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The Kevin Hart Oscar Host Scandal Shows the Academy Must Enter the 21st Century

"One word: plastics," the guy says to Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." "Social media," we say to the Academy.

An Oscar statue appears at the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. What are TV viewers seeking from their annual Oscar fix? The same thing they want from movies: drama, comedy, sex, slapstick, glamour and romance. This year's Oscarcast airs, at 8 p.m. EST on ABCOscars-Impossible Dream, Los Angeles, USA - 2 Mar 2014

Oscars on ABC

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The Academy of Motion Arts & Sciences has a “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” problem. There seems to be a profound disconnect between this august Beverly Hills institution — which promotes Hollywood to the world every year via the Oscar telecast — and the public. And that gap is widening, which anyone can see on Twitter.

Millions of people around the world still care about the Oscars. But the Academy keeps running into a messaging problem, from hiring bad boy Brett Ratner back in 2011 –who resigned over homophobic comments on the Howard Stern show, followed by his would-be host Eddie Murphy — to the “Best Popular Film” idea, which was swiftly shot down.

The Academy keeps making decisions without thinking through how they will play not only in the public arena, but with their own members. This doesn’t come down to how they handle their public relations. It’s a more profound issue. It’s a question of not taking their PR seriously enough to think ahead and comprehend how their news will play–to look at the 21st century 3D chess game that is social media.

It’s like the Academy president John Bailey (a cerebral cinematographer born in 1942) is Wreck-It-Ralph, stepping gingerly out of an old arcade game onto the big gleaming internet. Anyone who looks at Film Twitter every day could see how the news of Kevin Hart as Oscar host was playing with Gay Twitter. The Academy seemed unfazed at the initial reaction to Hart. He had dealt with his anti-gay slurs back in 2015, it was done. They loved his movie star status, eagerness to host, and 34.6 million Twitter followers, and were excited by his ability to grow the dwindling audience for ABC’s Oscar show.

In fact, Hart gets social media far more than the Academy does. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, things don’t just die down and fade away. They go viral and spread–exponentially. At the end of Thursday, after Bailey emerged from the cocoon of an afternoon of Academy Museum meetings, the Academy responded to mounting pressure–also from their own members –and asked for an apology from Hart.

That was something he wasn’t willing to give. To his credit, Hart understood when to bail and stop the damage. (He may have been unwilling to risk losing any of his hard-won fans.) Some people were impressed with how he handled the situation. “He was articulate about how people grow,” said one member of the Academy producer’s branch. “He was behaving with integrity. He should have been allowed to host the Oscars.”

The only way that was going to happen was for a deliberate and sophisticated outreach and candidate vetting ahead of the announcement. The Academy needed to line up their allies and supporters, check in with GLAAD, forecast what could happen and manage it in advance. Or recognize that Hart wasn’t such a good idea after all.

When the trades complained that they were taking too long to pick a host–because they couldn’t find one who would say ‘yes’–the Academy defensively jumped into action and announced their pick. Too soon, it turns out.

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