PricewaterhouseCoopers apologized for one of the biggest gaffes in Oscar history, accepting blame for a snafu that blemished the accounting firm’s reputation at an event it had successfully shepherded for 83 years.
Since 1935, the firm has used the Oscar spotlight to burnish its image and drum up business in Hollywood and beyond. On Monday, PwC said it mixed up the envelopes given to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, an error that led to “La La Land” being incorrectly given the best-picture statuette before viewers were told of an unscripted surprise twist: “Moonlight” had actually won.
“We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred,” Caroline Nolan, a PwC spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement.
The incident, broadcast live to an audience of millions, raises questions about PwC’s handling of a high-profile account it has touted as a symbol of its accuracy. Only two senior managers of the firm, which offers accounting and consulting services, knew who had won before the awards were announced.
“It’s hugely embarrassing for PwC and it makes them look a bit ridiculous,” said Paul Hitchens, founder of Verve, which helps companies build and maintain brands.
Dunaway, onstage with Beatty, announced “La La Land” as the best-picture winner and members of the cast and production team had already taken the stage when the mistake was corrected. Instead “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age film about a black gay man, distributed by tiny entertainment company A24, walked away with Sunday night’s big award.
PwC, then Price Waterhouse, first took on the balloting duties to add respectability to the then-fledgling awards, according to Mark Stevens’s book “The Big Eight.” Started in 1929, the Oscars was battling a perception that backroom deals were being struck for some awards, hence the need for an independent auditor, Stevens wrote.
Each awards since then, PwC has collected and counted the votes. For backup, its two main managers on the Oscars account travel to the event separately, each carrying a suitcase with a duplicate set of winning red envelopes. For best picture, Beatty said he was passed a card with the name of Emma Stone for “La La Land” — the best-actress award she had already received earlier in the evening.
“We sincerely apologize to ‘Moonlight,’ ‘La La Land,’ Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error,” PwC said in the statement.
The PwC balloting team was led this year by Martha L. Ruiz, who has spent more than 10 years working behind the scenes on the Oscars, and Brian Cullinan, who’d worked on the leadership balloting team since 2014. The pair were responsible for handing the envelopes to the presenters before they went on stage, according to a video interview on PwC’s website.
The firm’s balloting role resulted from “the reputation PwC has in the marketplace for being a firm of integrity, accuracy and confidentiality,” Cullinan said in the PwC interview. “It’s symbolic of how we’re thought of beyond this role and how our clients think of us, and it’s something we take very seriously.”
In a Financial News article published last Friday, Cullinan said the balloting process doesn’t come up for tender as long as PwC’s relationship with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is strong and the firm does a good job, “which we always do.”
The firm’s misstep marred a breakthrough night for black film and for the academy, which has grappled with a two-year long #oscarssowhite campaign alleging racism in Hollywood.
The director of “Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins, described the moment as “awkward.” Star Mahershala Ali, winner of the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of a drug-dealing father figure, said he was thrown by the mix-up.
“It’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that,” Ali said. “I didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody.”