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PwC Celebrates Seven Consecutive Years of Not Screwing Up the Oscars

screenshot of the moment PwC's Brian Cullinan realizes he screwed up

The 96th annual Academy Awards went off seemingly without a hitch last night but we’re not here to talk about that because this isn’t a movie blog and I haven’t seen Oppenheimer. We’re here to rehash what happened seven years ago because this website specializes in the beating of dead horses and reminding Big 4 accounting firms of the dumb things they’ve done over the years.

On the night of February 25, 2017, PwC partner Brian Cullinan — who could have had a promising career as a Matt Damon stunt double — probably went to bed filled with excitement for the evening to come, his black tie penguin suit neatly laid out for the big event. As one of the two partners whose job it was to make sure there are no snafus at the year’s Oscar awards, he was supposed hand the all-important Best Picture envelope to presenter Warren Beatty at the 89th Academy Awards on February 26, 2017.

From a dumb article I wrote on February 23, 2015: “The PwC Partner Who (Sorta) Looks Like Matt Damon and Other Public Accounting Doppelgangers

Little did he know when he put on his snazzy tuxedo that night he was about to make the biggest mistake of his career. And he did it in front of 33 million people.

For the first time in Oscars history, which goes back to 1929, the wrong movie was announced as Best Picture because Cullinan handed over the wrong envelope. Imagine you’re on the La La Land team at this moment. Imagine you’re on the Moonlight team. Imagine you’re in the room at all.

Oh God it just keeps going 😬😬. I forgot how hard this was to watch. Look at him checking the envelope in a panic at 2:41.

A post in r/popculturechat today included this incredible collage of reactions:

Asked about his much-memed reaction to the error, 2017 Best Actor winner and La La Land actor Ryan Gosling said, “I was watching people start to have this panicked reaction in the crowd. Guys were coming on with headsets and I felt like someone had been hurt. I thought there was some kind of medical situation, and I had this worst-case scenario playing out in my head. And then I just heard Moonlight won and I was so relieved that I started laughing.”

7 years since the oscars “envelopegate”, when ‘la la land’ was mistakenly announced as the best picture
byu/vintageseashell inpopculturechat

In response to the embarrassing and very public mistake, PwC rushed out a statement to Twitter at 10 pm that night:

As you can imagine, social media reaction to the snafu was swift. And brutal.

Greg Kyte drew a comic:

a cartoon on PwC's 2017 Oscars mistake

Fortune pushed out an article titled 5 PwC Scandals Far Worse than Oscar Envelopegate Mix Up and of course we at Going Concern squealed in delight at having something so ridiculous to make fun of for a while.

Immediately following the mistake, many observers said Cullinan was too busy tweeting about the show to pay full attention to his one job. A tweet he’d sent of Emma Stone backstage just before the Best Picture screw-up was quickly deleted, perhaps to hide the evidence that he was tweeting when he was supposed to be not fucking up the Oscars.

Emma Stone took home Best Actress for La La 2017

We managed to archive the tweet here. “Looks like you can sell your tuxedo to someone at E&Y,” replied one person to the tweet before it was deleted. “You should have been watching the envelopes instead of the ladies,” said another.

Making matters worse, as hard as it is to imagine this being any worse than it already was, Huffington Post ran a Huffington puff piece just days before: What Would Happen If A Presenter Announced The Wrong Winner At The Oscars?

The universe has a sick sense of humor.

PwC has protocol should such a glitch occur. Heading into Oscar night, only two people know the winners list: Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, who supervise the counting procedures. They’re the briefcase holders who walk the red carpet every year and often appear at some point during the show.

The tally involves enough “redundancies” to ensure accuracy, as does the stuffing of the envelopes. “It’s him checking me and me checking him, and we do it multiple times against each other to make sure that when we leave and are ultimately handing the envelopes to someone, we’re very confident they’re getting the right envelopes and the contents in them are accurate,” Ruiz said.

HuffPo could have stopped there but they went even deeper into the fail-safes meant to prevent what happened in 2017 from happening:

Throughout the telecast, Cullinan and Ruiz are stationed on opposite sides backstage. The duo will have memorized the winners, thereby preventing the need to list them on any documentation that could land in the wrong hands. As the night progresses, Cullinan and Ruiz ensure every category’s presentation is factual. Should a presenter declare a false winner for any reason, they are prepared to tell the nearest stage manager, who will immediately alert the show’s producers.

Cullinan and Ruiz, who spoke to The Huffington Post last week, say the exact procedure is unknown because no mistake of that kind has been made in the Oscars’ 88-year history.

“We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly,” Cullinan said. “Whether that entails stopping the show, us walking onstage, us signaling to the stage manager — that’s really a game-time decision, if something like that were to happen. Again, it’s so unlikely.”

“He feels very, very terrible and horrible. He is very upset about this mistake,” PwC’s Tim Ryan told Variety in a post-Envelopegate interview. “While I am concerned I hope we will be judged on how quickly we reacted and owned up to the issue.”

Wrote The Hollywood Reporter about the fallout and the Academy’s discussions behind the scenes:

In an email to Academy members Wednesday morning, Boone Isaacs summed up the discussions that the Academy has been having with PwC since Oscar night. “Heading into our 84th year working with PwC, a partnership that is important to the Academy, we’ve been unsparing in our assessment that the mistake made by representatives of the firm was unacceptable.” She went on to say that the Academy has been reviewing all aspects of its relationship with PwC, and after PwC presented revised protocols and controls, “the board has decided to continue working with PwC.”

Not all board members felt an apology was sufficient, with some growing heated about the indefensible nature of the blunder that has caused their organization so much embarrassment. Academy CEO Dawn Hudson informed the board that she had become aware, before the 2017 show, that Cullinan had used his smartphone and social media while working on past Oscars ceremonies, and had explicitly instructed him not to do so this year; he disobeyed her, ostensibly causing him to be distracted while performing his duties near the end of the ceremony.

It also was revealed that Cullinan, a Matt Damon look-alike who clearly relished the media spotlight since becoming a “balloting leader” in 2014, had thrown a party the night before the Oscars and frequently boasted about knowing the winners — a far cry from the buttoned-up behavior that the Academy had come to expect from its accountants.

In the end, PwC was able to keep the Oscars gig they’ve held since the 1930s and eventually the social media mocking died down. Even more fail-safes were introduced to prevent this from happening again, including a third PwCer to oversee the envelopes, and of course the Oscars duo of Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz were taken off the client (think they got put on a PIP too?). The Academy doesn’t seem to hold a grudge because they let PwC prepare their taxes too (see: their most recent Form 990 [PDF]).

Interestingly, Oscars viewership peaked in 2017 (32.9 million). Viewership has steadily declined since, from 26.5 million in 2018 to just 18.7 million in 2023.

But anyway. PwC owned the mistake, kicked the people who made it off the engagement, managed to keep the client, and has gotten the job done since so no harm, no foul. Well, maybe a little friendly ribbing and rehashing of old shit by petty accounting blogs. And Google autocomplete suggesting “mistake” when anyone types in “Oscars 2017.”


One thought on “PwC Celebrates Seven Consecutive Years of Not Screwing Up the Oscars

  1. One of the best comments I heard shortly after the fiasco was from a fellow former auditor. He said that if a staff at PWC had made a mistake even 1/1,000th as bad, the firm would’ve immediately strapped that staff to a rocket and launched him into outer space. I heard that neither of the partners involved even got fired, which seems like something that obviously should have happened. Kudos to PWC for having a heart though.

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