Oscars Producer Michael De Luca Breaks Silence on Backstage Chaos: "It Was Like the Hindenburg"
An inside account from the "Oh my God!" moment of naming the wrong best picture ("you perceive things slowly as the adrenaline rises") to the Academy fallout yet to come.
Michael De Luca was just popping the tab on his third Diet Coke of the evening backstage at the Dolby Theatre when the inconceivable happened: The wrong movie was named best picture at the Oscars.
"I heard [fellow producer] Jennifer Todd next to me," says De Luca in his first comments about the most infamous moment in Academy Awards history (he spoke exclusively on KCRW's The Business radio show, set to air March 2). "It was like the Hindenburg report. I literally heard, 'Oh my God! He got the wrong envelope!' And then it was slow motion. You perceive things slowly as the adrenaline rises and the cortisol floods your system."
De Luca, 51, rushed to the hotline that links producers and key staff. "We have a producers' table backstage, and that's where Jen and I were," he continues. "It's where we watched the whole show. My concern was getting [host] Jimmy [Kimmel] up there and saying, 'Goodnight, everybody.' But to Jimmy's credit, he was already on the way. He was sitting with Matt Damon to do the scripted final bit — it was going to be a kicker with Matt — and he saw what was happening and jumped onstage."
In the subsequent chaos — the two minutes and 30 seconds from when presenter Faye Dunaway announced, "La La Land!" to La La producer Jordan Horowitz stepping forward and revealing, "This is not a joke" and that Moonlight was the winner — backstage players quickly understood what had gone wrong: An envelope containing Emma Stone's name as best actress had been given to presenter Warren Beatty instead of the one with best picture.
Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — facing a second storm of criticism following the previous two years' #OscarsSoWhite outcry — immediately came backstage with Academy CEO Dawn Hudson to gather a team to answer questions. "After it was over and everyone was crowding backstage, I ran into the theater to scoop up my wife and kids and brought them back to my production office," says De Luca. "By the time I went back to the green room, Dawn was already in midconversation with the players, just trying to figure out what happened. Everyone was a little shaken. Everybody looked white-faced and the blood was just drained from [them]."
That blood-draining has cast a pall over the Oscars and especially over the reputation of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Academy's accounting firm for 83 years, as well as its managing partner, Brian Cullinan, whose "human error" was cited as the reason for the mix-up. The fiasco was unprecedented in 89 years of Oscar history and immediately overshadowed such notorious moments as Sacheen Littlefeather's surprise appearance in 1973 to decline Marlon Brando's award for The Godfather or the streaker who tried to upstage David Niven in 1974.
In the immediate aftermath of the event, much to Boone Isaacs' and Hudson's fury, nobody was prepared to accept blame, which instead seemed to accrue to Beatty and Dunaway. Beatty himself seemed upset in an email to THR two days after the show: "Rather than for me to respond to questions from the press about the Academy ceremony," he wrote, "I feel it would be more appropriate for the president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, to publicly clarify what happened as soon as possible."
In two statements released by the accountants, they did not reveal how the mix-up occurred but (somewhat belatedly) took "full responsibility for the series of mistakes and breaches of established protocols." Once the error occurred, "protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough by Mr. Cullinan or his partner."
Only after that statement did the Academy issue its own apology to the presenters and the La La Land and Moonlight filmmakers, noting, "We deeply regret the mistakes that were made during the presentation of the best picture category."
In what proved to be an eerily prescient Feb. 24 interview with The Huffington Post, Cullinan and fellow accountant Martha Ruiz (whom PwC carefully avoided naming in its apology) were asked what might happen if a presenter read the wrong name, and they admitted no exact procedure was in place. "We would make sure that the correct person was known very quickly," said Cullinan. "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." He called it "so unlikely."
Now the focus is turning to Cullinan. A Harley-riding Malibu resident and self-proclaimed Damon look-alike (he has proudly announced that on Facebook), Cullinan is being blamed for allowing himself to be distracted by the celebrities who surrounded him. He tweeted a photo of Stone minutes before the mix-up despite reportedly being asked not to do so. His tweets from Oscar night, which have all since been deleted, included an image of the briefcase with the envelopes and one of supporting actress winner Viola Davis. He was described by PwC's U.S. chairman Tim Ryan as feeling "very, very terrible" about what happened, but did not return calls for comment.
Cullinan, other members of the accounting team and the Academy's Hudson were locked in talks Feb. 27 to get to the bottom of the matter. It is unclear what the repercussions might be for the firm; few expect the Academy to sever its ties altogether, but financial compensation or a donation to one of the charities it supports might be in order. The Academy itself will conduct a full-scale postmortem on the show, but that's standard practice for the organization.
The wild and crazy ending followed a mostly praised telecast that nonetheless had a number of problems. One of those was a set that collapsed shortly before the show got underway and contributed to the confusion in the latter part of the broadcast. "We had a set collapse actually on us during rehearsal that day on Sunday because an elevator onstage was miscued," says De Luca. "We had to cancel the rehearsal while we put the set back together." There was also the issue of an 'In Memoriam' mistake. "I think a vendor supplied the wrong picture for that name and it made it into the reel and it wasn't properly vetted and made it to airtime," De Luca explains.
Another more serious problem was the revelation that one of the "regular people" brought onstage from a bus tour of Hollywood monuments turned out to be a registered sex offender — Gary Alan Coe, who was released from prison just three days earlier after serving 20 years for felonies including attempted rape. That raises serious questions about the Academy's security protocol and vetting of guests. "They were surprised. They absolutely did not know they were coming into the theater," notes De Luca. "The Academy gets to vote it up or down; we just make suggestions."
Also overlooked was the absence of one of the winning Moonlight producers, Dede Gardner, who now becomes the first female producer to have won two Oscars. (She also produced 12 Years a Slave.) It's unclear why Gardner did not attend the event, but rather stayed home with her kids, allowing Adele Romanski and Jeremy Kleiner (the other two producers) to take the spotlight. Gardner did not respond to a request for an explanation. One insider says there might be strain between her and Plan B Entertainment, the company she and Kleiner have headed for Brad Pitt, who also did not appear at the Oscars.
"She was not able to attend," Kleiner tells THR, without offering other details. "But she's my partner. We produced the movie together, and she was super excited about us winning."
Neither Kleiner nor Romanski — whose stunning win for Moonlight over the favored La La Land would have induced gasps in the Dolby even without the mix-up ("That moment was the longest, most prolonged moment of my life," says Romanski. "It spanned many, many, many minutes. It wasn't instant") — had heard from the Academy by late Feb. 28. But, says Kleiner, "I would expect to shortly." Romanski notes the producers were in touch with their La La Land friends the day after the ceremony, with calls and emails of commiseration.
They were sanguine; others were not. "Moonlight did not get the moment it should have gotten," CBS Films president Terry Press told THR at the Governors Ball, "and La La Land did not get the moment it should have gotten."
Some criticized the Academy for not immediately stepping forward and apologizing for the foul-up. But Boone Isaacs and Hudson are extremely press-wary and, even as the Academy courts a worldwide audience for the Oscars, it often has expressed frustration with the constant scrutiny.
De Luca says he was "heartbroken" by what happened. "I wanted the show to be remembered for the Katherine Johnson moment, the James Foley moment with Sting, and Dev Patel's wonderful introduction of Sting. I wanted the heartfelt moments to be what we're talking about today, and I wanted the funny moments that Jimmy brought, the really inventive or irreverent bits. I wanted that to be the topic of conversation. The anger came later but I've been through all the stages now. Now I'm into acceptance and forgiveness."
He says he got most of what he wanted for the show itself. Initially, "Jen and I, since we had never produced a live show, went into it thinking, 'Let's be very clip-package heavy. Let's show more movie clips, more movie clips.' As we worked on the show, we learned that it's a live show so it's got to move."
"We got really lucky," he continues. "There was no diva behavior in any of the presenters. It helped, too, thanks to last year's winners, we knew we were going to have Leonardo DiCaprio on the show, Brie Larson, Alicia Vikander, Mark Rylance. We had great legacy returnees to present the acting awards, because [in] the lovely tradition, last year's winner comes to present to the new winner. So that already put really great talent on the show. Jennifer and I tried a balance of people with gravitas and also some funny people who could riff and improvise and have some fun with some of the more 'dry' awards. We got pretty much everybody we asked for, unless somebody was working or shooting."
Sources said Tuesday night that behind the scenes during the telecast there had been some efforts to shorten clips that were planned to run from various films, and it was not clear whether this was simply to tighten the show or to alter previous clip strategies. Kimmel, said one source, had come armed with possible tweets to respond to President Trump — only to discover that Trump did not tweet at all during the show. That might have made the telecast far more political than it ended up being.
As to De Luca, he would be happy to return as a producer for 2018's Oscars, if asked. "I'm on record saying I want to do next year, because it's the 90th anniversary and I'm really jonesing for it" he says. "I don't know if they'll pick me again, but I would absolutely come back next year. I loved it. I've got to say in all seriousness, with the mistakes aside, it was a great experience."
He noted that he and his colleagues never thought of terminating the long show early. "We knew that the best picture segment was running long now, because of the mistake, but there was no way we were going to not allow the Moonlight team to have their moment, so we said, 'Let it ride. At least we can correct the mistake,' to the extent that the Moonlight people would be able to get up there and say something."
As to Kimmel: "I would love for him to do it again. I liked it when Billy Crystal did it for years in a row — and they don't go host-shopping. I thought Jimmy was the hero of the night."
De Luca received a flurry of congratulatory emails the day after the show — and also a call immediately afterward from Steven Spielberg. Though he and Spielberg did not have a successful working relationship when De Luca headed production at DreamWorks Studios, the producer says the call thrilled him.
"[Spielberg] said he had watched the show with friends at a screening room and thought it was great," says De Luca. "It was a real pep talk, and I love him for it. He's on the [AMPAS] Board of Governors, and when I got the job with Jen to produce the show, I would call him and go, 'Hey, you've been there a bunch of times. What would you change?' He gave us some really great suggestions. I think because of that relationship, he felt moved to call and say, 'Buck up.'"
Whether the series of unfortunate events will have lasting repercussions remains to be seen. Certainly, it won't make it any easier for future Oscar show producers to line up presenters, since celebrities often have to be cajoled into what can be a thankless task. PwC is going to have to work to restore relations with the Academy, but insiders speculate that the accounting firm handles so much of the Academy's business and has done so for so long that a split is unlikely.
And even though the media focused on the gargantuan gaffe, ignoring most of the rest of the show, members of the Academy's board seemed unfazed. Many of them liked many elements of the show and considered De Luca and Todd's work on it a great success.
There was one man in America, though, who had an explanation for why things went south. Although he was uncharacteristically restrained and did not tweet about the show, President Trump, in an interview with Breitbart News, appeared to acknowledge the pointed remarks that had been directed at him, saying, "I think they were focused so hard on politics that they didn't get the act together at the end. It was a little sad. It took away from the glamour of the Oscars. It didn't feel like a very glamorous evening. I've been to the Oscars. There was something very special missing, and then to end that way was sad."
Rebecca Ford contributed to this story.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.