Firm oversees balloting with secrecy and skill

As Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary of defense and amateur epistemologist, once theorized: “We know that there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know that there are known unknowns; that is to say we know that there are some things we don’t know.” When it comes to the procedures surrounding Oscar balloting, just about everything falls into the latter category.

In this case, the only two knowers of the known unknowns are Brad Oltmanns and Rick Rosas of PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that has coordinated the Oscar vote for the last 73 years, overseeing everything from mailing and counting ballots to guarding and distributing the envelopes containing winners’ names.

Despite the ever-increasing prognosticative hysteria surrounding the awards, the firm is proud to note that there has never been a single leak or security breach.

As such, Oltmanns and Rosas take their Oscar duties very seriously and are committed to keeping even the most innocuous elements of the vote-counting process under wraps.

For example, when asked if the winners’ names in the envelope are typed or handwritten, Rosas’ response is almost Rumsfeldian: “We prepare cards for every winner, and duplicates. When it comes time to stuff the envelopes, we pick the appropriate card.” Period.

But as for the known knowns, Oltmanns and Rosas’ Oscar work starts in earnest sometime in early fall, when the documentary and tech categories begin their initial vetting processes.

Working with a team of accountants that starts at 12 members and eventually dwindles down to two, they tally nominations ballots for a seven-day period in a secret location (although Rosas demurs at the word “secret,” preferring the more equivocal “undisclosed”).

Once the nominees are made public, Academy voters have a chance to weigh in, and final ballots arrive on the Tuesday before the ceremony. Rosas, Oltmanns and their small team (of an “undisclosed” number) retire to an undisclosed location to count and recount them — “as many times as we need to, to assure absolute accuracy,” Oltmanns says. Although they have a few assistants, no one but Rosas and Oltmanns have access to the final tally.

The Academy refuses to release specific voting results, though Rosas confides that some races have been “close.” When pressed for further detail, he elaborates: “Very close.”

Friday evening, when the results are finalized, both men commit all 24 winners to memory and make duplicate copies of their names, which are kept in separate briefcases by the two men who then retreat to separate undisclosed locations.

“We keep a low profile for the two days prior to the awards,” Rosas says. “Then on the day of the show, we’re each accompanied by one of the LAPD’s finest, who accompany us while we have our briefcases.”

During the ceremony, Rosas and Oltmanns wait in the wings, handing out appropriate envelopes to the presenters immediately before they walk onstage, then listening carefully to the announcement to ensure its accuracy.

So, what would happen if a myopic presenter were to speak the wrong name?

“First of all, she won the award,” Rosas interjects, referring obliquely to the conspiracy theories surrounding Marisa Tomei’s 1993 supporting actress Oscar. But if such a thing did occur, he says, “we would immediately go onstage and correct it.”

As much as this secrecy may seem an outlandish outgrowth of Oscar hype, there are serious issues at stake.

Though officially verboten from Las Vegas sports books, the Academy Awards ceremony is still the most highly wagered-upon nonsporting event in the world — not to mention the boost in B.O. and DVD receipts to which winners can historically look forward, or the public trust that the awards are legitimate, which last year translated into a $1.6 million pricetag for a 30-second ad spot during the kudocast. Were serious doubt ever cast on the validity of the voting, the economic consequences could be enormous.

Though they conduct them with steely sobriety, both men acknowledge the essential strangeness of their Oscar charges. There are, after all, very few accountants who can boast of police escorts to the Kodak’s red carpet.

“You know from day one when you join the firm that the Oscars are part of the legacy of PricewaterhouseCoopers,” says Rosas, currently in his sixth year as Oscar vanguard. “But it’s not something that you ever envision you’ll be a part of.”

Oltmanns, who is on his third tour of duty, concurs: “It’s a surreal experience to be involved in something that garners this much attention.”

Despite all that attention, both men remain undazzled by their annual brush with Hollywood glamour. At least, they certainly harbor no illusions about being a part of it — Oltmanns estimates he spends “about two seconds” selecting his attire for the big night.

“It’s the easiest sartorial decision I make all year; there’s only one choice,” he says, before deadpanning: “I’m trying to be mistaken for Beau Brummell.”

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