Best Picture Snafu: So What Actually Happened?

It was the stuff of future Oscar Historical Moments montages.

At last night’s Academy Awards ceremony, La La Land was announced as winning the Best Picture award and while its producers were onstage making their thank yous and basking in the moment of their glory, it was revealed that Moonlight was the actual winner.

Playing out on live TV in front of millions, the entire incident was an avalanche of emotions. The emotional whiplash that both the La La Land and Moonlight camps must have felt as they saw their fortunes swing from one end of the pendulum’s arc to the opposite in the space of a heartbeat. Confusion among many of those on stage, not the least being presenters Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, who had to have felt guilty in the moment for causing the confusion and heartbreak.

Our initial Oscar coverage (here), covered the initial incident and immediate aftermath in much more detail. But as the evening has turned to morning, new details have emerged suggesting how such a snafu could have happened in the first place.

It turns out it was the fault of the accounting firm of PriceWaterhouseCooper, the group that has overseen the integrity of the Oscar voting for 82 of the Award show’s 89 years and admitted as such in a statement they released overnight –

The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred. We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and [host] Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation.

As is announced every year, PriceWaterhouseCooper tabulate all the votes for the Academy Awards, keeping the results confidential. The envelops are prepared and placed into briefcases which are given into the custody of two senior accountants at the firm. This year it was Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan. The two take separate routes to the ceremony, where they stand on opposite sides of the stage just out of camera range and hand each envelope to the presenter right before their on camera entrance.

Ironically, it was Cullinan, the managing partner for PwC’s business in Southern California, who explained the procedure in an interview with Medium earlier this month –

The producers decide what the order of the awards will be. We each have a full set. I have all 24 envelopes in my briefcase; Martha has all 24 in hers. We stand on opposite sides of the stage, right off-screen, for the entire evening, and we each hand the respective envelope to the presenter. It doesn’t sound very complicated, but you have to make sure you’re giving the presenter the right envelope,

And it was here that the error occurred, with either Ruiz or Cullinan mistakenly handing Beatty the leftover Best Actress envelope. (Best Actress winner Emma Stone stated moments after the confusion aired on television that she still had the envelope with her name that was opened when she won just a few minutes earlier.)

But part of PriceWaterhouseCooper’s duties included having a contingency plan just in case a screw-up like what happened last evening were to ever occur. Both Cullinan and Ruiz memorize all the winners and if something were to go amiss, they were to immediately go to a stage manager who would inform the producers via headset radios. The good news is that the procedure they had in place in case of a mix-up went smoothly into operation and the error was quickly corrected in the only way possible – live and on-air in front of millions.

While it would be easy to see this whole incident as a black mark against PriceWaterhouseCooper, I tend to think it shows what a phenomenal job the firm has done in service to the Academy for over eight decades now. This is the second time such an error has happened and that makes for a pretty good track record.

In 1964, presenter Sammy Davis Jr. was given the wrong envelope and announced that the award for Best Musical Score (Adaptation or Treatment) went to John Addison for Tom Jones who had actually been nominated in the Best Original Score category. The winner was actually Andre Previn for his work on Irma La Douce. That mistake was also corrected on-air.

Sure the mistake happened at the end of the show during the awarding of the most prestigious honor to be handed out that evening. But as noted, their contingency plan went into effect and corrected things immediately. That speaks to the professionalism of the firm more so than the error detracts from it.

Avatar für Rich Drees
About Rich Drees 7205 Articles
A film fan since he first saw that Rebel Blockade Runner fleeing the massive Imperial Star Destroyer at the tender age of 8 and a veteran freelance journalist with twenty-five years experience writing about film and pop culture. He is a member of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle.
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