Oscars Best Picture Gaffe and Slow Response Eclipse Diversity Gains

Oscars Best Picture Moonlight
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

As he exited the Academy Awards stage following the aborted best-picture celebration for “La La Land,” singer John Legend said, “That was must-see TV.” The film in which he co-starred had just won Hollywood’s top award, only to have it snatched away some two minutes later, when it became clear that presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway had been given the wrong envelope. Legend and the rest of the “La La Land” team moved on, as the “Moonlight” team took the stage in their stead.

For the third year running, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a furor on its hands, this time not because of a lack of diversity among Oscar nominees and winners, but because the night’s crowning moment was so clumsily misplayed. The ballot mishandling by a partner from PricewaterhouseCoopers meant that the Academy’s good-news story about inclusivity was subsumed in the commotion over an announcement gone amuck.

The Academy seemed at a loss as to how to respond to this latest challenge. It took a full 24 hours before the organization spoke out, offering an apology and a statement that it deeply regretted the error. There was a pledge to investigate what went wrong and to “determine what actions are appropriate going forward.”

People familiar with the inner workings of the Academy say it’s a group that responds deliberately to criticism. “It’s not a nimble organization,” notes one individual.

About three hours after the botched award presentation, PwC issued a statement apologizing. The following day, the firm provided details about what went wrong, while expressing heaps of contrition. PwC chairman Tim Ryan said he was “very disappointed” that the wrong envelope had been passed to Beatty; he said his firm took “full responsibility” for the failure. PwC did not address some specifics, including the allegation that Brian Cullinan, the partner who handed over the wrong envelope, was distracted from his duties because he was posting pictures to social media.

Some PR pros say the Academy could take a rapid-response lesson from PwC. “It’s perplexing that they wouldn’t have issued an apology immediately, because, while a contract company may be at fault, at the end of the day it’s the Academy’s show,” says Jeremy Robinson-Leon, a principal in New York-based Group Gordon, a corporate and crisis PR firm. “So they bear ultimate responsibility for everything that goes on.”

One key figure in the debacle also asked for clarification. “Rather than for me to respond to questions from the press about the Academy ceremony,” Beatty said in a statement Tuesday, “I feel it would be more appropriate for the president of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, to publicly clarify what happened as soon as possible.”

The painful irony for the Academy is that the faux pas overshadowed a powerful rebuttal to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite protests. “Moonlight,” with its all-black cast, won the top prize; adapted screenplay for writer/director Barry Jenkins and his writing partner, Tarell Alvin McCraney; and the supporting actor award for Mahershala Ali. Viola Davis’ win for supporting actress in “Fences” and black filmmaker Ezra Edelman’s documentary win for “O.J.: Made in America” added to a record-setting Oscar night for African-Americans. (Recognition of Latinos, Asian-Americans, and others should become hot topics in future years.)

Unfortunately for the Academy, most of the talk following the show surrounded the one award that (briefly) went wrong, and not the others that many observers felt had gone just right.