Talbot Productions | And the award goes to…
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Think Piece

And the award goes to…

27 Feb 2017, Posted by Charlie in Comment, Consultancy, News, Production, Scripting, Shows

In the first in a series of blogs looking at aspects of Event Production and lessons learned from Talbot Productions’ 30 years in the industry, producer and scriptwriter Charlie Talbot wonders how PWC pushed the wrong envelope at last night’s Oscars ceremony…

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to watch last night’s Oscars’ denouement without cringing, but for anyone who has worked in producing live events, whether theatrical or corporate, the cringing will have been accompanied by shivers up the spine and a mixture of relief and schadenfreude that something so publicly and egregiously wrong happened on someone else’s watch.

That sense of schadenfreude was heightened for me by the subsequent realisation that responsibility for the error is being taken by PriceWaterhouseCoopers – with hundreds, if not thousands, of production companies available worldwide, why is a core element of delivering the most famous awards ceremony in the world the responsibility of accountants and management consultants in the first place?

It was for any producer a real ‘there but for the grace of God” moment. Live events are, of course, live. If you work on hundreds of them you will see pretty much everything that can go wrong do so, at some time or another. The challenge is to have systems in place to mitigate against such eventualities as far as possible and to react as smoothly and calmly to get things back on track with minimum impact after any error.

No matter how much money you have spent on your production, the most likely cause of issues remains human error. You can have the most advanced A/V presentation, a multi-million pound intelligent lighting rig, a video projection-mapped across every surface in the room and 127 sound cues all programmed, but ultimately you still need a human being to announce the winner. All event producers and show-callers have at some point been gripped with the fear that somebody, somehow, whether because of a mistake on the autocue, an error with the script or a mix-up with the envelopes, will announce the wrong winner.

It’s just never happened on a stage quite so big and quite so public as the 2017 Oscars, especially with all the attendant undertones and importance attached to the Academy deciding between the hugely different La La Land and Moonlight. (The Oscars have however managed to give a presenter the wrong envelope before, Sammy Davis Jnr styled it out).

Over the more than 600 awards ceremonies Talbot Productions have been responsible for, we are delighted to report that we haven’t ever committed a wrong envelope error. We’ve spent many hours editing, printing, checking, reading, re-reading and checking again every piece of glossy shiny card that gets handed out in order to keep that record intact.

But there have, certainly, been some interesting and scary moments along the way. Working off a paper script in the late Nineties, Bob Monkhouse managed to turn over two pages at once – skipping an entire category. A production assistant was dispatched hurriedly to the stage to ensure that host, sponsor and video content cues were on the same page, literally and metaphorically. Three categories later this happened again! So the production assistant returned to the stage and was rewarded for this second interruption by being the butt of Bob’s sharp wit as he managed to get a laugh out of the situation, while keeping the evening on track. (It’s also worth noting that all our production crew wear dinner jackets. If you are hoping to inconspicuously walk onto the stage to correct a minor error without anybody noticing it helps to be correctly dressed.)

Ever since then, our scripts have always had written at the bottom of each page the title of the subsequent category. Even when a show is running entirely off autocue, the paper script back-up is present on the lectern and is updated with each change from the rehearsal process. I suspect PWC and the Academy have become so paranoid about security and leaks they insist on sealed envelopes, but also for what’s it worth in order to avoid seeing presenters embarrassed by fumbling around pulling bits of card out of a sleeve, our “envelopes” are always folded-over bits of card instead.

Even when production schedules allow shows to be rehearsed in their entirety, duty for the announcement of a winner frequently falls to a celebrity or sponsor who only turns up for the event itself. And even in the most tightly scripted, autocue-bound event, the winner announcement frequently exists only on a piece of a flimsy card given to someone who has never seen it before. For that reason we’ve always insisted on a sponsor / presentation brief before the show and subsequently made sure each person responsible for an announcement sees the exact text of what they will be asked to say in the wings in advance of going on. That both ensures they have help with any difficult pronunciations but also should make their holding the wrong envelope impossible.

But all the systems in the world we put in place cannot completely prevent human error. Recently we had a sponsor who was presenting two different awards consecutively – despite a clear briefing as to the order of the two announcements and two cards clearly labelled FIRST and SECOND he began to discuss the second presentation first. That occasion was a good example of the worth of having a presenter used to multi-tasking under pressure and thinking on their feet. The unflappable Natasha Kaplinsky, well-accustomed to years of live television requiring her to think on her feet, managed politely to correct him and return him to the correct announcement with charm and sang-froid. And got a thumbs-up from the relieved stage manager in return.

The announcements may have always been correct, but we have produced ceremonies where people did not leave the stage with the correct award. On one memorable occasion at the Park Lane Hotel, the client was delighted to have secured as on-stage awards assistant the model who had very recently starred in Robbie Williams’ Rock DJ video. She certainly brought glamour and aesthetic appeal to the stage, but she did not fare too well in the more prosaic task of handing out the awards in the correct order. It took an hour of profuse apologies and careful celebrity management to ensure each statuette was in the hands of the correct recipient during the aftershow.

“Ladies and Gentlemen – this is an awards ceremony with no awards. So that you aren’t left empty handed, I suggest that, if you win, you take the cruet home with you.”

On another occasion, there were in fact no awards at all – an ashen-faced client’s first comment on arrival at the venue was, “I’ve just realised I’ve forgotten something.” After being told that no trophies had been ordered, Sandi Toksvig greeted a bemused gathering at the Grosevnor House Hotel with the advice, “Ladies and Gentlemen – this is an awards ceremony with no awards. So that you aren’t left empty handed, I suggest that, if you win, you take the cruet home with you.”

The footage of the hugely public correction of the error last night was certainly compelling, as the “recipients” themselves had to explain to the audience what had occurred. But what I really wanted to hear was what was being said by the producers and crew on “cans”, their internal communication system, from the moment Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway walked on stage. Sadly, unlike virtually every other aspect of the show, the comms channel is rarely, if ever, recorded, which is a real shame as a bootleg of that would garner a lot of interest I am sure, not least around the production industry.

Surely the assistants (sorry, accountants) in the wings whose sole job it was to hand over the envelopes must have known almost immediately that since the correct envelope was still offstage, the presenters didn’t have it? Were they discussing whether or not to send someone on-stage to forestall confusion, creating a definite small scene in order to head off a potential hypothetical calamity? Whilst it always feels seismic to have a technician / civilian invading the celebrities’ stage, it would surely have been preferable. That level of interruption would have become a footnote in years to come, avoiding such a high-profile error.

Or were they hoping that Warren Beatty would realise what had occurred and announce the correct winner? Did Warren Beatty even know the correct winner? Presumably not. If, as per the PWC explanation, the back-up system is for their staff to have memorised all the award recipients, what is the point unless they verbally tell each presenter just before they go on? That knowledge resting in the heads of people off-stage is useless and whoever designed that “system” cannot have done so from a theatrical or production perspective. Even allowing for the most paranoid level of security concerns, then after various confidentiality clauses are signed, it must surely be possible for the winners to be on the autocue and Jimmy Kimmel to know that in extremis he can get the information from there?

Or did no-one notice, amid the possible sense of relief that the last category is underway, the show is almost over and the pressure is nearly off, that disaster loomed? Was there a stage manager in the wings wondering what caused Warren Beatty’s pause and confused look? What would have happened if the best actress award had gone to someone from a different film? Presumably after Warren Beatty rather unchivalrously abnegated responsibility in his confusion, Faye Dunaway was obviously readily prepared to believe the name of the film favourite to win the award was a plausible thing to announce and the text saying Emma Stone was some kind of clerical error or irrelevance.

After that point, one can only really feel a horrified sense of sympathy, or at least empathy, for the choices the production team then had. They had to correct this error as quickly as possible. At that stage all possibility of damage limitation has gone. The “losers” cannot fail to be embarrassed (and quite probably annoyed), the gloss of winning is tarnished for the winners and the acting luminaries to whom presentation duties fell have been left to look far more foolish than is fair since all they did was read out the card they were given.

I’m not sure once the cast and crew for La La Land are on their way to the stage, the shuddering slow-motion confusion and shambles that occurred is avoidable. I bet the producer, show-caller and stage-manager each aged about 20 years in those 20 seconds. And all because of a mistake with a small piece of paper.

Pleasingly from a theatrical perspective, it seems that as the rest of the world gets to enjoy asking “How on earth can you give the most important Oscar to the wrong people?” the answer appears to be, “because the accountants screwed it up”. But it’s a reminder to everyone in the events industry that no matter how big your stage, how grand your production or how starry your cast, attention to detail and getting the boring things right remain vital.

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