A celebrity photo, the wrong envelope: the missteps before the Oscars mistake

James F. Peltz, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — One of the two accountants in charge of Oscars vote counting mistakenly handed actor Warren Beatty the wrong envelope for the best picture award, sparking the chaotic ending of the Academy Awards, a spokesman for the accounting firm said Monday.

Beatty was handed the wrong envelope during Sunday night’s show by Brian Cullinan, a managing partner of PwC, formerly known as PricewaterhouseCoopers, who heads the firm’s relationship with the Oscars, PwC spokesman Mao-Lin Shen said, declining to elaborate.

When he opened the envelope for the best picture award, a confused Beatty showed it to actress and fellow presenter Faye Dunaway, who proclaimed “La La Land” when the award, in fact, belonged to “Moonlight.” But the two presenters had been reading from a card announcing that Emma Stone was named best actress for her work in “La La Land.”

Moments before the mistake, Cullinan had posted a photo on Twitter of Stone holding her Oscar, but it wasn’t immediately clear if that contributed to him then handing the wrong envelope to Beatty. Cullinan deleted the Stone photo tweet, but Los Angeles Times reporters have seen copies of the tweet accessible on Google’s servers.

Warren Beatty, left, reveals “Moonlight” as the actual winner of best picture as Jordan Horowitz embraces Barry Jenkins at the Oscars on Sunday.

Reputation: After the shocking error was rectified on the stage of the Dolby Theatre, PwC went from being a venerable partner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to a punchline. That was especially true on social media such as Twitter, where the firm repeatedly was lambasted with snide remarks about how it “had only one job” at the Oscars and blew it.

Shen declined comment on whether Cullinan faced any disciplinary action or whether the firm’s contract with the academy might be affected by the mistake.

In any case, PwC’s reputation has taken a hit, at least for now, some analysts said. But PwC’s long-term reputation and brand loyalty among its corporate clients should remain intact — if PwC quickly rectifies what went wrong and tells the whole world about it.

“The spotlight is so big and bright that there is no conceivable way for PwC or the Academy to move forward without being transparent with the public,” said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, chief operating officer of Group Gordon, a public relations and crisis management firm.

Bernhard Schroeder, a marketing expert who heads the Lavin Entrepreneurship Center Programs at San Diego State University’s business school, said that while the mistake “is embarrassing, to be sure, in the short term, the long-term damage to PwC will be fairly non-existent to their bottom line.”

“Large corporate companies that use PwC use them to provide solid audit and accounting services, not to organize envelopes for the Oscars,” Schroeder said.

Barry Jenkins reacts after winning the award for best picture for “Moonlight” at the Oscars on Sunday.

Even so, the mistake was “as bad a mess-up as you could imagine,” Nigel Currie, a branding specialist in London, told The Associated Press. “They had a pretty simple job to do and messed it up spectacularly.”

Big splash: PwC is one of the Big Four accounting firms and a huge enterprise that proves accounting, tax and consultant services around the world, services that typically are far more complicated than tallying Oscar ballots. The London-based firm has $36 billion in annual revenue and 223,000 employees.

PwC also has been tabulating the Oscar winners for 83 years, nearly as long as the awards show itself, and PwC makes a big splash of how its two Oscar representatives, Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, oversee the voting and keep the awards secret until the show’s telecast.

Cullinan, often teased as a Matt Damon lookalike, is the lead partner for the Academy who is also the managing partner for PwC’s Southern California practice. Ruiz, who has been with PwC for 19 years, also is a tax-compliance specialist for entertainment clients in Southern California.

At the ceremony: After overseeing the vote tabulation, they each bring a set of the winners’ envelopes to the awards, taking separate routes with police escorts, then join up at the theater to walk along the red carpet — briefcases in hand — as they enter the show.

Cullinan and Ruiz then take up positions on each side of the stage — again, with each holding the envelopes of all the winners — to hand to the presenters, depending on which side of the stage the presenters emerge to face the audience.

In a promotional video on the PwC’s website ahead of Sunday’s show, Cullinan said he and Ruiz are the only two who know the winners before the envelopes are opened live on stage.

He also said PwC’s relationship with the Academy Awards was a testament to the firm’s reputation in the market for being “a firm of integrity, of accuracy and confidentiality.”

This wasn’t the first time there had been a mistake in announcing an Oscar winner. In 1964, Sammy Davis Jr. was given the wrong envelope for a music-score award, to which Davis quipped: “Wait until the NAACP hears about this.”

And the Los Angeles Times had a hand in the envelopes even becoming part of Oscars tradition.

Jordan Horowitz holds up the envelope that reveals “Moonlight” as the true winner of the award for best picture at the Oscars.

There were no sealed envelopes during the Oscar’s first decade, and then local newspapers were given the names of winners the day of the ceremony with the caveat that they didn’t print them until the awards were over.

But the Times jumped the gun by prematurely publishing the 1939 winners, led by “Gone with the Wind” as best picture, after which the academy began the sealed-envelope tradition.