The Accountants that Make the Oscars Happen

Accounting careers in entertainment industry
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Behind the Scenes: The Accountants that Make the Oscars Happen


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In This Episode...

Meet the CPA duo behind the most anticipated envelopes in Hollywood, the ones containing winners of the Academy Awards. All in this episode of Abacus. Let’s Go!

  • Who actually counts the Oscar ballots?
  • What controls are in place to keep the winners a secret?
  • Who knows the winners ahead of time?
  • Why a good poker face is so important.

Can't Listen Right Now? Read It Instead.

Bob the CPA:     This is Abacus. I'm Bob the CPA. My guests today hold the honor of having the most unique accounting job I could find.

Martha Ruiz:     There's really only been 14 partners who've had the privilege of taking on this role.

Bob the CPA:     And believe it or not, they both work in the Big 4. Find out who they are, how they landed this rare job, and why celebrities are asking them for photos this week. All this coming up on Abacus. Let's go.

Learn everything you need to know to have a successful and fulfilling accounting career. Whether you're on the partner track or you're making your own path, this is Abacus.

Hey, everyone. Welcome to season three of the Abacus Show. Have you ever worried that accounting isn't the right career for you, or ever felt stuck in your job wondering if there's something better out there? Well, I'm here today to tell you you're not alone. We've all felt that way.

And that's why for this season of the Abacus Show, I went looking for the most unique and interesting accountants I could find. Every episode spotlights a unique and interesting accounting job to help you get a better idea of just how many options you really have. Ever since college, I bet you've heard people saying, "Accounting is great. There's so many job opportunities for accountants today." Those people aren't wrong, but I don't think even they understand just how right they are.

I'm going to make a promise to you, if you listen to this entire season, I guarantee you're going to come away with a new found appreciation and enthusiasm for your career path, so make sure you subscribe so you don't miss anything.

That brings us to today's episode. Today's guests really surprise me. I'll be perfectly honest with you, when I was planning this season, I assumed I'd find all the interesting jobs outside of the Big 4, but when I heard about today's guests, I knew I was wrong.

In this episode, we'll start things off with quite possibly the single most unique job in the accounting world. In fact, in the entire history of the accounting profession, only 14 people have ever done it. Individually, my guests today both have impressive careers. Martha Ruiz is a tax partner at PWC, specializing in media and entertainment. Brian Cullinan is the managing partner for PWC's southwest market, and he's chairman of the PWC US board. Together, they form the duo behind the most anticipated envelopes in Hollywood, the ones containing the winners of the Academy Awards.

I'll chat with them about how they count the ballots, how they handle the media spotlight, and how they keep the biggest secrets in Hollywood. As always, you can subscribe and find links and show notes for everything we talk about in this episode by visiting Now, let's walk down the red carpet with Martha and Brian.

The general theme of the season this year is unusual accounting careers, which obviously the Oscars falls under that. When they offered to give me a couple minutes with you guys, I jumped at it, it sounded like a perfect fit.

Brian Cullinan:  Yeah. No, that's  Although, and we'll talk about this, it is only a part-time job for us, so we have to be, full disclosure. It's not all we do.

Bob the CPA:     I guess, let's just start out with the question everybody asks is, what's it feel like to be on the red carpet?

Brian Cullinan:  Well, I'll start again, and Martha can jump in, she's got her own perspectives. I've been doing it now for the last four years, walking down the red carpet and doing interviews. I think the term we tend to use, is it's kind of surreal in that you're the center  You're one of the group that's become the center of attention of a lot of global media and entertainment press, and everything, for a short period of time. As Martha and I walk down the red carpet, we're walking in between all of the various nominees and the celebrities and things, and because we're carrying the briefcase with us that holds the winning envelopes for the show, we get asked to do a lot of interviews on the red carpet. So as we walk down the red carpet, many of the press will flag us over and ask us a lot of questions about the process, or what's in the briefcase, or how does it work, and all that kind of stuff.

It's kind of interesting being on that red carpet and then, not only doing those interviews, but some case being pulled aside by some stars to actually get a picture with them, like they're asking us, "Can I take a picture with you?" Which I think is a unique position to be in for an accountant.

Martha Ruiz:     Yeah.

Bob the CPA:     Yeah, that's definitely something that somebody has never done for me, so

Martha Ruiz:     Yeah, I think Brian said it perfectly, it's very surreal. It probably also puts it in perspective, I think Brian's point at the end there, they definitely reach out to us and they're excited to see the briefcase and the operative word there is the 'briefcase'. [crosstalk 00:04:39] Yeah, the day after the show, Brian and I go back to our normal day-to-day events with what we do. It puts it in perspective and definitely makes it exciting because, like Brian said, we're accountants and it's a unique experience and vantage point that we're privileged to have, walking the carpet and carrying briefcase.

Bob the CPA:     When you guys aren't on the red carpet what do you guys do for the other 51 weeks of the year when you're not in front of the cameras?

Brian Cullinan:  Well actually, this job is more than just that one week a year. I think Martha and I both spend hundreds and hundreds of hours over the course of the year. So it is one of the jobs we do throughout the year, but it's certainly way more than the one week or the afternoon of Sunday when we're seen on TV. What my role is, I'm the managing partner for PWC's southwest market, Which is the southwest of the US. I'm also am the lead director of our board of partners, so I chair our PWC's US board, and I'm a member of PWC's global board. A lot of board responsibilities in my day job, as well as helping lead the PWC work that we do in the southwest of the US.

Martha Ruiz:     My role, or my day-to-day, I'm a partner with PWC and specifically specialize in tax so I do a lot of tax consulting working for entertainment and media clients. A lot of my client in the southern California market are in the industry, a lot of the large studios and mid-sized production companies. It's a unique vantage point because while I'm assisting them with  accounting and tax work, also I'm in the midst of the industry so, from time to time, I run into people that I work with on what I do on a day-to-day with some of the events at the Academy.

Bob the CPA:     Wonderful, and we'll dig into those more in the next calls, because I really want to dig into your backgrounds and how you got to where you are because I think that's something that a lot of younger accountants would really be interested in hearing, how to make it to where you guys are. For now I noticed neither of you said, "I used to be a TV star." Did you have any ... Did you guys have any prep or any training to get you ready for the media tours and the red carpet, and all that stuff?

Brian Cullinan:  I would say a little bit. We got a little but of the dos and don'ts for doing media interviews, and certainly making sure we don't say things that were, that they want to make sure to stay away from. There's a few of those kind of ground rules, but generally speaking, not a lot of training. Therefore, those who are looking into this can judge how good we are, but hopefully we get better over time as well, but no, I wouldn't say a lot of training because it really is just a part of our job.

Bob the CPA:     That is something I would have a lot of trouble with, somebody come ask me who won best picture and I'd start giggling, and then I wouldn't be able to hold a straight face.

Brian Cullinan:  Oh, yeah. That's something we do take pretty seriously and that is making sure that we, Martha and I, maintain the secret, the confidentiality of the winners. That's one of the things we ... We both have very good poker faces and when people try to get things out of us, I think they find that it's pretty much impossible.

Martha Ruiz:     Right, right. I think maybe the profession we're into, Brian, I think just our professional conduct here when we deal with clients in general, I think that's a part of a role we take as well, making sure that information and discussions we have with clients are confidential. Clearly on this account, it's taken to a different level.

Bob the CPA:     I was talking to some of my engagement team before I told them I was going to have this interview, and the biggest questions they're all asking is, "What is that your guys' engagement team look like for this?" Are there staff members, are there just managers and partners or kind of ... How are the ballots actually counted?

Martha Ruiz:     Brian alluded to this earlier, but I think many people view our role here as one week out of the year but there's certainly a lot of planning that goes around this. There's different cycles as well that the Academy goes through to get to the actual show. They go through preliminary nominations, as well as the nomination, which is when you identify the five nominees, and then you have the finals. Throughout the year we have different sized teams. We have a pretty large team that helps us throughout the year as we plan. As the Academy's gone electronic and online, there's a variety of different roles that we have team members play.

When we get to the nominations, I'd say that our team gets focused on what we're doing as far as calculating. It's probably around nine to 10 individuals, from beginning to end, helps us go through and collect all the ballots and gets Brian and I ready to make sure that we're going through every single count and reviewing everything, and going as manual as you can imagine, because the process is still pretty manual as we go through every count. When we get to the finals, it's a much smaller group that gets involve in the tabulation process. We have about four individuals at the manager level. We split up the counts in a manner so that each individual only really has a percentage of the total vote. That is, again, a very manual process.

Brian and I collect all the ballots once they've gone through their stack, if you will, that they've counted for each category. Brian and I basically add them together and do the count ourselves. We also make sure that we go through pretty much every single ballot, and once we complete that review and that count, that's when Brian and I start ensuring we have the final winners, and we start putting the results together, putting to memory, if you will, all the results and then get ready for the show.

Depending on the time of year, we'll have a variety of different team members get involved, but as we get into the counts, the teams get a little bit smaller, and certainly for finals it gets even smaller. Even then, each team member that's involved only gets a small percentage, and Brian and I are the only two that add everything together, do the counts as well to check everything, and make sure that we know the final results.

Bob the CPA:     I think some of my peers would get a little mad at me if I didn't ask, do you only source the team from the LA office, or is it other offices around the country come in and bring in these managers and staff who help you out?

Martha Ruiz:     Yeah, that's-

Brian Cullinan:  We actually ...

Martha Ruiz:     Oh, go ahead Brian.

Brian Cullinan:  Yeah, that's a great question, just going to say we staff it with a lot from LA, because that's where both Martha and I are, but not exclusively. We have people on this account who span various offices around the US, including New York metro area and others. Therefore, we just have to reach out to the individuals who have the talent that we need in order to make sure that we have an accurate count and that it runs smoothly every year. We do use people from other offices within PWC.

Bob the CPA:     And for the nominees you said went out this week, do you guys also have any hand in actually deciding who the nominees are, or counting votes for that? How does that actually happen?

Brian Cullinan:  We have a couple of phases of the work, and one of the biggest phases is the nominations themselves. The processes just concluded earlier this week with the announcement of the nominees. That's a very time-intensive process and we are fully engaged in that throughout the whole balloting process. We do the tabulation, and then we hand over those results to the Academy who announces them.

Bob the CPA:     Then, as you're counting the winners before the Oscars, I imagined Oscar week is just crazy for you guys, is it true that you guys had to go through all the envelopes and memorize every single winner just in case?

Martha Ruiz:     Yes. I mentioned earlier that we definitely ... The process, believe or not, still has a lot of redundancies and is very manual. We intentionally, Brian and I, intentionally do not write anything down. While we have a lot of controls in place and procedures in place to make sure everything is secure and confidential, it's just that added measure that we both decide to take to make sure that nothing is left to chance, if we write anything down on paper. As soon as we have the results ready, we definitely start stuffing the envelopes and start memorizing each of the winners to make sure that ... That, as well, is a control.

Ultimately, when we are at the show and Brian will be on one side of the stage and I'll be on the other side of the stage, we hand deliver the envelopes to the presenters. We're also, at the same time as they go out and present, listening from back stage to make sure that, also as a control, checking and we make sure that the right winner is being announced.

Bob the CPA:     You said that the voting is electronic now. How does that translate into eventually getting to your team and all on paper and to count, and then eventually up into your heads? Do you have any other processes or controls in place you that you guys use to make sure that these secrets are kept safe?

Brian Cullinan:  We have a lot controls and processes that are in place, and as you say, many of the members of the Academy, in fact the majority, now vote electronically. Those votes come into us electronically, but from that point forward we take a very manual approach for reasons that include a higher level of security. We won't really get into all the details about all of the different steps that we take to make sure it's secure because we wouldn't want to share some of those secrets either, but you can just imagine that, in order to make sure that this stuff is confidential and secure, we take many, many steps and a lot of redundancies to make sure that the secret stays with us right until the envelope's opened on stage.

Bob the CPA:     I think that covers us. Is there anything else I haven't asked you about, that you're really excited about? Whether it's the process of counting or the actual Oscar night, that you want to share with the audience of younger accountants who are listening today.

Brian Cullinan:  Yeah, I'd start maybe and just say we're really fortunate to have these roles, Martha and I, relative to carrying the briefcase and being part of the Academy Awards and the show. But I think both of us would never have guessed at the beginnings of our careers, early on, that we'd be in this position. I think that's one great thing about the accounting profession and the big professional service firms is, you really have no idea when you start, the direction your career might take or the kinds of events and activities that you'll be part of. I think our roles in this prove that out.

Martha Ruiz:     Yeah, I think I agree with everything Brian said. I think certainly being a part of this account and the role that both Brian and I have is unique, and I think one thing we had not mentioned is that we'd been doing ... The firm has had this relationship with the Academy for 83 years now, and over that tenure, there's really only been 14 partners who've had the privilege of taking on this role. That adds to it, and to the responsibility, but also obviously the privileged of doing. I can't say that I started with the firm thinking that's what I want to do, but certainly doors that are opened for you within accounting, and within a firm like this, I think it really is a testament you can do a variety of different things. Find what your passionate about. Even within accounting, there's different industries, different types of accounting, different rules you can take. You never know where the road's going to lead so that's what makes it exciting.

Bob the CPA:     That's fantastic. Thank you both for sharing that, and thank you all for coming on the show. This has been great. I can't wait to hear who actually ends up winning, so you guys can stop carrying these secrets around with you.

Brian Cullinan:  Well, we do keep some secrets forever though, just so you know.

Bob the CPA:     Oh, all right. Well that will be a topic for another conversation I think then.

Brian Cullinan:  Okay, great. No problem.

Bob the CPA:     All right, thank you guys. Big thanks again to Martha and Brian for coming on the show. If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to head over to where you can listen to all our past shows and subscribe to automatically receive all the new episodes.

Keep an eye out for Martha and Brian, because I'm happy to announce both of them will be on later again this season to tell you more about their careers and share some advice if you're thinking about following a similar path in your own career. Thanks for listening, and I'll see you next time.

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Featured Guests: The 2017 PwC Oscar Vote Counters

Martha Ruiz, PwC Tax Partner, Media & Entertainment

Brian Cullinan, PwC Audit RMP Southwest Region, PwC US Board Chairman

Individually Martha and Brian have impressive careers. And together they perform one of the most unique jobs in the accounting world. In fact, only 14 people have ever done it. Take a look behind the scenes at the Academy Awards, learn how the votes are counted, how they keep the secret, and why your favorite celebrities are asking to take photos with these accountants.

Links + Show Notes



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