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How Oscars number-crunchers keep winners secret

Saturday, February 21, 2015 - 10:30
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An Oscar statue is seen outside the Dolby Theater during preparations ahead of the 87th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California on Feb 20, 2015.

[LOS ANGELES] By day, they are accountants with global consulting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers. But from Friday, for two days only, they become keepers of one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the world.

Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz will be the only people who know the winners of the coveted golden Oscar statuettes, cinema's most prestigious prizes.

They are the people who tally up the votes of the 6,100-odd members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), who choose the Oscar winners.

"We print everything" for fear of possible leaks or online hacking, Cullinan told AFP, explaining how the voting process has been revolutionized over the last few years.

"For 84 years, (it) was only done by paper. Over the last three years, they have allowed members to vote electronically, with a password. An increasing number, the majority, now vote electronically," he said.

The pair have a team of five or six people to help. But they make absolutely sure that no single person counts all the votes in a category, to ensure nobody but them knows any of the winners, said Ruiz.

There are 24 categories, and over 6,000 votes to be counted by hand. That's a lot of counting. The vote ended Tuesday evening. They hope to have the results collated by Friday evening, said Cullinan.

Results tied six times

Most categories - best actor, actress, best song, et cetera - are decided simply by counting the votes and seeing who gets the most.

On six occasions over the decades, there has been a tie, in which case two statuettes are handed out. The last time that happened was in 2013, for best sound editing.

For best picture, it is more complicated: the winner has to get 50 per cent of votes plus one.

To achieve this, voters have to rank their favorites from the eight nominated movies. The first-choice votes are then counted, and if none gets 50 per cent, then the film with the least votes is dropped and its votes redistributed to the other seven, based on the second choice.

The process continues until one film gets the crucial amount, the idea being that the winning movie enjoys a consensus of support, rather than say just getting 20 per cent but beating the others.

Security is, needless to say, a key concern.

Both Cullinan and Ruiz each get a set of 24 envelopes with category names pre-printed, together with 24 cards. But they fill in the winning names by hand before sealing them.

As a double fail-safe, each of them memorizes the category winners by heart, just in case. Nobody apart from the two of them knows the results.

From the moment that the results are finalised, and a set of envelopes is placed in each of two briefcases, both of them are escorted by armed guards until the start of the ceremony Sunday evening.

They also split up, in case one of them is unable for some reason to get to the Dolby Theatre in time when the curtain goes up at 5.30pm (0130 GMT on Monday).

AFP