The Oscars and PwC Post-Envelope Flub: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

The accountants’ two huge errors damaged the credibility of the Academy and the Oscars and overshadowed what should have been a historic night

The Academy’s longtime accounting firm has apologized for the envelope mixup that plunged the end of the 89th Academy Awards into chaos, but it may take more than a two-paragraph apology to repair the relationship between PwC and the Academy.

On the biggest of stages, working for the client of 83 years that gets the firm formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers more publicity than anything else it does, the company made two huge errors that damaged the credibility of the Academy and the Oscars.

First, one of the company’s two Oscars balloting leaders gave the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty, who was walking onto the stage to hand out the last and biggest award of the night.

Second, when the wrong winner was announced, the two PwC staffers who had all the winners memorized failed to correct the error for two full minutes, letting three “La La Land” producers make acceptance speeches before that film’s team was informed that “Moonlight” had actually won the top award.

Yes, there is some blame to go around. Warren Beatty should have looked at the envelope in his hand and realized that it said “ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE” on the front, not “BEST PICTURE.” (In his defense, the front of this year’s envelopes was not nearly as legible as it has been in recent years. And in PwC’s defense, the Academy controls the envelope design, not PwC.)

Even so, when Beatty opened the envelope, he should have seen that beneath the words “AND THE OSCAR GOES TO EMMA STONE LA LA LAND,” it said “Actress in a Leading Role.” He clearly knew something was wrong by the way he hesitated, and he shouldn’t have just shown the envelope to Dunaway so she could mistakenly announce “La La Land.”

But Beatty didn’t pick the envelope himself out of a stack. PwC’s Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz are the dispensers of the Oscars envelopes, and it’s their responsibility to make sure everybody gets the right one. Beatty got the wrong one, and that’s PwC’s fault.

It’s also PwC’s fault that the error wasn’t corrected in the 30 seconds it took the “La La Land” crew to get to the stage. Cullinan and Ruiz both knew that an error had been made as soon as Dunaway said, “La La Land,” but it was nearly two minutes before the Oscars’ lead stage manager, Gary Natoli, was sent on stage to collect the incorrect envelope.

It was two and a half minutes before “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz, the epitome of grace in an impossible situation, told the “Moonlight” crew that they’d actually won.

The delay not only embarrassed the “La La Land” producers who thought they’d won, it embarrassed the Academy and made a mockery of the longstanding contention that the PwC team has orders to immediately correct any errors.

The company’s reputation is based on decades of preserving the integrity of the Oscars vote — and while some folks in the Governors Ball were talking about it being a “fireable offense,” it seems unlikely to reach that level.

But the error turned the “Moonlight” Best Picture win into a footnote, at least temporarily, and that does a huge disservice to a remarkable film that pulled off a stunning upset. It overshadowed the big strides that the Academy, so recently under fire for a narrow and parochial viewpoint, made on a moving night that was all about inclusion, diversity and tolerance.

And it led to jokes and knee-jerk reactions that maybe all Oscar voting was tarnished, even though this mess had nothing to do with incorrect vote counts or tainted ballots.

The last significant snafu with Oscar envelopes came in 1996, when Quincy Jones (who produced the show that year) and Sharon Stone presented two music awards, and found themselves on the stage without an envelope when it came time to announce the second category.

That problem was remedied when Jones ran into the wings and was told the name of the winner by a Price-Waterhouse rep (the company had yet to add the Coopers to its name), and afterwards the accountants took the blame for that one, too. A review of the tape, though, showed that they were simply falling on their swords to avoid pinning the snafu on Stone, who clearly gave the second category’s envelope away to one of the first category’s winners.

This time, though, PwC isn’t trying to make a movie star look better. The company has blown it big time in the biggest spotlight.