The secret duo that hold the Oscar winners in their hands

23 Feb 2017

Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, the only two people in the world who know the Oscar winners before everyone else. Image: PwC

A behind-the-scenes account of the final process that decides the Oscar winners, right up to the opening of the envelope.

This Sunday (26 February), movie stars, directors, producers and more will pick up their gongs at the 89th Academy Awards. There will be tears, laughter, moving speeches and, as always, some controversy.

Right up to the final moment when the envelope is opened on stage, the winners of each one of the 24 categories have no idea. It is a total secret.

‘This is a live show watched by the whole world, there is no latitude for missteps’

This is down to a long-tested, sophisticated process managed by just two people: Martha Ruiz, the first Latina to serve as a PwC Academy Awards tabulator, and Brian Cullinan, an Irish-American who has opted for full Irish citizenship.

The Irish link with the Oscars is manifold. In fact, the Oscar statuette itself was designed by an Irish founding member of the academy, Cedric Gibbons, who won 11 Academy Awards for Set/Art Direction.

There has also been a long succession of Irish Oscar winners, such as George Bernard Shaw (Best Screenplay), Daniel Day-Lewis (three-time Best Actor), Josie MacAvin (Best Art Direction), Brenda Fricker (Best Actress in a Supporting Role), Peter O’Toole (Lifetime Achievement) and Maureen O’Hara (Lifetime Achievement), to name but a few.

This weekend, most of us will be on the edge of our seats rooting for Ruth Negga, the Irish-Ethiopian star who is a nominee for Best Actress.

The accountants

At this stage, no one knows the winners; not even the two PwC accountants locked away in a secret location, who are currently counting the ballots and who will arrive accompanied by security guards on Sunday night with the envelopes in locked briefcases.

It is a big job. Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan have to tabulate the final ballots of 6,000 Academy winners, voting in 24 categories.

PwC has been counting the votes for 83 years of the Academy Awards’ 89-year history.

As I spoke to Brian by phone from his secret location, he explained that the process is a long-established one that has changed very little, except for the introduction of electronic voting around five years ago. Some of the ballots are still handled by paper, according to each Academy member’s preference.

“The process starts much earlier in the year in terms of our involvement,” Cullinan said. “There are 24 awards given out across 17 branches of the awards, and the branches are their term for the groupings of individuals based on what their roles are; cinematographers are a branch, directors are a branch, producers, screenwriters and actors and so on.

“The reason for 24 is foreign film selection and other categories, where multiple branches are involved in voting.

“There are over 6,000 members of the academy. Our involvement starts with helping the branches whittle down the numbers of potential nominees in the preliminary stages.

“We are the only ones who know who the nominees are before we hand it off to the Academy. In terms of the finals and the winners, myself and only one other person, Martha, are the only two people who know.”

The polls for the 2017 Academy Awards closed on Tuesday (21 February) at 5pm LA time and according to Cullinan, both he and Ruiz got to work at 5.05pm.

“We will probably wrap up around Friday. Martha and I will know the winners, by the latest, Friday (24 February).

Over the weekend, Ruiz and Cullinan will double-check the results, put the winning cards in the winning envelopes and bring two sets of envelopes in matching briefcases to the awards on Sunday.

“We stand backstage, Martha and I, and hand the envelopes to the presenters. We hold them literally for one or two minutes before the presenter walks out to announce the winner.”

I ask Cullinan how much technology is involved in the entire process.

“The one thing that involves technology over the last four to five years has been the Academy allowing members to vote electronically. The majority vote electronically and it is very beneficial to them to be able to that, because they can do it from wherever they are, even if they are in a different part of the world.

“Some still vote by paper, we give them that option. We put all the results together in a very manual process and continue to count it manually for lots of reasons, mainly the security around it.”

Like something from a spy movie

The secret team who hold the Oscar winners in their hands

Brian Cullinan, one of two PwC accountants entrusted with the final count for the Academy Awards. Image: PwC

For much of Ruiz and Cullinan’s year, they are entertainment accountants at PwC and Cullinan heads up PwC’s south-west division.

But come the weekend of the Academy Awards, their lives become like something out of a Bond movie.

“We take lots of steps to make sure nobody knows. That’s why PwC are involved, because for our entire existence, we [have been] respected for not only accounting, but also in keeping things confidential and secure.

“We take lots of steps; we don’t tell people where we do the work –we refer to it as an undisclosed location.

“It is tightly wrapped secret. As it relates to the day of the show itself, a Sunday, we know who all the winners are and so we insert the cards into their respective envelopes and seal them. We double everything up so we have two briefcases – one for me and one for Martha.”

I jokingly ask Cullinan if they have to be handcuffed to the briefcases. “We have security guards with us and that’s in lieu of handcuffs. We double everything, use a lot of redundancy and duplication. I will have one case with 24 winning envelopes in it, Martha will have an identical case.

“We take different vehicles to the show. She will go one direction with security and I will go another to make sure one of us gets there and so far, we haven’t had any dramas with that.

“We then arrive on the red carpet relatively early. Our briefcases make us conspicuous –there’s a big crowd, the global press is there, the briefcases give us away.

“I wait for her and vice versa, and then we walk in together and we do a lot of interviews on the red carpet. We never let go of the cases, all the way to the end of the show. We stand backstage and our security guards stand backstage with us as well until the end of the show.”

While the entire process is designed to be foolproof, there have been some comical mishaps.

“On the red carpet in 2013, Cate Blanchett, who was a nominee for Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, was there with her husband and he clocked the briefcase and called her over to me. Someone joked she should grab the briefcase and she tried to in a kidding way, while I held a tight grip and the LA Times snapped her pretending to rob the briefcase from me.

“The interesting thing is I knew she had won but she didn’t, and I had a sneaking feeling that the picture would end up in the press the next day. And there it was, spread over two pages.”

High drama

The side of the stage that Cullinan occupies as each award is read out is a hive of activity.

“There are a lot of emotions and it depends on each presenter. Sometimes they are grave and nervous and sometimes they are a ball of energy. Also, backstage, I am standing there with performers, singers, dancers and [it is] also where the winners come after they give their acceptance speeches.

“It is hectic and I stay where I am throughout the entire two-to-three-hour show. I don’t move.”

Cullinan said that in the last four years of holding onto the envelopes, he has not had to take a toilet break.

“It might seem like a long show but so much is happening. A couple of years ago, they had me on stage for a brief minute. Every year is a little bit different.”

Maintaining secrecy in this age of instant communication and social media endangers any secret process and, in terms of counting the final Oscar winners, the PwC accountants take no chances.

“Any type of device that we use does not have internet connection or network connection. We do things very manually on purpose. We want to make sure everything is secure.

“In addition to doing it in a secret location and doing it manually and doubling up to make sure there are no errors, we also memorise who the winners are – all 24 winners. Once we seal the envelope, we don’t have a piece of paper and that’s why we memorise … we’ve been doing it this way for a very long time.”

And the award goes to …

In the final few days, the team that selects the winners based on final ballots is Ruiz and Cullinan, but the process begins early with a larger team.

“Some are IT professionals, who assist in making sure that the electronic voting works smoothly enough, others help us tabulate.

“The reason we are the only two who know who won is because we break the team into small components, and none of the individuals are allowed to tabulate much more than a small percentage of the totals. They cannot know who won based on the small sample they are counting. We then accumulate all of that, add up the pieces and then double-check their work.”

With the whole world watching, I ask Cullinan if he ever gets stage fright.

“Sometimes it can be a little nerve-racking with the steps that have to go into it. Things have to happen in a particular sequence. We kind of know throughout the process whether we are on track, on schedule or behind schedule. And certainly, if we are ever behind schedule, that’s when the angst starts to rise a little bit.

“But we have enough time to make sure we are not rushing, and we want to make sure that there is plenty of time to check everything and make sure that it is accurate.

“But it will always be top of mind to be on track. This is a live show watched by the whole world, there is no latitude for missteps.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years