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Accountants Find Themselves in a Supporting Role at Awards Show

March 19, 1999|JAMES BATES

A couple of years ago, Greg Garrison found himself face to face with John Travolta during rehearsals for the Academy Awards broadcast, when the actor began teasing him.

"You're the guy from Pricewaterhouse?" Garrison recalls Travolta asking him. "You should be back there recounting. Did you see 'Get Shorty'? I was really good in that. I should have been nominated."

"You were really good in that," Garrison responded, adding with authority, "But you weren't nominated."

If anyone knows, he does. Garrison is one of only two people in the world who will go to their graves knowing Hollywood's best-kept secrets this year: which actors, directors, films, composers and the others eked out a victory; who barely missed the cut; and who won in a landslide in the annual Oscar derby that can make a career.

Amid a Hollywood filled with blabbermouths, Garrison and colleague Lisa Pierozzi, both partners in the Los Angeles office of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, are charged with keeping the entertainment industry's Holy Grail of secrets. No one else knows in advance who won, who got how many votes or just how close a heartbroken actor or actress came to being nominated in the first place.

What they do is an annual ritual that takes place amid near-absurd levels of secrecy that rival the guarding of national security interests. Throughout this week, six assistants have been working at an undisclosed site in a room that remains locked at all times, counting evenly divided piles of ballots. They sit back to back so they won't see one another's tallies. Like a jury being warned by a judge not to discuss a case, the employees are admonished not to discuss what they've been doing--with one another, their families, friends, co-workers or anyone else.

Even the assistant who types up the "winning" envelopes doesn't know the victors, because she types an envelope for every nominee, no matter how remote the odds are of winning. When cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-head presented an award in 1997, voice-overs for each of the five scenarios were recorded in advance. Garrison went to a control truck 30 seconds before the announcement was made to tell the technician which button to push.

Garrison, managing partner of the firm's Southern California practice, and Pierozzi, who specializes in audits and other services for entertainment and media firms, put off compiling the results until a day or so before the awards show, so even they don't know too far in advance. The winners' cards will sit in a safe that sits inside of yet another safe at an undisclosed downtown Los Angeles location. There are also cards for the losers.

"We don't want somebody to get their hands on those and figure it out by process of elimination," Pierozzi says.

From the moment they pick up the results Sunday afternoon just before the ceremony until the best-picture envelope is opened to conclude the show, both Garrison and Pierozzi will have an armed, sunglasses-wearing, off-duty Los Angeles police officer as a bodyguard. To get to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, they will be driven in separate cars using separate routes.

Secrecy increased in 1940, thanks in part to this newspaper. It broke an embargo on the results in an early edition the night the awards were handed out. Those attending the banquet already knew who had won.

Since then, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has required that the winners' names be known by only two accountants with the firm, which has conducted the balloting since 1935 and serves as the academy's regular accountant.

Security may seem excessive, given that it's really just a movie award show. But the broadcast is one of the biggest TV events of the year, with millions of advertising dollars in play, and there's much at stake in preserving the drama.

At Sunday's ceremony, Garrison and Pierozzi each will stand in the wings with identical sets of 24 envelopes, which they keep track of closely and hand to the stars as they are about to walk onstage to present the awards. Often there's a moment or two of small talk, as when actor Ben Affleck last year asked Garrison to hold his car keys. Three years ago, actress Susan Sarandon couldn't move when she tried to walk to the podium, because Garrison was stepping on her gown.

Through the years, PricewaterhouseCoopers (the name was changed from Price Waterhouse in 1997 when the company merged with Coopers & Lybrand) owed its status as the only accounting firm anyone knew to the Oscars. It got an annual plug during the telecast when the voting rules were recited, and hosts would regularly joke about the firm. Johnny Carson compared the accountants to groundhogs who come out only once a year. Bob Hope said they preserved the Oscar secrets by executing their secretaries.

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