New rules govern handling of Oscar envelopes

After taking responsibility for the epic best picture flub at the Oscars last year, Tim Ryan of PwC got down to business developing new protocols and safeguards to prevent such a blunder in the future.
Jordan Horowitz, producer of La La Land, shows the envelope revealing Moonlight as the true winner of best picture at the Oscars on Feb. 26, 2017. Presenter Warren Beatty looks on from right. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

After taking responsibility for the epic best picture flub at the Oscars last year, Tim Ryan of PwC got down to business.

He grilled the partners who made the gaffe, then personally reached out to the dozens of people affected by it: The show's producers, presenters and stage managers, as well as the filmmakers behind La La Land and Moonlight.

In the months that followed, PwC met with the academy many times to come up with new protocols and safeguards to prevent such a blunder in the future. Ryan revealed those six new reforms to The Associated Press.

"One of the most disappointing things to me was all the great work that had been done, not only last year but over the last 83 years, around accuracy, confidentiality integrity of that process," he said.

"And where we got it wrong was on the handing over of the envelope."

Actors Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were handed the wrong envelope at last year's ceremony. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Last year's mistake happened when a PwC partner mistakenly handed an envelope for the best actress winner category, which went to Emma Stone in La La Land, to the presenters of the best picture category, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. 

That resulted in La La Land being briefly named best picture, before one of that film's producers, Jordan Horowitz, revealed the error and that Moonlight had in fact won.

Moonlight was eventually confirmed as the true winner of best picture and its cast and creators took the stage to accept. (AFP/Getty Images)

Ryan said Oscar voting procedures and the tabulation of nominees and winners won't change. Instead, reforms focus on envelope rituals.

Ryan said he will be personally involved with Oscar operations this year as PwC's U.S. chairman and senior partner.

Other changes include:

  • The addition of a third balloting partner, who will sit with Oscar producers in the show's control room. Just like the balloting partners stationed on either side of the Dolby Theatre stage, this person will have a complete set of winners' envelopes and commit the winners to memory. "Think of it as a safety control," Ryan said.
  • The two partners who worked on last year's Academy Awards have been replaced, though Ryan confirms that both still work for PwC. The new stage-side partners overseeing the envelopes will include Rick Rosas, who previously worked in that post for 14 years, and colleague Kimberly Bourdon from the company's Los Angeles office.
  • A new formal procedure is in place for when envelopes are handed over. Both the celebrity presenter and a stage manager will confirm that they've been given the correct envelope for the category they are about to present. (Last year's gaffe occurred when the PwC representative accidentally gave presenters the envelope for best actress rather than best picture.)
  • All three balloting partners will attend show rehearsals and practice what to do if something goes wrong. "Because, as you're well aware, it took a long time to respond last year when there was a mistake that we made," Ryan said. "So we're formally practicing the what-ifs."

The final change is one the academy immediately instituted last year: PwC partners are prohibited from using cellphones or social media during the show.

"Our singular focus will be on the show and delivering the correct envelopes," Ryan said.

One of the new changes to procedure is that the PwC accountants working the Oscars won't be allowed to use cellphones or social media during the ceremony. (Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

Besides tabulating votes for Oscar nominees and winners, PwC handles much of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' accounting, including audits and taxes.

Film academy chief Dawn Hudson said that after reviewing the relationship between the two organizations, and given that the voting and secrecy around the Academy Awards were never compromised, the academy chalked up the envelope mistake to simple human error.

"Still, it was a big human error, and it was a very public human error," Hudson said.

I don't think this error will ever happen again or would happen again.- Dawn Hudson, Academy CEO

Ultimately, academy officials and board members decided not to "throw out 83 years of flawless partnership over this, while huge, one human error," she said, adding that PwC helped build the digital voting system the academy has been using for the Oscars in recent years.

"Let me tell you, I don't think this error will ever happen again or would happen again," said Hudson, who was watching from the audience as the flub seemed to occur in slow motion onstage.

Confusion reigned at the close of the Oscars broadcast last year while the mistake was sorted out onstage. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

"We put in a lot of protocols to make sure it won't, but I don't think it will anyway. I think everyone will be very focused on getting that right."

Ryan is similarly confident.

"My nature, just as a person, is healthy paranoia. But I also know in my head that we haven't left any step undone. We owe that to the academy," he said.

"While I feel very, very good about all the work that's been done and the attention to detail that's in place, our job doesn't end until that curtain closes."

Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced Tuesday. Winners will be revealed at the ceremony on March 4.

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