Huge mistake at the Oscars and the lessons to learn


I didn’t think that I would be writing another post of this nature so soon after the huge mistake that was made at the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant, but here we are. Again. This time, it was the Oscars.

In case you missed it, chaos reigned at the end of the 2017 Academy Awards. The presentation of the final, and most important, Oscar of the evening went awry when the presenters announced the wrong winner for Best Picture.

Originally, La La Land was announced as the best film of the year. The director, producers and cast members were all on stage and the acceptance speeches had already begun. The problem was that La La Land did not win; Moonlight did. Watch the fateful moment:

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of their 1967 movie, Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway presented the award. It was a memorable moment, but not for the right reason.

What happened?

After Beatty opened the envelope, he paused, looked at the card, looked in the envelope, looked at the card again, began to speak, looked at the card once more and then handed it to Dunaway who quickly announced La La Land as the winner. Watch this video to see his apparent confusion.

We learned the reason for Beatty’s confusion a few hours later. Someone had given him the wrong card. A duplicate card for the Best Actress award that had already been awarded to Emma Stone. On the card were written Stone’s name and the name of the film she was in, La La Land.

The accountants for PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the firm charged with counting the votes for the Oscars and keeping the results secret until the show, gave Warren Beatty the wrong envelope. How could this be, given that Emma Stone had already received her award? Well, as noted in this Huffington Post article, the PwC accountants were handing out the envelopes from duplicate sets of all the winners!

You can’t be too careful! We have two sets of results envelopes, each packed in its own briefcase – one for each of us. The morning of the awards we arrive separately at the show. LA traffic can be unpredictable! At the event, we are both backstage to hand the envelopes to the presenters.

And in an interview before the event, the two accountants again confirmed the procedure for the Oscars.

The producers decide what the order of the awards will be. We each have a full set. I have all 24 envelopes in my briefcase; Martha has all 24 in hers. We stand on opposite sides of the stage, right off-screen, for the entire evening, and we each hand the respective envelope to the presenter. It doesn’t sound very complicated, but you have to make sure you’re giving the presenter the right envelope.

Too complicated

Actually, that does sound complicated. Handing out envelopes from duplicate sets, from opposite sides of the stage was an accident waiting to happen. As I wrote in a 2015 post about the Miss Universe Pageant,

Writing the same information in different ways increases the chance that a mistake will be made.

Having multiple copies of something is fine for back-up purposes. But for something like the announcement of the winner of the Miss Universe Pageant, there should be one card only.

PwC has apologized for the mistake. Here is their statement on Twitter:

While PwC is primarily responsible, Beatty and Dunaway also bear some responsibility. They are seasoned professionals who have each won an Academy Award.

Beatty should have asked for clarification. Dunaway should have read the card more carefully before speaking. And they both should have noticed (along with PwC) that written on the outside of the envelope in gold letters were the words, ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE.

Warren Beatty holding Oscar envelope

To their credit, the people from both La La Land and Moonlight were gracious about the mix-up. And, ultimately, while unfortunate, the Oscars mistake was hardly a life and death matter.

Six lessons

Still, there are lessons to learn (again) for an event of this nature. They are the same as those that I listed in my post about the 2015 Miss Universe Pageant:

1. Mistakes will happen but there are some things you should not get wrong. Pay attention!

2. Make sure your written documentation is clear.

3. Simplicity is almost always the better option.

4. Writing the same information in multiple ways increases the chance of a mistake.

5. If you make a mistake, accept responsibility.

To these, I would add one more:

6. If you think a mistake has been made, seek clarification or help, especially if there is still time to avoid making an even bigger mistake.

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  1. Hi John,

    In the big picture it made the show even more entertaining. I think they should give Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway another chance next year!


  2. The minute I heard of this, I thought of your previous post John.

    Mistakes will happen. Lessons will be learned. New procedures will be developed. People (mostly) rise to the occasion. Fortunately most people are eventually understanding, kind, and forgiving.

    The pressure in the moment must something else–no matter past experience. I realized this anew when Patti Smith forgot lines from Dylan’s “Hard Rain … ” as song she’d known and sung for decades.

    Please keep your fantastic posts coming. GOOD LUCK

    1. Supposedly, they have been doing it for 80+ years without a problem. But do it enough and the odds will catch up with you. I told my brother-in-law (who works at Ernst & Young) that now is the time to make the pitch to the Academy!

  3. All in all, having Beatty and Dunaway announce Best Picture winner on the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde was a nice touch. Now, they’ll know what to do in case they’re given the wrong envelope on the 2067 Oscars.

  4. We practice this at Toastmasters! After every contest (4 to 8 times a year) the corresponding Chief Judge must fill out three place award certificates. It is VERY easy to make mistakes. So four eyes is the minimal security; no-one writes anything until several people agree. And spare certificates are kept in resserve. Over 20 years I often get chosen because of my calligraphy, and I am happy to say my error rate is less than 5%!

    1. Good job, Graham. In some ways, your job is harder because you are tabulating and ranking and awarding in a short span of time. For the Oscars, they tabulate and decide the winner well in advance of the ceremony. “All” they have to do on the night is hand the right card to the right person at the right time. Of course, with the Oscars, they have millions of people watching.

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