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Inside the Oscars' secretive ballot process

It's a secret so big, only two people in the world are entrusted with it.

On Sunday, the winners of the 88th Academy Awards will be announced live to millions of viewers around the globe. As one of the two auditors tasked with counting the ballots, Brian Cullinan will already know all the winners and losers well before the ceremony — and how close the votes were in each category.

"It's an interesting feeling to have such a big secret," Cullinan, an accountant and U.S. board chairman, at PwC, told CNBC.

An Oscar statue is seen for the Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood.
Getty Images
An Oscar statue is seen for the Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood.

Cullinan, currently in his third year as a ballot counter, is one of only 14 people to hold the coveted position as a partner for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since his firm began tabulating ballots 82 years ago. In that eight-decade span, little has changed. The ballots, filled out by the Academy's 6,000-plus members, are still counted by hand in an undisclosed location, largely to protect against any hacking attempts.

Cullinan estimated that he spends around 250 to 300 hours meticulously tallying results. "Using a manual process as we do, that really helps increase the level of security, especially as it relates to things like cyber concerns," Cullinan said. "We don't really make a habit of talking about security, … but I can assure you there are a lot of security measures in place."

Part of those security measures are on full display after all the votes are tallied, while the winning envelopes are en-route to the red carpet tucked inside a black briefcase. Cullinan, along with his auditing partner, ride in separate, unmarked SUVs with an off-duty LAPD officer to the show, carrying duplicates of the results.

"I've learned they're really protecting the bag and the contents more than the individual carrying it," Cullinan joked.

That's not to say there haven't been light-hearted attempts by Hollywood stars to try to find out the winners ahead of time. Cullinan recounted an experience with Cate Blanchett at the 2014 awards, when he and the actress had a tug-of-war with Cullinan's top-secret briefcase on the red carpet.


"The interesting part of that story was at the time, since I had counted all of the ballots, I knew that she had won," Cullinan said.

Though it would seem that Oscar night would be a huge relief to Cullinan and his partner as they shed the burden of keeping some of Hollywood's closest-guarded secrets, Cullinan said there's one aspect of the process he'll take to the grave.

"When the show's over, we still have some secrets that we keep, … and that really involves who got second (place)," he said. "You never really hear how close it was, … and that's a secret we keep forever."