An accountant for the Academy Awards botched the meticulous procedure for announcing the Oscar for best picture when he handed victory to La La Land before declaring Moonlight the real winner, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said on Feb 28 (Malaysia).
In a gaffe that stunned the Dolby Theatre crowd in Hollywood and a television audience worldwide, presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope for the movie industry's top award.
"PwC partner Brian Cullinan mistakenly handed the back-up envelope for Actress In A Leading Role instead of the envelope for Best Picture" to Beatty and Dunaway, the accounting firm said in a statement.
"Once the error occurred, protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough by Mr Cullinan or his partner."
The Wall Street Journal and celebrity website TMZ.com reported that Cullinan had posted a backstage photo of actress Emma Stone on social network Twitter minutes before the mix-up.
The photo, from Cullinan's Twitter account, was later deleted but was still viewable on Feb 28 on a cached archive of the page. Cullinan could not immediately be reached for comment.
The mistake was not rectified until the La La Land cast and producers were on stage giving their acceptance speeches. It was left to the musical's producer, Jordan Horowitz, to put things right.
"Guys, guys, I'm sorry. No. There's a mistake," Horowitz said. "Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture. This is not a joke."
It took three hours for PwC, which has been overseeing Academy Awards balloting for 83 years, to confirm that Beatty and Dunaway received the wrong category envelope.
PwC said it took full responsibility and apologised to the cast and crew of both La La Land and Moonlight. "We sincerely apologise to Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Jimmy Kimmel, ABC, and the Academy, none of whom was at fault for last night's errors," it said in its statement.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which organises the Oscars, has made no comment.
An embarrassed Beatty carried the envelope to the glitzy Governor's Ball after the show, with the writing clearly saying "actress in a leading role". La La Land star Stone had been awarded that Oscar moments before.
"Except for the end, it was fun," Kimmel said, referring to the Oscar show he hosted. "You know it’s a strange night when the word ‘envelope’ is trending on Twitter," he said on his ABC show Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Brand management experts said it could take years for PricewaterhouseCoopers to recover.
"This is not advanced maths. PwC had to get the right name in the right envelope and get it to the right person," said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, calling the blunder a "bit of a branding tragedy". Under a PwC procedure, just two accountants know the names of the 24 winners after their names are placed in two sets of sealed envelopes. The two accountants also memorise the winning names.
Tradition has it that the envelopes are taken separately in two briefcases to the Academy Awards venue. The two accountants – in this case Cullinan and Martha Ruiz – are driven there separately, in case of an accident or traffic delays.
The pair then stand off stage at opposite sides and hand envelopes to the respective presenters as each category is announced.
Earlier, Cullinan told the Huffington Post the procedure for dealing with the hand-off of an incorrect envelope, other than signaling to a stage manager, was unclear. "It's so unlikely," Cullinan added.
The error was corrected quickly, although precious minutes passed, said Anthony Sabino, a law professor at St John's University in New York. "It's not as if we woke up this morning, or if it had been uncovered after the telecast was over. That would have really have been a black eye," he added.
Compared to accounting fraud at other companies in the past, "this incident diminished vastly to a vanishing point," Sabino said.
The Moonlight filmmakers were gracious about the error. Director Barry Jenkins told reporters backstage that he received no immediate explanation for the mix-up, though "it made a very special feeling even more special, but not in the way I expected."
Jenkins added, "Please write this down: The folks from La La Land were so gracious." – Reuters/Jill Serjeant