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The Little Gold Guy Awaits

Ballots: For six decades and counting, Price Waterhouse has benefited from its high profile as tabulator of Academy Award votes.

March 24, 1997|SCOTT COLLINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not many people, let alone accountants, get a chance to commit a faux pas like Greg Garrison's.

At last year's Oscar telecast, Garrison was standing in the wings of the Shrine Auditorium, clutching a briefcase containing envelopes with the names of all the award winners. Suddenly he found himself face to face with Susan Sarandon, the elegant star of "Dead Man Walking."

As Garrison recalls, their eyes met. She didn't move. In fact, she couldn't. And as he followed her glance downward, Garrison discovered why.

He was standing on her dress.

"She was wearing a great big hoop dress," Garrison says, by way of explanation.

It was yet another Oscar moment courtesy of Price Waterhouse. For more than 60 years, the accounting giant, where the 43-year-old Garrison heads up the entertainment practice, has been tabulating results for the Academy Awards.

Along the way, the firm's partners--"the guys from Price Waterhouse," as they are commonly known--have become among the ceremony's most recognizable props, arriving on camera amid the crush of celebrities and serving as the butt of endless jokes from hosts such as Billy Crystal.

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Tonight's telecast will likely prove no exception. Frank Johnson, the Price Waterhouse partner who has supervised the Oscar balloting for 21 years, is retiring from the firm this June and may receive special praise from the academy.

"When I got the script and I didn't see any mention of Price Waterhouse, I called Gil Cates, who's the producer of the show, and asked about it," Johnson, 60, says. "He was kind of cryptic about it, and said they were working on something else" involving the accounting firm.

Whatever happens, Price Waterhouse is certain to score yet another publicity windfall. With as many as 1 billion people watching, the annual Oscar appearance has been key in turning the strait-laced firm into a household name.

"Price Waterhouse has become the most famous accounting firm in the world simply because of its association with the Academy Awards," says academy executive director Bruce Davis.

In fact, it's a symbiotic relationship, with plenty of lures for both sides. Outside of free TV exposure, the firm gets instant contacts and clout with studios and other clients, which in turn helps its burgeoning entertainment practice in Southern California. Such clients account for roughly 10% of the firm's $2 billion in annual revenue, and include such heavy hitters as the Walt Disney Co., Sony and Viacom, parent of Paramount Pictures.

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The academy, meanwhile, neutralizes any doubts about the security and independence of the balloting by entrusting the entire process to a top accounting firm. Price Waterhouse also gives the nonprofit academy a discount on fees for tax advice and other accounting services, which normally run up to $350 an hour.

It's the kind of plummy relationship long coveted by Price Waterhouse's rivals among the Big Six accounting companies.

"I have had seductive overtures from a great many firms," Davis says, although he declines to provide specifics.

"A lot of us would do [Oscar balloting] for darn near free, just because of the name recognition involved," says Dick Poladian, managing partner of the Los Angeles office of Arthur Andersen.

Indeed, the lure of free publicity and cachet in the rapidly growing entertainment industry have led Deloitte & Touche into overseeing voting for the Grammys, the CableACE Awards and the Country Music Assn. Awards, among others. Ernst & Young reportedly outbid other accounting firms for the Emmys in the late 1980s.

But Price Waterhouse would seem to have a lock on the Oscar account. Davis says that's because the firm has never made a mistake or allowed a security breach in more than six decades on the job.

"When an accounting firm develops a relationship with a company, they're in like flint," says Rick Telberg, editor of the trade journal Accounting Today. "Your accountant knows everything about you, and you trust him."

When Price Waterhouse was first hired in 1936, the Oscar balloting process was not even a guarded secret. But four years later, Davis says, The Times broke an embargo and published award results before the ceremony took place, leading to complaints from members. The voting has remained shrouded in mystery ever since.

So what does Price Waterhouse do? Basically, it oversees every step of the voting, up until the moment Garrison and Johnson literally hand each presenter an envelope with the name of the winners.

The duo start by supervising a rotating pool of about six to eight Price Waterhouse staffers charged with counting the ballots.

"They have been counseled as to the importance of what they're doing to the academy, to Price Waterhouse--and to their careers," Garrison says. "Zero defects is what we're talking about here."

To arrive at the nominees in each category, the academy uses a somewhat complicated system called preferential balloting, which allows voters to express a series of preferences rather than one choice.

In the second round of balloting, the nominee who gathers the most votes from the 5,000 eligible academy members is the winner. Because the ballots are divided into lots of 20, none of the staffers has a clear idea of voting trends. Even Garrison and Johnson don't know until they add up all the votes the Friday before the ceremony.

The pair then get their moment of glory upon arrival at the Shrine, briefcases bulging with precious contents. Good publicity for their employers, yes, and also for themselves.

Johnson, edged out by Price Waterhouse's mandatory retirement age, is looking to round out his career as chief financial officer at another company.

And where is he looking? Why, in Hollywood, of course.

"Nothing's definite yet," Johnson says, keeping his counsel one more time.

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