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There’s something new at this year’s Oscars. Most people won’t notice it, even though it’ll be on-camera numerous times. It’ll be so well-hidden in plain sight, it’ll be practically invisible. But without it, the Academy Awards could not function at all.
Yup, the briefcase. This year’s Oscars will mark the debut of a brand-new, black leather Bally case. It won’t have retina-scan locks or motion-detecting alarms, but it will be embossed with the Oscar and PricewaterhouseCoopers logos.”They’re just super-nice-looking briefcases,” says PwC’s Rick Rosas, one of the members of the firm’s Oscar ballot-counting team who’ll be carrying the case to the stage (although it won’t be handcuffed to his wrist). “We really liked the contemporary look. ”
Still, even without Q Branch-like gadgetry, the case will be the most protected piece of luggage in Hollywood. In fact, there’ll be two cases, identical in every way including the contents, just in case one of them runs into foul play (or traffic) on the way to the Dolby Theatre. Because what’s inside are the biggest secrets in the movie industry — the winning envelopes. How those envelopes end up in those briefcases, how the ballots are counted, how they get transported to the ceremony via not just one clandestine route but two different routes — it’s all part of a security system so impregnable, not even the NSA could hack it. Although, as it happens, THR did. Here, the secrets of the Oscar envelope, including the answer to that most vexing of all Oscar mysteries (yes, Marisa Tomei really did win).
1. Counting takes three full days
On the morning after the Feb. 25 voting deadline, a squad of eight PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants — including ballot-counting team co-leaders Rosas, 49, and Brian Cullinan, 54 — gather in an undisclosed location and start divvying up ballots. With more than 6,000 voters in 24 categories, “it’s a pretty manual-intensive process,” says Cullinan. “There are a lot of redundancies built in. Last year, there was a tie in one category [sound editing], so it was counted a bunch of times to get it right.”
2. The results are counted by hand to make them hack-proof
Although most Academy members now vote electronically — an option that only became available last year — the balloting team doesn’t take any software shortcuts. Instead, every electronic ballot is printed out and counted manually. “None of the results, or any of the subtotals, reside on the computer or anywhere in the system,” says Rosas.
3. Even the counters are kept in the dark about the final tallies
Each of the accountants on the balloting team is given only a portion of the votes to count, and the sum of each category’s subtotals is calculated by Cullinan and Rosas. “None of them are counting an entire category — and we assign roles with a keen eye toward ensuring that none of them have any knowledge of who actually wins,” says Rosas. “Brian and I are the only two who will know the winners of each category.”
4. Winning cards are printed for everybody, even the losers
“You can imagine why that is,” says Cullinan. “If we went to the printer and said, ‘Just print these [nominees’ names],’ that wouldn’t work.” The secret would be out. Stationery designer Marc Friedland creates cards for every nominee, and the morning before the ceremony, Rosas and Cullinan stuff two complete sets of actual winners’ envelopes and place them in the new briefcases (the old ones were retired after nine years).
The rest of the cards promptly are destroyed. Rosas won’t specify how but promises that they “are properly disposing of them so they are never found again.”
5. The winning envelopes are driven to the awards ceremony via separate routes
The day of the show, Rosas and Cullinan meet in the secure location (they won’t say more) where the results were held overnight, pick up their identical briefcases and travel separately to Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. “This is L.A., so traffic and other things are always taken into account,” says Rosas. “Hence, we go separately to ensure that at least one of us is there.”
6. The balloting leaders personally hand the envelopes to the presenters
Rosas and Cullinan stand on opposite sides of the stage throughout the ceremony, alternating between each other in the handing out of envelopes, depending on which side of the stage the presenters enter from. “We have one of LAPD’s finest shadowing each of us as long as we have those results,” says Rosas. “That security stays with us all the way through the announcement of best picture.”
7. There is a paper trail
Although no one has ever requested a recount, hard copies of the voting results are secured and stored in an undisclosed location. “They’re not kept forever, but they’re kept for quite a long time,” says Cullinan. The accountants pride themselves on staying tight-lipped in response to queries about voting margins and runners-up. One thing they will allow: “I get asked every year, but I can assure you,” says Rosas, “Marisa Tomei absolutely won that Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny.”
This story first appeared in the March 7, 2014 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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