Meet the CPAs who count the Oscar votes

By Cheryl Meyer

Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, CPAs at PwC in Los Angeles
Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, CPAs at PwC in Los Angeles (Photo courtesy of PwC)

Hollywood, with much fanfare, will host the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday. Stars including Leonardo DiCaprio, Sylvester Stallone, and Kate Winslet will grace the red carpet. Members of the press will fuel the spectacle, desperately trying to score brief interviews or photos with the cluster of well-heeled celebrities. Just outside the cameras’ glaring eye, an army of technicians and event coordinators will work furiously to keep everything on schedule.

Amid all the pageantry, two unassuming people—Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan, CPAs at PwC in Los Angeles—will arrive separately in chauffeured cars. Ruiz will wear a burgundy and black gown, and Cullinan, of course, will don a dashing black tuxedo. Their couture will blend in with the Hollywood set, except for one noticeable accessory: their briefcases, which will contain envelopes filled with the names of all the Oscar winners, determined by and known only to Cullinan and Ruiz.

“It’s kind of surreal,” said Cullinan, chairman of PwC’s U.S. Board and managing partner of the firm’s Southern California, Arizona & Nevada market. “You go from doing your normal day job, to doing this on a Sunday.”

This is the second consecutive year that Ruiz, a tax partner at PwC, and Cullinan, an accountant with the firm for 31 years, have worked together to lead their team of tabulators. The team’s main job is to count the votes submitted by up to 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

While it sounds like a glamorous gig, the task of actually counting votes—over and over again—is arduous and intense. Accuracy is key. “We never take shortcuts,” said Ruiz, who first took on this lead role in 2015, after being part of the tabulating group at PwC for years.

The accountants’ job started about six weeks ago, when they began compiling the votes that would first determine who was nominated in each of the 24 categories. Cullinan said that the nominations tabulation, which is based on a complicated mathematical process, “is more complicated and more time-intensive and more difficult” than the final voting phase.

The process of tabulating the actual winners began when Ruiz and Cullinan received the official vote totals from Academy members at 5 p.m. on Tuesday. They then spent several long days and nights counting and recounting the votes.

Secrecy is paramount. Team members from PwC meet at an undisclosed location, and each accountant tabulates only a portion of the votes so he or she won’t know the final results. Only Ruiz and Cullinan put everything together in the end to determine who the Oscar winners are, and they commit those results to memory. The winners’ names are not typed into a computer or written down, to avoid potential lost slips of paper or breaches of security.

In the final hours before the Oscars ceremony, Ruiz and Cullinan will quiz each other to make sure they have accurately memorized the winners in each category. They then will look through the preprinted cards for all of the nominees, select those that list each of the victors, and stuff the envelopes. Both will head to the ceremony on Sunday carrying the correct set of envelopes. If one gets hung up in L.A. traffic, the other will also have the results in his or her briefcase. Once at the event, both will be backstage to hand the appropriate envelopes to the celebrity presenters during the live event.

“Last year, I delivered the envelope to Julie Andrews, and it was pretty amazing to get to meet her and say hello, just knowing how she’s a legend,” Ruiz said.

Cullinan, who began tabulating votes for the Academy Awards three years ago, has had many memorable moments, most notably a run-in with actress Cate Blanchett, who at the 2014 event jokingly tried to grab his briefcase on the red carpet. Little did Blanchett know her name was in the envelope that year, for her role in Blue Jasmine, he said. (Blanchett is nominated this year, too, for her role in Carol.)

Cullinan also fondly remembers meeting numerous presenters, including Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, and perhaps most notably, Sidney Poitier. And he was called on stage last year by host Neil Patrick Harris, who pointed out his resemblance to actor Matt Damon.

ABC will broadcast this year’s ceremony starting at 8:30 p.m. ET. Red carpet coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET.

Both partners have learned lessons from their roles as the Academy’s top tabulators—namely, Cullinan said, that it is important to keep your ego in check, and, added Ruiz, that it is good to step out of your comfort zone as a CPA. “What we do is an important part of the process for the Academy and the nominees,” she said. “What we do potentially changes people’s lives.”

Both plan to shoulder the responsibility of tallying the Oscar results for many years to come. PwC has been tabulating the Oscar results for 82 years, though only 14 partners like Ruiz and Cullinan, who work with media and entertainment clients, have headed the tabulation team.

“The reason they ask a CPA firm is because this is a major secret they want to keep until Sunday evening, and who do they trust to do that?” Cullinan said. “It happens to be us, and Martha and I happen to be the lucky custodians of that role.”

Cheryl Meyer (meyerwrites@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in California. 

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