Brian Cullinan and Martha L. Ruiz are the only people in the world who know the 24 Oscar winners before the envelopes are opened on stage during the ceremony. That’s because PWC has run the balloting for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for the past 83 years.
At the Oscars on Sunday two partners from accountancy firm PwC will be escorted to the event by the Los Angeles Police Department. They’ll be far from the most famous people walking down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood — but without them, there’s no show.
MarketWatch’s London-based news partner FN caught up with Cullinan and Ruiz in mid-February, when voting was underway. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.
FN: So the two of you count the votes? Walk me through the process.
Cullinan: We have a pretty big team that helps Martha and myself work through this each year, and a lot of work goes in in the planning stages and getting ready for the balloting.
Now the voting is ongoing for the finals, and will continue through [Feb. 21] when the polls close at 5 p.m. Los Angeles time. Martha, myself and the team then begin the counting.
Our teams work in small groups so that none of them actually know who won any of the categories and it’s really only Martha and myself who ultimately know who won before the show. We count up the smaller groups. They all only see a piece of it but never see the whole thing.
We select the cards for the winners and put those into the respective envelopes. On Friday and Saturday and then bring the briefcase carrying those envelopes to the red carpet and to the show on Sunday, where both of us stand back stage, one on each side of the stage and we hand the envelopes to the presenters right before they walk out.
FN: How does security for this work? Could the list of winners be hacked if someone got into your computer to find an electronic copy?
Cullinan: When we close the envelopes, that’s the only place that the winner is written down. We make sure that we memorise them all. We don’t have a piece of paper or anything with us that indicates who the winners are, for security reasons. If you were to lose that or drop that or somehow misplace it, that wouldn’t be good.
Ruiz: One thing we get asked very often is does the company that does the actual envelopes and cards know who the final winners are?
One of the things the academy does is ensure that we get a show card for each nominee. Once we get to the end of the week and we know the winners, it will be Brian and me that put the winning cards in the envelopes and seal them up.
FN: What would happen if you fell ill or got stuck in traffic?
Cullinan: From a security perspective, we double up everything. That’s why there’s two of us. We have two briefcases, that are identical, and we have two entire sets of winning envelopes. Martha carries one of those briefcases, I carry the other.
We go to the show separately with police escorts. I used to think it was for our security, it’s really for the briefcase [laughs].
We take different routes to get there just because of the kinds of things that can happen in L.A. traffic. We want to make sure that no matter what happens, one of us gets there. We’ve never really had a problem with that.
FN: I get that this is work, but it must be good fun as well — your highlight of the year?
Ruiz: It’s a lot of fun.
Cullinan: A lot of times there’ll be a kind of reversal of roles where sometimes celebrities will come over to us and ask if they can get their picture taken with us, which is kind of funny.
FN: Really? Which celebrities?
Cullian: A couple of years ago, in the green room where they hang out a little bit before the show, I walked in and Samuel L. Jackson was there. He happened to be sitting with John Travolta and Travolta’s wife, Kelly Preston.
Samuel asked if he could take a picture of me with the briefcase, and Travolta wanted to get in it with his wife, so the two of them and myself are there and Samuel Jackson took the picture. I forgot to ask him to send me a copy.
FN: How did you get these roles?
Cullinan: This is my fourth year. In 83 years that we’ve been doing this, I’m the 13th partner and Martha is the 14th. So we haven’t had that many people have this role in 83 years. And this is the 89th Academy Awards, so you can see PwC has been doing this almost since the beginning.
I got involved when my predecessor, who was doing it, retired from the firm. That’s usually what happens. I didn’t have to think about it too long before I said OK.
Ruiz: I’m a tax partner. Prior to being asked to take on this role I was actually involved on the accounts. As Brian said, you don’t have to think about the question too long.
FN: 83 years? Doesn’t this work come up for tender?
Cullinan: It doesn’t come up for tender. As long as our relationship is good and strong and we do a good job, which we always do, the academy has been pleased I think with how we’ve been involved. It’s such a long term relationship that we know intricately how everything works, the timing of it, the process that we use, and they have absolute trust in us and what we do.
We’re involved in many things with the academy — we assist in the election of their board of governors, we assist with the Student Academy Awards. It’s just been a good, long standing relationship. We hope we’re doing this 83 years from now as well.