Oscars: Ballot Counters on Extreme Secrecy, Armed Security and Rebuffing Bribes

Oscar Statuette Carousel - H 2014

Oscar Statuette Carousel - H 2014

PricewaterhouseCoopers partners Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz will be the only two people on earth who know the winners ahead of time.

Oscar voting ended at 5 p.m. Pacific on Tuesday and a “vast majority” of the 6,292 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did, in fact, get their votes in on time. The majority voted electronically this year though many still opted for old-fashioned paper ballots. But if history is a guide, a few dozen of those paper ballots will trickle in over the next few days, too late to be counted.

Those rather vague details were revealed to The Hollywood Reporter by Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, two partners at PricewaterhouseCoopers who, once they have finished hand-counting the ballots, will be the only two people on earth who will know the winners prior to them being slowly revealed during the Oscar telecast on Sunday.

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While some details aren’t disclosed, the voting procedure is an open book. Cullinan and Ruiz said that 23 of the 24 categories are determined simply by a plurality of the votes, with each Academy member voting for their first choice. For Best Picture, though, members are asked to vote for all eight nominated films, listing them in order of favorite to least favorite. A pile of ballots is created for each movie with a first-place vote (presumably, then, eight piles). The smallest pile is then resorted using the second-place movie choice and the exercise keeps repeating so that piles are eliminated and remaining piles keep getting taller. When a pile finally has more than 50 percent of the ballots in it, that is the movie that wins the Best Picture Oscar.

PwC has been handling Oscar balloting for 81 years, and this marks the second year for Cullinan and the first year for Ruiz as “ballot leaders.” They spoke to THR about the lengths they are going though to ensure the safety of Oscar’s secrets.

First off, they’ll have the help of about a half-dozen PwC staffers, though each of the helpers will only count a small portion of the ballots to ensure that no one aside from Cullinan and Ruiz will know the final tally.

Meanwhile, a stationery designer has created a winning card for every nominee. When Cullinan and Ruiz are done determining the winners, probably in a few days, they’ll stuff the proper cards into the winning envelopes and alert the Academy as to how many Oscar statuettes it will need on Sunday – far more than 24 due to their being multiple winners for each winning movie in each category.

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They’ll actually create two separate sets of winning envelopes stuffed with the proper film names, and each set will go into a different briefcase, one for Cullinan and one for Ruiz.

The pair said that in order to ensure the names of the winners don’t fall into the wrong hands they won’t even make a list. Instead, they will memorize the names of the winning films in every category, then quiz each other to make sure they both have it down pat. In this way, the only places the names of the 24 winning films will reside are in the two briefcases and in their memories.

Afterwards, they’ll take the two briefcases to a secret location and put them both in the same safe. On Sunday, a big, black SUV with tinted windows, a driver and an armed guard (an off-duty LAPD officer) will take Cullinan and his briefcase from the secret location to the Red Carpet, and a separate SUV with driver and guard will take Ruiz and her briefcase.

The two will walk the Red Carpet then hang out in the greenroom with their respective briefcases, mingling with the celebrities. When the show starts, Cullinan will be off-camera , probably stage left, while Ruiz is probably stage right, each accompanied by their armed security detail. Depending on which direction the presenter enters, he or she will either get their envelope from Cullinan or Ruiz. After the show is over there will, therefore, be one entire set of envelopes left over, which will be destroyed.

“We take our roles very seriously,” Cullinan says.

That’s not to say that there might not be some high-jinx. Last year while Cullinan walked the Red Carpet, for example, Cate Blanchett, nominated for best actress for Blue Jasmine, jokingly tried to grab his briefcase. “Since it was before the show, Cate didn’t know that she had won, but I did,” Cullinan recalls.

'Also last year, when Samuel L. Jackson spotted Cullinan and his briefcase in the greenroom, he hastened him over to his table, positioned his friends John Travolta and Kelly Preston with Cullinan and his case and snapped a photo. “I still haven’t seen the picture, but it’s on his phone,” Cullinan says.

He also says that, like last year, he expects a few cash offers from folks who want to know the winners in advance. “But none that will be serious,” he adds.

Ruiz and Cullinan also say that they have seen most of the Best Picture nominees, but even when pressed by friends they won’t reveal their preferences. “We truly don’t answer that question,” says Cullinan. “Maybe next week we’ll answer, but never before.”

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com