So you’re the producer of the Academy Awards, the most prestigious show in Hollywood, and the pinnacle of self-congratulatory back slapping and industry acknowledgement. It’s your job to ensure the annual 3-hour event goes off smoothly (or as smoothly as it can with a bunch of celebrities all in the same room, and so many moving parts to juggle). For the best part of 200 minutes, the 89th Academy Awards were gong seamlessly, with almost no discernible issues or problems – such as John Travolta’s now infamous mispronunciation of Broadway star Idina Menzel’s name as “Adele Dazeem” – to account for.
In fact, you’re probably popping champagne in the control booth as Warren Beatty and Bonnie & Clyde co-star Faye Dunaway start their walk to the front of the Dolby Theater stage to announce the Oscar for the Best Picture of 2016 – widely tipped to be La La Land – expecting the already silky smooth show to conclude the way it began.
Only, there’s trouble a-brewing up on stage. Beatty, opening the envelope to the accompanying drum-roll and murmur among the crowd, looks around, confused. He checks the envelope, to the bemusement of the gathered alumni and the global television audience, pausing for what must have felt to the nominees an excruciating amount of time. Beatty grins warily, looks at Dunaway, as if he can’t quite believe it. He even looks stage left to the wings, questioning what he’s seeing. Shrugging his shoulders, he gives the card to Dunaway, who blurts out the name of the film, La La Land. Expected applause and plaudits ensue; the producers, cast and assembled crew involved in La La Land, including newly crowned Best Director Damien Chazelle, climb the dozen steps to the stage and accept their awards. The producers of La La Land begin their speeches.
But then, it’s apparent something is wrong.
Behind the scenes, in the wings, two accountants from Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the only two people to actually know the results beforehand, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, realised a critical effort had been made. Somehow, the incorrect envelope had been given to Beatty prior to going on stage – the wrong film had just been announced as Best Picture.
Hurriedly, Academy production staff raced onto the stage, in order to correct the glaring error. They approached the producers of La La Land to confirm, while speeches continued to go live to a global audience of millions. La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz stepped forward to announce that there had been an error, and that Moonlight had won Best Picture. Naturally, chaos reigned.
The Moonlight team suddenly found themselves in the unenviable position of having to mount the Dolby stage and claim their prize from the gut-punched La La Land team. As shock settled in, Warren Beatty stepped up to the microphone to try and explain the mix-up, accompanied by a clearly shocked host Jimmy Kimmel who tried to add levity to what was a sensationally unexpected moment in Oscar history.
As the Moonlight producers ran through their thankyou speeches in truncated format, and Kimmel closed out the show with a shrug of the shoulders and a resigned I’m-not-coming-back-next-year quip, audiences at home were left to ponder the imponderable: how does a multi-million dollar production like the Oscars blow the announcement of its most important award of the night? Comparison’s were quickly made to American Family Feud host Steve Harvey’s brain-fart at the 2015 Miss Universe competition when he announced the wrong winner, only to recant a few minutes later to extreme embarrassment. Social media went apocalyptic with memes and jokes and all manner of think-pieces sprouting up within the hour.
There’s a few key things to remember in all of this. First, and foremost, the correct film ended up receiving its Oscar, although in muted and obviously as uncomfortable a manner as you’re ever likely to see. As far as Moonlight is concerned: job done. Secondly, human error is always, always going to creep into anything in which humans are involved, and of course as luck would have it, that means this year’s Oscars.
According to the Academy and PwC, nobody other than Cullinan and Ruiz knew the results of the ballots, with the winners list never being written down anywhere, or even stored on a computer somewhere – Ruiz and Cullinan are said to have memorised the winners list as an absolute fail-safe should anything happen to the two identical bags of results they carried into the Dolby Theatre than evening. Ruiz and Cullinan stand to the sides of the stage, each handing presenters the envelopes with the winners names within, and at the end of the day, it’s their job to ensure the correct one is given. Sadly, whether it was a lack of concentration or not, Cullinan handed a duplicate Best Leading Actress envelope to Warren Beatty, with Emma Stone receiving the gong only minutes earlier.
Disregarding the emotion of the moment, where winners suddenly found themselves not winners, and losers having to step up and claim their prize so awkwardly, the way the mix-up was handled has become the prime focus of much of the online buzz surrounding it. Jordan Horowitz’s handling of himself and his suddenly not-winners team was applauded across almost all spectrums, quickly and forthrightly beckoning the producers of Moonlight to come and accept their award. It was obvious he was angry – he tore the card from Warren Beatty’s confused hand to show it to the cameras and the world, that Moonlight had indeed won, and the reaction to the realisation La La Landhadn’t won is one of utter deflation and are-you-freaking-kidding?
Kimmel’s stumbling confusion as he bumbled through the aftermath was obvious to all: nobody had expected it, and sure as hellfire nobody had planned for a contingency. With Moonlight’s team on the stage, the La La Land crew were left to meekly exit stage right, no doubt embarrassed and furious with how it all played out.
Given it’s the most prestigious award of the night, how should the Academy show crew have handled such a monumental mistake? Taking into account a show already running long (3.5 hours, by my count), there’s several ways it could have been handled better, if not with the same aplomb.
The first, and possibly easiest, would be to let the show conclude with La La Land finishing their speeches and being taken backstage, where they could be privately informed of the mistake, allowing the host to come out and inform the audience of the error, then allowing the correct film to be named and the joy of winning the top gong to be played out (again). The losers would be saved the initial embarrassment of discovering they’d lost, giving them time to reconcile their emotions before either leaving or returning to the auditorium. The indignity of the mistake being beamed live to millions is humiliating enough – Horowitz and his team are to be commended in handling it so well, let’s be honest – but surely going offstage to relative privacy before learning the awful, horrifying truth might have worked a touch better.
The second would be just to set fire to everything and let it all burn.