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Oscar Accountants Predicted Their ‘Unlikely’ Envelope Mixup Days Before the Awards

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

It was the Best Picture Winner announcement heard ’round the world; for just a brief, hilariously awkward moment in time, when La La Land was erroneously declared the big winner of Oscar night 2017, we forgot all about our current political turmoil and embraced the total madness of Envelopegate. How could such a ridiculous mixup happen? The explanation for the confusion is fairly simple, but, in a twist befitting the ongoing insanity of this whole debacle, the dependable accountants of PricewaterhouseCoopers may have predicted their own error just days before the awards. The plot thickens.

“Oscars Mistake Threatens Reputation of PricewaterhouseCoopers,” reads the headline at The New York Times, which goes on to provide a simple explanation for how a small mistake led to one of the biggest nights in Oscar history, when La La Land was erroneously declared Best Picture and, two minutes later, Moonlight was announced as the real winner. Duplicate envelopes were initially to blame, but the Pricewaterhouse Coopers use two sets every year, so that reasoning was a little too pat. It turns out the real culprit behind Envelopegate was the envelopes all along: This year’s envelopes featured gold lettering on a red background, unlike the much easier to read design used in previous years, which featured red lettering on a yellow background.

It seems that the typically reliable PricewaterhouseCoopers accounted for every Oscar night possibility, but there was no accounting for human error…except that there sort of was. Just days before the annual Academy Awards telecast, The Huffington Post asked PwC’s Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, the supervisors of the annual Oscar ballot count, what would happen if the wrong winner were announced on live television. Cullinan said (emphasis ours):

We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly. 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.

And yet, just two days later, it so happened. It’s not technically the first time there’s been a mixup with envelopes: In 1964, someone accidentally handed Sammy Davis Jr. the wrong envelope; instead of reading the winner for Best Adaptation or Treatment Score, he read the winner for Best Original Score — hardly on the same level as announcing the wrong Best Picture winner, as Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway did last night.

As Ruiz and Cullinan explained to The Huffington Post, there was no official contingency plan for such a potentially disastrous error because that exact mistake had never quite been made before. That might explain why it took Cullinan a full two minutes to ensure the Best Picture Oscar went to the correct winner, but a better — and more relatable — explanation might be that Cullinan was a little distracted because he was sending out a tweet on his phone.

The Wall Street Journal points out that Cullinan tweeted (and has since understandably deleted) a photo of Best Actress winner Emma Stone just a few minutes before he handed the wrong Best Picture envelope to Beatty. It’s a logical explanation, but it definitely makes this dopey mistake seem even dopier — though no less astonishing that a small series of such simple mistakes led to one of the biggest flubs in televised history, one that will undoubtedly be name-checked in listicles 10 years from now (if listicles are a thing that still exist).

Some have speculated that this may be the end of the Academy’s long relationship with the PricewaterhouseCoopers, but that seems like it’d be a huge mistake in its own right — thanks to Cullinan’s envelope mixup, Hollywood’s Big Night was the biggest it’s been in years, maybe even decades. And as our own Matt Singer pointed out, from now on, viewers are going to think twice about turning their TVs off before the Oscars are over, lest they miss another moment like this.

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