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The Oscar Envelope, Decoded: Design Secrets Behind The Winners' Cards

From the gold envelopes' design process to its secretive delivery operation, we get the scoop on the sealed packages containing the Academy's best kept secret -- the winners.
Charlize Theron and Dustin Hoffman
AP Images/Invision

There's a moment of suspense during each announcement at the Academy Awards when Hollywood's biggest stars utter the two famous phrases "The envelope please" and "The Oscar goes to...". The coveted answer is, of course, hidden in a special gold envelope, not unlike Willy Wonka's classic golden ticket.

“Invariably, everybody loves that moment of opening. It’s just such a thrilling moment,” Marc Friedland, the man behind the design of the show's ornate cards and envelopes that bear each winner's name, tells The Hollywood Reporter.

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Friedland, one of the town's most celebrated stationers through Marc Friedland Couture Communications, has long been catering to the Hollywood elite. His clients range from Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey to Elton John and Steven Spielberg. He was known for his envelopes long before the Academy paid much attention to its own.

Friedland began designing the envelopes and winners cards for the Academy Awards in 2011, the same year that his company celebrated its 25th anniversary. It was he who approached the Academy about upgrading the paper presentations. “I just thought that it was an amazing opportunity to have perhaps the most well known phrase, ‘the envelope please’ to have its own counterpart,” says Friedland.

For the past three years, the phrase has been accompanied by a thick, gold envelope sealed with a red ribbon. Inside the flap, little Oscar statuettes are printed on red paper. Underneath, is the card on which a name is printed in charcoal.

Before Friedland designed the envelopes being used today, the names of the winners were concealed in beautiful but nondescript, off-the-shelf envelopes. There weren’t winner’s cards. Presenters and winners would roll the envelopes up and leave them on the podium. Friedland’s creation, on the other hand, is designed to last.

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“In our business, we really believe in helping people mark the moment in very meaningful ways and creating keepsakes that communicate that,” Friedland says.

In conceiving the design, Friedland says it was important that the envelope and card weren't trendy or subject to fashion. They turned to the ceremony itself for their inspiration.

“We took our cues from old Hollywood. The colors of gold and burgundy are the statuette and the red carpet,” Friedland says. “With that in mind, we really felt that this was the most simple, but brilliant-looking, because it also has to look great on stage.”

The tradition of envelopes dates back to 1941, when the concealment system was first implemented. Before then, the coveted winners list was released to newspapers for next-day publication, but when the Los Angeles Times leaked the names prior to the 1940 ceremony, the Academy adopted a new system of secrecy: well-protected envelopes. “This really started as a means of security and now has become a very significant tradition,” says the stationery designer.

Not even Friedland (or any of his employees for that matter) knows the winners in advance. His company produces three sets of winners cards for each nominee in each category. There are 121 nominees this year, making it the biggest nominee class in Academy history. There will be 363 cards and 72 envelopes produced. Each card and envelope package undergoes 10 different processes, from manual folding to gold-leaf foil stamping, embossing and name imprinting in Neutra typeface. There are four different kinds of paper used, including an iridescent gold paper stock and 40 yards of red, double-faced satin ribbon total for all the seals. The entire process takes 110 man-hours.

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“It is well-engineered so that there is no envelope malfunction,” Friedland says. “It’s easy for an actor or actress or presenter to be able to take it out of the envelope because that’s so nerve-wracking.” The envelopes are then delivered by hand to PricewaterhouseCoopers for tabulation, stuffing and sealing.

He adds: “It’s so secretive I don’t even know where they do the tabulation.”

So what happens to the discarded winners cards that don’t get sent to the Academy? They’re destroyed. “They can’t be subject to any kind of suspicion or criticism or profiteering or fraud,” Friedland says. “We’ve designed them in such a way that we could tell if something was fraudulently produced very easily.”

Just like Oscar himself, the one-eighth-inch-thick winner’s card is seen by a billion people in 225 countries, and yet is possessed by fewer than 100 Academy Awards winners (they generally keep their cards and envelopes).

Total haul: one 8.5 pound statuette and a four-ounce completed envelope.

“The joke is that the 10 pounds that actors or actresses lose before the Academy Awards, if they win, they go home 10 pounds heavier between the envelope and the statuette,” Friedland says.


 

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