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In the wake of the 89th Oscars’ best picture fiasco, the Academy needs to sever all ties with the two accountants responsible, but that doesn’t mean it should end its 83-year relationship with the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.
That’s the consensus opinion of dozens of members of the 7,000-person organization who responded to requests for comment from The Hollywood Reporter in the wake of the biggest flub in Academy Awards history, when the best picture Oscar mistakenly was awarded to La La Land rather than Moonlight due to an envelope mix-up by PwC. But given the opinionated membership, the informal survey turned up some dissenting arguments, some constructive suggestions for the future and even some gallows humor.
A few suggested it was time to drop the matter entirely and move on.
Clearly, many saw Brian Cullinan, the PwC partner who handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope and then returned to tweeting backstage photos as the catastrophic mistake went down, as the main culprit, while several added that his colleague Martha Ruiz didn’t move fast enough to step in to correct the error. The Academy severed ties with both accountants on Wednesday.
Asked whether the Academy should A) settle for the scalps of the two accountants, B) sever relations with PwC entirely or C) do something else, the largest number of respondents opted for A.
“Settle for the scalps and move on,” said Stu Zakim, a longtime member of the public relations branch. “Definitely A,” seconded executives branch member Meryl Poster. “I think it’s truly about the individual in this case.” Added veteran producer and executive Mike Medavoy: “A, and that’s it.”
Many did not sugarcoat their disdain for the two accountants at the center of the scandal, which has embarrassed the Academy and turned the Oscars into an international laughingstock in the days after the snafu. “It goes without saying that the accountants will never work the event again. I am not clear why Pricewaterhouse hasn’t fired them,” a public relations branch member said. “A. Settle for their scalps and make them sit through Arrival,” interjected an actors branch member (clearly not a fan of the best picture nominee). Cracked writers branch member Barry Morrow, “I’m wondering if Coopers isn’t to blame. We never had a problem like this when it was just Price Waterhouse.”
Others weren’t prepared to joke about it just yet.
“I would settle for the male accountant,” offered actors branch member Candy Clark. “The woman who works for Pricewaterhouse did nothing wrong that I could tell.” Another member of the executives branch agreed, saying, “Cullinan would have to go. I might keep Ruiz unless they blame her for not running out onstage the second she heard the announcement of La La Land; that depends on what the protocol for her was. Does the accountant run out onstage or run to a producer?” Another member-at-large was on a similar page: “I think it’s a shame that Martha Ruiz was also thrown under the bus for this mess. I haven’t seen any evidence that she did anything wrong. My recommendation would be to have Cullinan removed from the account and stop there.”
“Certainly the PwC guy who handed over the wrong envelope is the prime suspect,” observed executives branch member Larry Gleason. “Obviously he was too casual with tweeting, etc. The other accountant should have reacted immediately after the wrong name was given. A quick response would have saved the embarrassment for the La La Land team and not distracted from the celebration for Moonlight. Everyone involved was just asleep at the switch — the producers, stage managers and accountants. None of them should be back next year, period. Wouldn’t it have been a solution to announce a commercial break and then come back on and announce the mistake?”
Judee Flick, a member of the sound branch, said that Cullinan should be disciplined and that the Academy and PwC “should stop publicizing these people and turning them into celebrities, which they did with this guy, [but] I am opposed to hurting someone’s livelihood because of a mistake unless it is egregious.” A member-at-large voiced a similar thought: “It was a mistake of monstrous dimension but so easily remedied. No one should be punished further. Cullinan had clearly gotten star sick (rather than struck) and can’t come back. His colleague is collateral damage. They need two fresh bean counters who truly do not care about fame.”
A few were more forgiving. “I don’t think anything should be done,” said director Rod Lurie. “It’s an outlier mistake and not a systemic problem. And I can assure you that the poor guy who handed Warren the wrong envelope has been humiliated more in public than an overweight contestant in a Donald Trump beauty pageant. He should be allowed to keep his job. Unless… unless… we find out he was an agent for Vladimir Putin who didn’t want a gay film to win.” Said documentarian Mitchell Block, “I think whoever handed the wrong envelope to Warren should be forgiven. The other PwC person perhaps made an error by not saying something the moment the wrong result was announced.”
As for PwC’s future with the Academy, actors branch member Rutanya Alda observed, “I think it was an honest mistake, and they should not be fired. They will probably be the best ever on future Oscarcasts. I think this was the highlight of the Oscars, and it brought the event to life. I think they should all be happy about it, including Moonlight, who got more PR from this than they would have.” But documentary branch member Chuck Braverman said simply, “Fire PwC. He had a very simple job and was tweeting when he was not supposed to be doing that.” Said another member of the documentary branch, “The Academy needs to change firms and go with Ernst & Young, who also do the Emmys and Golden Globes. They had no problems. It is time to change.”
But one publicity branch member objected, saying the Academy does “too much business with PwC and they have too much history to fire them.” Another member of the branch added, “It feels like a human error. Consequently, I believe that settling for the scalps of the starstruck accountants should suffice. I’m sure Price will now be 1,000 percent alert so it doesn’t happen again. The alternative — firing Price and finding a new company — seems too extreme. However, if there’s a way (financial or otherwise) that Price could be reprimanded, that would be fair as well.” Commented a member of the sound branch, “I would not sever ties with Pricewaterhouse, because they have done a pretty incredible job over the last 80-some years and I don’t think one major faux pas is worth severing a relationship over.
“But the most important thing (and the right thing) is that PricewaterhouseCoopers gets up and publicly takes responsibility for what happened and then publicly apologizes to Warren Beatty,” said visual effects branch member John Van Vliet. “Their error made a longtime veteran of our business look like the village idiot, and that’s a terrible way to end his career. As a gesture of good faith and reconciliation, it would be appropriate for them to make a substantial donation to a charity of Warren’s choice.”
A few of the respondents also wanted to hear more from Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson.
“Cheryl needs to take responsibility publicly because she represents us and the Academy. That’s where the buck stops,” said film editor Anne Goursaud. Chimed in one actor, “The Academy — Cheryl — should step up immediately and apologize to Warren Beatty that he was put into such an embarrassing position. She should take the blame for the whole thing.” Added a publicity branch member, I want to see the Academy, Dawn in particular, and the committee that oversees the show, take some responsibility, because all I can see is finger-pointing at the vendor. “
A few practical suggestions were put forward.
“Allow presenters to know who the winner is just as they step onto the stage. When they open the envelopes, they will know if something is wrong,” writers branch member Oren Moverman proposed. “This used to be done at the DGA Awards. Not sure if they still do it. There was one year when Steve Buscemi caught the mistake when he was presenting because he had the information, and he knew it was the wrong envelope as soon as he opened it.” One of the members-at-large suggested, “I think they also need to go back to the stage manager handing the envelope to the appropriate presenter, under the watchful eye of a PwC accountant.”
Others argued that a more legible redesign of the envelopes and the cards they contain is in order. “The Academy, for approving the poor design, is as much at fault as PwC,” Block said. “If the envelope and the card had BEST PICTURE on the top of it, the presenter would know if they had the wrong card,” another public relations branch member proposed. Screenwriter Larry McMurtry agreed: “The Academy needs to rethink and redesign the award cards so that it’s clear to anyone reading a card which category they’re presenting.” Documentary branch member Arnold Schwartzman, who once was charged with designing the Oscar envelope (and received one when he won an Oscar), recognized similar shortcomings but emphasized, “I still however applaud the time that the Academy dedicated to produce beautifully designed envelopes.”
A documentary branch member offered a further thought: “There should be an automatic procedure, like an alarm in the hands of the accountants, which would immediately stop the proceedings if something like this happens. I’ve always had the feeling that one day a presenter might take the decision in their own hands and deliberately announce the wrong winner out of pique or mischievousness.”
A couple of those queried suggested a do-over next year might be in order. “Create an event bringing everybody back,” Goursaud suggested. Screenwriter Michael Elias elaborated, “Next year’s Oscar telecast should open with someone — and it’s OK for it to be Warren Beatty — coming out and saying, ‘The winner for best film of 2016 is Moonlight,’ and have those involved come out and accept the award and make the speeches they never got a chance to make. And have their moment! That is what they were robbed of — firing accountants and PwC is meaningless compared to what the filmmakers were denied.”
Or simply let it go.
Said actor Robert Forster, “It was handled with such grace by everyone on that stage that nothing more need be made of it.” Agreed executives branch member Claudia Lewis, “Let’s let it go and instead of continuing to cover a story that has already made lots of people feel bad and seeking retribution, let’s celebrate the extraordinary films that were made and honored this year, no matter what award they did or did not win.”
As for next year, documentary branch member Marshall Curry predicts, “It’s guaranteed that no one is going to go to bed early. I say give PwC a raise!”
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