PwC Apologizes For "Historic, Colossal, Ludicrous" Oscar Screw-up

For those who missed last night's ritual of Hollywood self-congratulation, it ended in perhaps the greatest humiliation in Oscars' history, when the spectacle that relentlessly mocked and ridiculed Donald Trump, both directly and indirectly, concluded by handing the Best Picture award to the wrong movie.

The award was given to Moonlight after presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway initially announced that La La Land had won best picture. As the film's producers were making their acceptance speeches, producer Jordan Horowitz informed viewers that the category's winner was actually Moonlight, and showed the card announcing the winner to the camera. Beatty then informed the stunned audience of the mix-up, as he and Dunaway had mistakenly been given, and read, the card for best actress, which was presented to La La Land's Emma Stone just minutes before.

As the WSJ's Jason Gay summarized hours after the show, "Well, that was nuts, even for Hollywood."

Let’s be clear: the Oscars were already a fairly ridiculous exercise. A cathedral of glamour and ego, the movie industry’s annual awards conclave is a bloated exercise of hype and self-satisfaction that takes as long to complete as the second year of medical school. This is, of course, why we watch it. An Oscars ceremony that isn’t too long, inane and occasionally infuriating—that’s not a proper Oscars, buddy!


And yet, what happened late Sunday in Los Angeles redefined the already high standard for absurdity at the Academy Awards. An event that once gave us a Rob Lowe duet with Snow White, as well as Telly Savalas,Pat Morita and Dom DeLuise singing “Fugue For Tinhorns” from “Guys & Dolls,” now has its signature moment of insanity: “Bonnie & Clyde” compatriots Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway erroneously awarding Best Picture to “La La Land”— rather than the actual winner, “Moonlight.”


I’ve watched the sequence on replay several times now and, to be honest, it’s way too bizarre to be infuriating. It appeared that Mr. Beatty and Ms. Dunaway were somehow in possession of an incorrect envelope, containing not the Best Picture winner, but the Best Actress, which had just been awarded to Emma Stone of “La La Land.” Opening the crimson envelope, 79-year-old Mr. Beatty seemed baffled, pausing briefly before handing it off to Ms. Dunaway, who announced “La La Land” as the winner.


The most painful thing, really, is that mistake wasn’t recognized immediately. Where was the production team? Already tucking into steaks at Musso & Frank? Even Steve Harvey botching the prize for Miss Universe 2015—the previous gold standard for bungled awards show finales—was faster to repair the damage of a winner incorrectly named.


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Between the election, the Super Bowl, and now this, it has been some stretch for late-breaking upsets. It will be tempting for some to seize upon the Oscar flub as an example of Hollywood hubris, or karmic retribution for the political leanings of the filmmaking tribe. I guess you could do that, though that sort of takes the fun out of it. Conspiracy theories will pop up, too, but it really seems like what happened Sunday was a screw-up.

Gay's punchline: "a historic, colossal, ludicrous screw-up, which undoubtedly has some very talented people feeling very terrible. But let’s keep some perspective. It’s just the Oscars, man. It’s a TV show that’s always been too long and too weird. If they promise to always be this crazy, I’ll stay up late to watch every time." Which perhaps was the whole point.

In any case, with the damage done, the fingerpointing begins, and as expected, the first on the firing line is none other than the firm tasked with making sure epic fiascos like this never happen.

Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP took responsibility and apologized early Monday for the error that led to the mistaken announcement of “La La Land” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards instead of the actual winner, “Moonlight.” PwC, the longtime overseer of the Oscar voting process, said Best Picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had mistakenly been given the envelope for the wrong category. PwC has two sets of envelopes at the ceremony with the winners’ names, and the presenters were apparently given the duplicate envelope for the Best Actress award, which had already been announced as Emma Stone of “La La Land,” instead of a Best Picture envelope.

Beatty and Dunaway proceeded to announce “La La Land” as the Best Picture winner, and that film’s creators were giving their acceptance speeches when the error was discovered and the award given to “Moonlight.” 

“We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred,” PwC said. The firm said “(w)e appreciate the grace” with which the situation was handled by the nominees and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars.

PwC and its predecessor firms have been in charge of the Oscar ballot process for 83 years on the Academy’s behalf. PwC keeps sole custody of the votes and tabulations of Oscar ballots and is in charge of maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of the process.

As the WSJ reports, the PwC partners in charge of the effort, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, are the only people who know who the Oscar winners are before the envelopes are opened on the live Oscar telecast. They are the ones who maintain the briefcases that hold the sealed envelopes with the winners’ names, and they are stationed backstage during the Oscar ceremony, handing each envelope to the presenters before they go on stage.

According to PwC, Cullinan and Ruiz memorize all the winners, and if a mistake is made in an announcement, PwC has said it has protocols in place for correcting the error immediately. Both Mr. Cullinan and Ms. Ruiz were visible on stage as the confusion unfolded and the error was corrected.  Cullinan, who resembles the actor Matt Damon, is PwC’s U.S. board chairman and managing partner of the firm’s Southern California practice. Ms. Ruiz is a tax partner who specializes in providing tax compliance and advisory services to the firm’s entertainment-industry clients in Southern California. In retrospect, the IRS may want to double check the tax returns of Ms Ruiz' clients.

PricewaterhouseCoopers partners Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan are the only
people who know who the Oscar winners before the envelopes are opened

“As long as our relationship is good and strong and we do a good job, which we always do, the Academy has been pleased, I think, with how we’ve been involved,” Mr. Cullinan told Financial News in a recent interview. “It’s such a long-term relationship that we know intricately how everything works, the timing of it, the process that we use, and they have absolute trust in us and what we do.”

That may no longer be the case, although the auditor's logical replacement to take over the Oscar award distribution, Arthur Anderson, was unable to return phone calls seeking comments.