Oscar's Accountants Take Spotlight

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 01/07/2008 - 16:00

The Academy likes Oltmanns and Rosas, the secretive agents of Oscar, to be safe and dull.Monty Python's sketch about the chartererd accountant who wanted to become a lion tamer (watch on YouTube) may have had fun sending up this "dull, dull, dull" profession. But with the recent announcement that Sunday's Golden Globes ceremony was replaced by a press conference due to the 9-week old Writers Guild of America strike and the possibility that even the mighty Oscars will be hit by a no-show by some of Hollywood's best and brightest, it seems dull is flavour of the moment.

That sense only gets stronger as the sub-prime debacle continues to drag the finance world through the brown stuff leaving erstwhile dependably dull, predictable companies smeared for taking too many risks. So it shouldn't be surprising that, when handed a metaphorical lion-tamer's whip, accountants take the opportunity to reinforce their boringness.

For PricewaterhouseCoopers, a firm of some 146,000 accountants in 150 countries, the run-up to the 80th annual Academy Awards on 24th February presents an unprecedented opportunity to put dullness centre stage. Hollywood's wordsmiths have stopped writing, the actors are laying low, it's the turn of the accountants who tote up all the ballots by Academy members to take the limelight.

That doesn't mean a return to the days where on the cue "and the envelope please" accountants would come on stage to hand-deliver the envelopes - that is now done just offstage. But as far as the vote-count itself goes, the show must go on, following a rigorous proceedure.

In this line of work, flashiness, innovation, experimentation and general sexiness are not qualities that rank highly. Voting in the U.S. federal election may be computerised, but here the vote count is still done manually. That takes time. According to PwP, it takes approximately 1,700 "person-hours" each year to count and verify the ballots cast by the 6,000 voting Academy members.

"PricewaterhouseCoopers has created an intentionally low-tech process of hand tabulations that is proven to maintain the highest level of security and secrecy for seven decades and counting," said Brad Oltmanns, managing partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers - Los Angeles.

Oltmanns is one of only two people in the world who will know the identity of the Oscar winners before the live telecast on the night. His partner in secrecy is PwC's Rick Rosas. Says Otmanns: "This assignment is one that truly represents an honor, privilege and thrill of a lifetime."

The two chiefs lead a group of accountants who work on the project from a secret location for several days. So while everyone else is indulging in the annual orgy of speculation about who will win what Oscar, for the accountant the real thrill is remaining closed-mouthed and secretive.

This being Hollywood there has to be a bit of added drama. On the night, each accountant arrives at the ceremonies with his own complete set of envelopes bearing recipients' names via separate, secret routes. As an added precautionary measure, the two also memorise the names of the award winners.

But it's not a Bourne-like ability to survive the journey to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood with the precious cargo intact that Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences latches onto, when praising the number-crunchers.

"Trust, integrity and tradition continue to be the core of the Academy Awards balloting process and that of our relationship with PwC, one of Hollywood's longest standing relationships."

Dull has its upside sometimes.

The Oscars Voting Proceedure