The True Story of the “Ellen Selfie”
With Oscar night approaching, I find myself thinking back to one of the high points of my time at Twitter: The Academy Awards of 2014, and the famous “Ellen Selfie.”
From time to time, people ask me how that selfie came to be. It’s a pretty good story of collaboration, partnership and professionalism. And these days, a story with a happy ending is worth telling.
The TV team at Twitter (Andrew Adashek, Grace Lee, Kate Bowen, Liz Myers, Lara Cohen and myself) had an excellent relationship with Ellen DeGeneres and her team, some of which grew out of my old Letterman connection to Mary Connelly, Ellen’s EP. We also had a great relationship with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who were producing the Oscars. (The beginning of that relationship happened in a meeting where Neil showed us his Twitter account, with about 6 followers. He’d had the account for a year, but had never tweeted. We showed him how to do it, tweeted “Stay Tuned!” All of the people in the room retweeted him. He left the room with over 100 followers, and “got it” immediately.)
In the months leading up to the Oscars, we tossed out dozens of ideas for Ellen to try out. The one she liked had her simply tweeting a selfie from the stage, with the audience behind her. On an impulse, during the rehearsals for the show on Saturday afternoon, she spotted the seating card for Meryl Streep, who would be on the aisle in the third row. Ellen rehearsed going down and taking a selfie with Meryl, just as an option.
As it happens, Samsung had paid a lot of money that year to be a sponsor of the Oscars… a LOT of money. Some representatives of Samsung were at the rehearsal, watching Ellen practice this great moment… with her iPhone. They were a little… concerned.
Here’s where the partnerships and professionalism come in. Since it was clear that Twitter was “behind” this moment, Samsung contacted our ad sales person, Matt Derella. They weren’t saying “Kill it,” but they were saying “Isn’t there another way?” Matt called Andrew and myself, and we went back to Ellen’s team. Would she, we asked, be willing to look at a Samsung phone for the selfie? We were told that Ellen loved her iPhone, but would be willing to look at a Samsung.
On Sunday morning, Ellen was presented with a tray of different Samsung phones. Each of them was pre-set for a selfie, all she’d have to do was press the button. She practiced in her dressing room, rehearsed the selfie from the stage, and agreed to use the Samsung phone. She was still unsure whether or not she was going to do the Meryl Streep selfie.
When Ellen did the first selfie, it instantly got thousands of retweets. Ellen, the show’s producers, the Academy and ABC were all happy. Ellen decided to go down and do a selfie with La Streep.
And here is where it gets really fun. If you ever have a chance to watch a tape of Ellen going down to Streep, you’ll see the look of panic quickly fly across her face as her selfie with Meryl suddenly becomes a selfie with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Julia Roberts, Jared Leto, Kevin Spacey and — holding the camera — Bradley Cooper. When Bradley grabs the camera, you can see this kind of shocked look break on Ellen’s face. Would he know what to do?
Obviously, he did. The selfie was retweeted 750,000 times in 45 minutes, and in the end actually “broke Twitter” for a few minutes. I was in the green room and got to tell a delighted Ellen that she had LITERALLY broken Twitter.
So, that’s the story. Everyone behaved well. Everyone was a professional. OH… and Samsung donated a considerable chunk of money to Ellen’s charities after it all.
It’s such a nice memory, and I’ll be thinking about it this Sunday night.