When ABC unexpectedly announced that the 2022 Oscars will feature a host — after three years without a dedicated master of ceremonies — the speculation began. Almost immediately, Spider-Man: No Way Home co-stars Tom Holland and Zendaya vaulted to the top of short lists of potential emcees (with Holland expressing interest in the gig and AMPAS reportedly initiating discussions). “Page Six” outed Pete Davidson as another potential candidate; producers are said to have contacted his “people” looking for a “reset” for the show. Three-time Oscars host Steve Martin found himself favorably handicapped alongside Only Murders in the Building castmates Martin Short and Selena Gomez, a charming if decidedly middlebrow hosting triumvirate that would create corporate synergy for Academy Awards broadcaster ABC’s corporate sibling Hulu. In a poll conducted on goldderby.com, respondents settled on Tiffany Haddish with Dwayne Johnson as a runner-up. Meanwhile, Ricky Gervais — who has gleefully and ritualistically made hamburger out of Hollywood’s sacred cows as a Golden Globes emcee — went on the Today show to brush aside any idea of him taking on Oscars duties. “I’d get canceled halfway through,” he not-quite joked.
Whoever takes the mantle from 2017–2018 host Jimmy Kimmel will have their work cut out for them. Serving as the most forward face of a broadcast that yielded record-low viewership last year requires a certain amount of cheerleading for the continuing relevance of theatrical moviegoing in an era when Best Picture nominees might have relatively tiny box-office yields or limited mainstream exposure. (Save for early Best Picture front-runners like Power of the Dog, Coda, Don’t Look Up, and Being the Ricardos, which are all currently streaming.) But in the aftermath of 2018’s Kevin Hart hosting debacle — when the stand-up was hired to anchor the 91st Academy Awards show then stepped down after a series of his homophobic tweets from a decade earlier resurfaced — Oscars producers face an uphill battle, too.
“In the process of getting a host, anybody you approach runs away from you before you talk to them because they know what you’re calling about,” says Bill Mechanic, a former member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors, who co-produced the 82nd Academy Awards. “Being the host of the show is a pincushion job. Everyone out there has their own opinion of things and seems all too ready to hate everything about the Oscars from the winners to the hosts.”
According to Mechanic and several current Academy members who spoke to Vulture, Oscars hosting continues to rank among the least desirable jobs in modern Hollywood. The perceived negatives outweigh the pluses; in addition to forensic scrutiny into their pasts, potential emcees can also expect endless takes and tweets vivisecting their compatibility for the job. As the late Gil Cates — who produced the Oscars broadcast 14 times between 1990 and 2008, recruiting Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, and Jon Stewart among other starry names to host — put it, “Anyone you would want to do it wouldn’t want to do it.”
“For someone who is big enough, whose career is of such a stature, what’s the upside for them?” asks a top former Academy executive who previously oversaw a number of Oscars broadcasts. “Even someone like David Letterman, people looked at that experience as a great example of how a superstar could crash and burn.”
Letterman, host of the 1995 Academy Awards, set what The Atlantic described as the “gold standard for Oscar bombing.” The Late Night host kicked off the 67th Oscars with a bit about celebrities with unusual names — “Oprah? Uma. Uma? Oprah.” — then, when the joke failed to land, kept on flogging the idea over an 11-minute stretch to the sound of no hands clapping. Letterman now calls that choice the “single biggest professional embarrassment of my life.”
Potential 2022 emcees such as Holland and the Rock could prove a potent draw for the kinds of younger viewers the Oscars have been bleeding for the last few years and on whom the future of so much moviedom depends. But in the aftermath of the fever dream that was 2011’s Anne Hathaway and James Franco–fronted Oscars (he, appearing alternately stoned and aloof, she, “slightly manic and hyper-cheerleadery onscreen” by her own admission), producers have been increasingly reluctant to hire hosts who aren’t professional comedians.
“That’s why it goes back to old Oscars hosts like Bob Hope and Johnny Carson,” says the former Academy executive. “Someone who can control a room. And a stand-up comic is probably best qualified to do that. Control a room and relate to people in the theater.” Adds Mechanic (who resigned from the Academy in 2018 after writing an open letter blasting AMPAS leadership and its handling of the Oscars balloting and broadcast): “A stand-up-comedian host can entertain people and move things along when they need to be moved along. Because the other thing about the Oscars is, after the first 15 minutes, pretty much everybody in the audience loses their energy. Somebody’s got to freshen the audience in the theater.”
Further complicating matters, even while Academy-sanctioned producers have final say-so over who gets to host, the broadcast’s longtime network carrier ABC can still exercise a certain amount of veto power. According to insiders, ABC executives would revolt if the Oscars attempted to hire, say, NBC late-night funnymen like Jimmy Fallon or Seth Meyers or even SNL “Weekend Update” anchormen Michael Che and Colin Jost to emcee the show — which makes the Davidson rumor all the more surprising and unlikely.
On the heels of the disastrous 2021 Oscars, which drew a dismal 9.23 million viewers — a 51 percent drop from the 18.69 million people who tuned in to the show a year earlier — both ABC and the Academy are facing pressure to turn the broadcast’s ratings around. And at a time of existential gloom for traditional moviegoing, AMPAS took on a huge additional financial burden, opening the Academy Museum in Los Angeles this year, an architectural gambit originally slated to greet guests in 2017 that went astronomically over budget and ended up costing more than $480 million to build. Around 90 percent of the Academy’s operating budget is generated by a generous 2016 licensing agreement with ABC to air the Oscars broadcast. But now the network is reportedly under mounting pressure by its corporate parent Disney to justify that investment. A popular Oscars host through whom ABC and AMPAS can run their promotional offense is seen as key to building up increased audience share.
For the 82nd Oscars in 2009, Mechanic (who was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar for producing Hacksaw Ridge) and co-producer Adam Shankman (the director-producer-choreographer behind such films as Rock of Ages, Step Up, and Hairspray) decided to shake up the staid hosting formula by employing a tag team of awards emcees: real-life buddies Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin took turns keeping the proceedings going. The upshot: At the time, it was the highest-rated Academy Awards broadcast in five years. However, Mechanic admits the two weren’t his first choice. “I wanted two people to change the rhythms. But I wanted a man and a woman hosting because I thought the differences would freshen everything up. But I couldn’t get anyone I wanted in the female comedian ranks,” says the producer.
“You’re live,” Mechanic says. “That’s an ingredient of doing the show. The best thing that can happen to you is not something good but something unexpected. Because the show is too predictable right now.”