going to work again next year? Thomes has his doubts. "I can see ABC continuing to need a dedicated team for Oscars. They can’t stop production on other shows and sites to support the Oscars. is too big now and expectations have been set. I think they will need to bring the team on much earlier. Cohen was working on the show since July. The Oscar digital crew has to be in place around the same time because the digital experience is no longer just a brochure marketing the show. It’s part of the entire experience – an integral part of it.”

Social Media Maven

Enter the third axis—Bedonna Smith, Cohen and Mischer’s digital media producer, who worked on the social media aspect of the show. Smith leveraged social tools like Twitter to reach beyond the official digital spaces of the Oscars into the personal realm of movie fans. Explains Smith, "The Academy is prestigious and catered to its audience in a specific way. They have just recently joined the social media world. It’s new for them. But as of October 2010, they had over 48,000 followers."

Indeed, reaching out in this area has been a benefit. AMAPAS has generated a huge appetite for content around the show and really stretched how to connect with their audience. Smith elaborates on her approach, "This year, we invited the moms of the award nominees (who someone dubbed The Mominees) to join in the celebration by Tweeting about the Oscar experience.  We invited all the moms, then quickly vetted which were able and available to tweet and/or learn to tweet.  Lee Unkrich’s mom was the only one of our Mominees who was already on Twitter, but those who joined in, quickly got the hang of tweeting and met one another on Twitter.”

No stranger to the power of social media, Smith leveraged the personal and emotional power it can muster. "We thought it would be great to get at the human questions – How did you encourage your child to pursue a creative path and career?  How does it feel, knowing that they have reached this stage, recognized by their peers for excellence?   We thought it was an especially interesting insight because the ‘parents’ of nominees have more historical awareness of the Oscars.  They grew up watching the Oscars.  We thought it might be just as exciting for the moms of nominees go through the experience themselves.”

Smith looks back at the experience and takes note of the magnitude and impact of digital on the Awards this year. "It’s exciting to know that, because of the proliferation of digital platforms, information about the technical arts and achievements will be increasingly accessible to interested audiences.  For such a collaborative craft, it’s great that The Academy will have even more outlets to educate interested young people about the ‘pinnacle’ of these professions, and will hopefully help to be another avenue for folks to find their way to these professions.   In other words, every one involved in filmmaking knows that ‘glamour’, if you will, is a small part of the whole.  Without technically proficient leaders in specialized areas, the craft does not move forward. So it’s great that digital platforms help the Motion Picture Academy continue to have a voice in that.”

The Second Screen Story

So now we might just always expect to follow am Academy Award winner as they leave the stage and hear their more candid "thank you’s” at the thank you cam, or see unexpected moments on the red carpet or at the Governor’s Ball. But at the end of the day, is it making the Awards better?

Cohen suggests, "We were talking to all generations. The show included bits of Oscar history, including the first televised Oscars. Digital was another way to share these moments and bridge into a contemporary audience. It helped promote the Oscars, allowed us to connect people with their love of the movies, and gave us touch points to engage viewers in all demographics… Programming for the second screen is a response to the second screen existing. The Oscars’ second screen content augmented the entire experience. The streaming trivia content made it a great place for people’s attention to be.”

Thomes agrees and suggests we may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg. "As long as technology doesn’t get in the way and allows the viewers to connect emotionally with the Awards, or any entertainment, it can augment the story. Sometimes, how it does this can be completely unexpected and you shouldn’t assume what viewers will do when given choices of how to consume content. Once you make an experience non-linear, you may be making it digital, but how it’s consumed is still very analog, very human. People can surprise you with technology.”

Smith notes that as platforms come together in unexpected ways, orchestrating everything will be critical. "The Oscars delivered a ‘live voice,” she observes.  As we move forward, all the digital pieces will require fine-tuning next year so that everything is in tighter concert with one another. We have to look at all the platforms and make choices that deliver to people where they are."

"We haven’t seen anything yet,” suggests Thomes. "If Twitter can be used to rally massive rebellion in countries around the world, it can certainly be used to relate pathos… This year, using technology, the Awards reached across age groups and demographics. It celebrated what we all love about the movies. If technology can bring people together to that end, I think it is serving its purpose. It’s making the passion of cinema become part of the story of everyone’s lives.  And that can transcend time and become part of the zeitgeist that is our collective passion for a good story.”