On Sunday, the eyes of the world will be on the Oscars. But two people already know who’s won.
You’ve never heard of Martha Ruiz and Brian Cullinan. They haven’t been in any films or on any magazine covers. But they will be the most important people at the Oscars.
They are the only two people in the world who know the names of the winners before each award presenter rips open the golden envelope and says the immortal words: “And the Oscar goes to…”
Ruiz and Cullinan have counted the votes – and counted them again, and again, to make sure the results are correct.
By Sunday night, they will have made sure the results are kept secret and delivered to the venue, no matter what, before personally handing the envelopes to each award presenter moments before they walk on stage.
“I’ve been asked what I enjoy the most,” says Ruiz. “Heading in my car to the theatre is that fun period of time, when everyone’s anticipating who the winners are going to be, and of course I know exactly who the winners are.
“So that short ride is a fun hour. Knowing what I know.”
Ruiz and Cullinan – who are partners at accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers – started work counting the results as soon as final voting closed on Tuesday.
The Oscar winners are chosen by 7,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who can vote electronically or by post.
Most do so electronically these days, says Ruiz, who spoke to the BBC before this year’s final voting took place.
Despite that, counting in the 24 categories is not done by computer – it is all done by hand.
“Once polls close, we print everything and go through a very manual process,” Ruiz explains.
“We do that for a variety of reasons. We want to make sure that no results reside in any one system or computer, and want to ensure a variety of different mechanisms [are used] to secure the process and the results.”
Ruiz and Cullinan are joined by three or four colleagues to help with counting. “But the team members we have to help us only have a small fraction of the paper we print out.
“It’s up to Brian and I to fully count everything together once, twice and sometimes multiple times to make sure it’s correct.”
The pair will have worked their way through the categories all week until Friday, when they will have the full winners list.
Next they will start memorising all the winners – just in case anything happens to the envelopes. That is just one of a number of precautions.
“We will go through a significant amount of time quizzing each other, ensuring that we’re memorising everything,” Ruiz says.
“At that point, we also start stuffing the envelopes and ensuring that the correct winners are in each of the envelopes, and Brian and I will seal them.
“We also have two sets of ballots – Brian will have one complete set and I’ll have another. The envelopes are kept locked up in an undisclosed location.
“On the day of the show, we’ll get the ballots and Brian and I will go to the theatre on two separate roads. He’ll go one route and I’ll go another route.
“We do that to ensure that in case anything happens to one, [the other] will be there on time and delivering what’s needed with the full set.
“We also have security – LAPD – with us at all times. They’re securing not us, but what’s in the briefcase that we’re holding in our hands. That’s very clear to us!
“So we do have security measures up until we’re at the theatre and delivering that envelope to the presenter, just seconds before they walk on stage.
“We’ll be in two different locations. Brian will be on stage right, and I’ll be on stage left.”
Red carpet tug of war
The pair also get to walk the red carpet before the ceremony. They are aware, though, that the briefcases containing the envelopes attract more attention than they do.
“There are celebrities who will see what we’re carrying and will want to say hello,” Ruiz says.
“There was one year when Brian was on the carpet and Cate Blanchett saw he had the briefcase so they had a bit of a tug of war on the carpet – in jest of course, and Brian never let the briefcase go.”
The system has worked pretty well for the past 83 years, since PriceWaterhouseCoopers started counting the Oscar votes. In all that time, just 12 other people have been responsible for counting and delivering the results.
This is the third year Ruiz has done the job. “It’s a small community of partners that have had the honour to be part of this process,” she says. “It’s something I cherish and take with a lot of responsibility.”
So she’s never tempted to give anyone a hint?
“From time to time we’ll have people jokingly ask. But those around us and family members know that it’s just something we don’t talk about, actually. That’s pretty clear in my household.”
The 89th Academy Awards take place on Sunday at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.