Brian Cullinan's valley pals say: Much ado about nothing
By Margaret McKenzie, Alec Kerr, Lloyd Jones and Daymond Steer
The Conway Daily Sun
CONWAY — How did it happen?
How did Brian Cullinan — standout athlete at Kennett High School, Class of 1978; Cornell and Northeastern grad; respected accounting executive, husband and father — become the "scapegoat of the Oscars," according to one headline on Monday.
Was it human error, as claimed by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm for which Cullinan worked for decades? Or was he set up by a conspiracy to put "the Oscars" on everyone's lips, as others believe?
Whatever the reason, the 57-year-old former Mount Washington Valley resident — who was seen visiting the North Conway Pizza Hut just three weeks ago — is at the heart of what's been called the biggest blunder in awards history: giving out the wrong envelope on Sunday night at the 89th Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood, California.
Instead of handing presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the Best Picture results, Cullinan gave them the Best Actress envelope, leading Dunaway to announce "La La Land" as best picture (Emma Stone of "La La Land" had taken the actress category minutes earlier).
But another film, "Moonlight," was the true winner, as it emerged. Confusion and shock reigned in the Dolby Theatre, as one group of producers had to hand off their golden statuettes to another, live on stage.
The story quickly went viral across every news outlet worldwide.
Details of the mix-up trickled out. There were actually two sets of ballots. So it is easy to see how Cullinan could have reached in his briefcase and taken out the wrong one.
But no excuses were made.
The following day, the accounting firm that has tabulated Oscar balloting since 1935 issued an apology:
"PwC takes full responsibility for the series of mistakes and breaches of established protocols during last night's Oscars. PwC partner Brian Cullinan mistakenly handed the back-up envelope for Actress in a Leading Role instead of the envelope for Best Picture to presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Once the error occurred, protocols for correcting it were not followed through quickly enough by Mr. Cullinan or his partner."
Although Cullinan — who now lives in Malibu, California, with wife, Andrea, and kids Brett, Drew and Bree — has been with the firm since 1997 and currently is PwC's U.S. board chairman and managing partner for Southern California, Arizona and Nevada, he's been in charge of Oscar balloting only since 2014.
But there's no question he is qualified for the job. According to his company bio, "the PwC partner and Matt Damon lookalike" has more than 30 years experience providing technical accounting, auditing and business advisory services "to some of PwC's largest and most complex multinational clients."
But as Cullinan said in a video on the company website, the Oscars "are the most fun jobs you can have as accountant." He added that every year, "there are a few memorable experiences," including the time actress Cate Blanchett jokingly tried to steal the briefcase with the envelopes on the red carpet.
But no experience would be as memorable as this year's.
"The producers decide what the order of the awards will be," Cullinan told Medium in a Feb. 10 article leading up to the big night. "We each have a full set. I have all 24 envelopes in my briefcase; (fellow accountant Martha Ruiz) has all 24 in hers. We stand on opposite sides of the stage, right off-screen, for the entire evening, and we each hand the respective envelope to the presenter. It doesn't sound very complicated, but you have to make sure you're giving the presenter the right envelope."
Speculation has begun that Cullinan may have been distracted by Twitter. Three minutes before the Best Picture presentation, Cullinan posted a since-deleted photo of Stone holding her gold statuette with the tweet "Best Actress Emma Stone backstage! #PWC."
The envelope itself may have also been a factor. It was the first year since 2011 that Marc Friedland Couture Communications of Los Angeles did not design it.
"I can't say our envelope would have prevented it, but we put measures in to make it as foolproof as possible, such as really legible, very big type," Marc Friedland told the Los Angeles Times.
Friedland's envelopes also were gold, with large labels stating the categories. This year's red envelopes had smaller gold lettering that may have been hard to read.
"We always were concerned about the fact the presenters could get them out of the envelope easily and that they were easily legible," Friedland said. "I think it's just a flaw in the design and human error that contributed to this."
Meanwhile, sympathy is the overwhelming emotion being conveyed here in the valley by friends of the Cullinan family.
Linda Burns, secretary at Kennett Middle School, attended Jackson Grammar School with Brian Cullinan. "We were in the same class," she said. "I was also on the swim team with Brian. We would practice at the pool at the old Tyrol ski resort in Jackson."
Burns, a valley native, said her heart goes out to Cullinan. "We all make very high-pressure, sudden decisions. I am sure the adrenalin levels were sky high at those awards. So, we're human. We make mistakes," she said. "Yes, I am sure he's devastated. But in the grand scheme of things, no one got hurt. It's much ado over nothing."
Brian P. Wiggin of Conway remembers Brian's mother, who worked at the Henney History Room at the Conway Public Library.
Ann Cullinan, who died at age 88 in 2012, "was a wonderful, fun-loving lady, one of those people who did so many things for the community," Wiggin said.
Brian Cullinan, Wiggin recalled, "was a friend of my late brother Errol at Kennett. Errol was a year older than Brian. They were on the ski team together.
"It's such a shame what happened at the Oscars," Wiggin said. "It could have happened to any one of us."
Don Trimble, 80, who lives in Conway and was a legendary coach at the junior high school, still has a good relationship with his former standout athlete, who played football, skied and also excelled at track and field.
In his senior year, Cullinan was the New Hampshire State Decathlon champion.
He held the New England record for the boys' high school javelin toss of 227 feet until 1982. That mark is still the Kennett record. Cullinan also holds the school record in the discus with a toss of 15 feet, 9 inches.
"We had lunch a few weeks ago at Pizza Hut when he was back for a visit," Trimble said.
Trimble said Cullinan was "an excellent athlete, a decent student" and "someone who was very quiet and never tooted his own horn" while growing up with his four siblings — David, Christopher, John and Cathleen — and parents Arthur and Ann in Intervale.
"It's really sad to see this happen," Trimble said of the Oscar mishap. "I can't believe Warren Beatty. I have a big-screen TV, and even I could see it read 'Actress' on the envelope. He must have been smoking something. I mean, Emma Stone — everyone knows that isn't a movie.
"It's a shame, but what have we learned from history is, "Confess, say you're sorry and you wish that it never happened,'" Trimble said, adding, "Brian is taking full responsibility."
Trimble recalled driving Cullinan to White Plains, New York, his sophomore year, where he won the prestigious Glenn D. Loucks Memorial track meet, which featured 1,600 competitors. It was there that Cullinan met Jim Wallace, coach of the Cornell track and field team.
"I've seen him a few times over the years," Trimble said of Cullinan. "He'll call up, and we'll go to lunch or just get a cup of coffee, and we'll sit on the picnic table up at John Cannell's Country Store (in Intervale)."
Cullinan attended Cornell on a track scholarship and was training for the 1980 Olympics when a motorcycle crash shortened his athletic career.
He still holds the record at Cornell for the javelin with a throw of 250 feet, 2 inches, set in 1982. He also holds the freshman javelin record of 235 feet.
Inducted into the KHS Sports Hall of Fame in October 1992 by former coach John Rist, Cullinan credited much of his athletic success to his coaches and thanked them for the positive impact they had on his life.
"Some of the coaches I had in high school were every bit as good as the ones I had in college. Probably all too often the coaches don't realize the impact they have on their athletes. I just want to thank them for their dedication. Without them I would not be here tonight."
Brian's brother, David Cullinan, who is the manager of the Eastern Slope Regional Airport in Fryeburg, Maine, said on Tuesday he hadn't spoken to his brother since the Oscars.
"He's in California, and I'm in Maine," David Cullinan said.
Brian Cullinan and fellow PwC accountant Martha Ruiz hold the briefcases containing the 24 winners that would be announced at the 89th Academy Awards this past Sunday. (Courtesy PWC)
Brian Cullinan is shown throwing the javelin at Cornell University in 1982. He attended college on a track scholarship. His javelin record there still stands. (Courtesy photo)
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