Martha Ruiz knows how to keep a secret. For each of the last few years, the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) tax partner has kept one of the most highly guarded secrets in the entertainment world: the winners of the Academy Awards.

Ruiz will take the stage again this year for the 89th Academy Awards, sometimes referred to as the Oscars. She is only one of two people who know the results ahead of the big reveal: her PwC partner, Brian Cullinan, is the other.

Ruiz is part of a small team at PwC that counts thousands of ballots for the Academy. Each year, more than 6,000 members cast their votes in 24 categories. Over the years, it is estimated that PwC has counted more than 450,000 ballots.
So how did Ruiz get the opportunity to be a part of Hollywood’s biggest night? Hard work and a lifelong interest in numbers. Ruiz graduated from California State University – Los Angeles with a B.S. in Business and an emphasis in Accounting. Before college, she had an inkling that she might end up in a business-oriented career: she enjoyed numbers and problem-solving.

When it was time to choose a major, she was drawn to Accounting. In her junior year, she took an introductory tax course which gave her a taste of tax policy and the legal side of tax. She toyed with going to law school (her sister did) but ultimately opted for something more strategic and numbers-focused and headed to Golden Gate University to pursue her Masters in Taxation.

Following graduation, Ruiz interviewed with all of the big tax firms – at the time, the “Big 6” firms were still intact – and settled on what was then Price Waterhouse (in 1998, PwC merged with Coopers & Lybrand to form PricewaterhouseCoopers). She was, she said, impressed by the firm’s reputation and responsiveness. When the firm found out that she hoped to move back to Los Angeles, she immediately got a call asking her to fly out to the local office for an interview. It felt like a good fit.

It turned out to be an excellent fit. Ruiz, who has her CPA (certified public accountant) certification, has been with the firm for over 20 years and is now a tax partner. Her focus has been in the entertainment and media space ever since she started at PwC.

Several years ago, she joined the PwC ballot-counting team. It’s a considerable undertaking for the firm but one they’re familiar with: PwC has counted the ballots for the Academy for 83 of the last 89 years. Eventually, Ruiz was promoted to manager and then partner. It was, she says, an honor to be asked. Since PwC started counting the ballots, there have only been 14 tax partners involved in the process. Ruiz is the first Latina and only the second woman to serve in this role.

While there’s a lot of behind the scenes work – Ruiz says they start planning for next year shortly after the awards show – most of the “top secret” work happens in the week before the show. Here’s how it happens:

First, the team collects the ballots. The polls closed this year on Tuesday, February 21, at 5:00 p.m. PST. I’ll confess that in my mind, I assumed the process was the equivalent of an online poll with a quick computer-generated tally. That’s not at all what happens. Ruiz and her team count the ballots by hand. That includes traditional paper ballots and online votes. The process is manual for a couple of reasons, namely, it’s secure, and it helps guarantee the integrity of the process.
It takes approximately 1,700 manpower hours to count and verify the ballots. If one person were doing all of the work, it would take nearly a full year, or 43 work weeks, to count and verify the ballots.

The results are recorded – nowhere. Yep. After Ruiz and her partner, Brian Cullinan, oversee the initial counting of the ballot, the final tallies are not recorded anywhere. Ruiz and Cullinan lead the count and the recount (there are a number of redundancies in place to assure accuracy), but they don’t write the winners’ names down or record an aggregate tally on paper. Instead, the pair goes to work memorizing the winners for each of the 24 categories before manually stuffing the envelopes with the winners’ names. PwC has stuffed more than 2,600 winners’ envelopes since the envelope system was introduced in 1941.

Once those envelopes are stuffed – two sets of 24 for the big night – the process is more or less complete until the big day. The winners go “into the briefcase” (or briefcases – there are two, just to be safe). This typically happens by the end of day on the Friday before the show. And then? Only Ruiz and Cullinan know the winners. Not even the show’s producers or the President of the Academy (currently, it’s Cheryl Boone Isaacs) are informed as to who will take home the Oscar statuettes.
(And because I know you’re wondering: even though the number of categories is known in advance, the possibility of ties and of multiple recipients sharing the award means that they don’t know the exact number of statuettes to be awarded, so the Academy has extras on hand.)

The famous briefcases are hidden away in a top-secret location. On the day of the show, the two briefcases will are put into two different cars that take two different routes to the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California. (Yes, it sounds exactly like a spy movie.)

On the day of the show, the real stars – though mostly behind the scenes – are Ruiz and Cullinan. But they’re not at the show as spectators: they are working. They deliver the envelopes to the presenters in real-time and then listen to make sure the announcements are accurate. They stand in separate places – one at stage right and the other at stage left – as the show happens.

What if there’s a goof à la Steve Harvey at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant? That’s exactly why Ruiz and Cullinan are in attendance: to ensure that the announcements go smoothly. If there’s a mistake made, it’s up to Ruiz and Cullinan to notify the stage managers and the producers. However, Ruiz is quick to assure, that is extremely unlikely since PwC goes to great lengths to make sure that the winners are clearly identified on the ballots. And the accuracy of the winners? Ruiz says that there are so many procedures and redundancies in place that she and Cullinan are “100% certain” of the validity of the results.

It’s a pretty exciting process, and Ruiz enjoys being a part of it. Being so high profile on Oscar night does pose a dilemma for her, however, that most tax professionals don’t struggle with throughout the year: what are you going to wear? Ruiz says that she typically begins thinking about her Oscar outfit over the holidays but realistically doesn’t begin planning until later. While the Oscars are a big deal, the Academy is not her only client: as we all know, awards season coincides with tax season (corporate returns are due in just two weeks). It makes for a busy time for Ruiz which means that planning what to wear on the big night isn’t necessarily tops on her list.

The Academy Awards is one of most-watched live television shows of the year. In 2015, nearly 37.3 million viewers tuned in from the United States alone (that number was down to 34.3 million in 2016). Maybe they’re watching for the outfits and the speeches. But mostly, they just want to know what’s in the briefcase.

Jimmy Kimmel host the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony, which airs Sunday, February 26, at 8:30 pm EST on ABC.
(Author’s note: This article was written prior to the Oscar awards. If you’re looking for more information about the Oscar award for Best Picture mix-up, check out this post which includes a statement from PwC.)

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Kelly Phillips Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer, and podcaster.

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