The biggest story of this year’s Oscars wasn’t who won Best Picture. It was who didn’t but thought they did. A great big balls-up meant that the wrong name was announced at the ceremony. And it’s all the fault of a massive accountancy firm.
The Oscars are the most glamorous night of the year – the biggest names in Hollywood, dresses worth tens of thousands of dollars, red carpet gossip, speeches, probably the film industry’s most valued recognition. What does any of this have to do with a group of accountants?
PwC is one of the biggest accountancy firms in the world
Not only is PwC the biggest accoutancy firm in the world – it's also the fifth biggest privately-owned company in the US. It employs 223,468 people in more than 150 countries. The main job of those employees is to look at the accounts of other big businesses and check that they're correct – what’s known as ‘auditing’. It’s all very technical, spreadsheet after spreadsheet after spreadsheet, but can also be pretty secretive – they even have what’s called a ‘forensic’ accounting arm, which uses accounting skills to seek out fraud or theft.
PwC is also pretty well-known for the work it does on tax – advising businesses on tax laws in different countries and what they do and don’t have to pay. It's been caught up in some pretty big controversies – in 2015, a UK MP accused PwC of promoting tax avoidance on an “industrial scale”, for example.
It’s been counting Oscars votes for 83 years
The winners of the 24 different awards are decided by votes from 6,000 eligible academy members. Accountants are, by reputation, pretty good with numbers. PwC has been counting and checking the votes and working out the winners since 1934.
It takes a full team of accountants around three days to count all the votes. The winners are then worked out by two people, Brian Cullinan – the chairman of PwC’s board in the USA, and Martha Ruiz, a tax partner for the firm. They are the only two people in the world who know the winners before the broadcast.
Speaking in a promo video before the event, Cullinan said, “The reason we were even first asked to take on this role was because of the reputation PwC has in the marketplace for being a firm of integrity, of accuracy and confidentiality and all of those things that are really key to the role we have with the Academy and counting these ballots.”
So much for accuracy. How does such a big balls-up happen?
Two words: Human error. To avoid any disaster they make two sets of results envelopes, they wrote in the Huffington Post in January, “each packed in its own briefcase - one for each of us. The morning of the awards we arrive separately at the show. LA traffic can be unpredictable!”
According to the BBC, the problem this time came from those two envelopes. After Emma Stone won best actress and collected her award, the other best actress envelope was handed to Warren Beatty - who was presenting the best picture prize - by mistake.
PwC had this to say: “We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for best picture.”
It’s being described as one of the biggest blunders in Oscars history, so we can bet there’ll be some very red-faced accountants somewhere in Hollywood.