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Lose Those Accountants!

Mr. Frank Pierson
President
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Beverly Hills, CA

Dear Frank:

I've been reading the accounts of the Academy's plans to shake up the Oscars -- moving the ceremony from late March to late February starting in 2003, so that Academy voters can cast their ballots without being subjected to quite so many (though no less slimy) advertising and rumor campaigns.

But there's one change you haven't made, and until you do, I fear the chief message you will be conveying to your countless fans will be one of monumental ethical obtuseness. I know -- there's no recorded instance of a participant in a word-association test blurting out "ethics" when the test giver says "movies." A sequitur could scarcely be more non. Even by this dimmest of standards, however, the Academy's continuing reliance on the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers to count its ballots and vouch for the accuracy of the results is a stunning display of moral and political idiocy.

Let me get this straight. You're relying on PricewaterhouseCoopers to validate the integrity of the process? The same PricewaterhouseCoopers that the Senate just banned from receiving Pentagon contracts, that the House just banned from receiving homeland-security contracts, because it re-incorporated in Bermuda in order to escape U.S. corporate income taxes? The same PricewaterhouseCoopers that monitors overseas sweatshops for major American retailers, and whose field researchers, according to MIT professor Dara O'Rourke, have failed to ask workers whether they can form unions and have suggested to managers how they can avoid paying overtime? The same PricewaterhouseCoopers that repeatedly vouched for the books of the very companies that paid it a king's ransom for its consulting services? That ethical beacon? That shining light of American capitalism? That PricewaterhouseCoopers?

Now, I don't doubt that when the Academy first engaged Price Waterhouse (as it was then called) in 1935, it seemed the ethically correct thing to do -- or, better yet, it sure conveyed that impression. Hiring such a venerable and esteemed accounting firm brought an air of gentile authority and steely incorruptibility to the annual rites of a raffish, insecure industry that craved nothing more than respectability, except money. Besides, if not Price Waterhouse, then who -- Louis B. Mayer's bookkeepers? His wife's sister's boys? Better all around to bring in some pros.

But the currency of the Academy has been upgraded since 1935. More people now watch the Oscars than see their children in the course of a year. The epic sweep, the interminable length, the timpani-induced gravitas with which you guys invest the ceremonies suggest that you don't really need old Price to validate you anymore. (Indeed, if any ceremony reeks of self-validation, it's the Oscars.) For decades, it's Price that has needed you guys to impart some glamour to its own most prosaic of professions. (Hell, it's not even prosaic; it's numeric.)

Yet, today -- after even Tom DeLay has felt the need to express shock and dismay at the very accounting practices he's spent his career defending -- you folks are still holding up Price as a symbol of all that is honest. Frank, baby -- lose these guys! What kind of lesson is this for the children of America? Cook the books and verify the Oscar ballots? I don't doubt that the individual employees whom Price has detailed to the Oscars are altogether honest and decent people -- but you guys don't thank them by name in any event. You thank PricewaterhouseCoopers. There are millions of Americans, a little light in the savings department just now, who don't.

And, Frank -- it's not just Price. They all cooked the books. Arthur Andersen, Deloitte & Touche, Ernst & Young, KPMG, Price -- all of them made vast fortunes consulting for the companies they were charged with impartially auditing. All of them gave millions to elected officials precisely to protect their billion-dollar conflict of interest.

Frank -- lose them all. Anyone has more credibility than a Big Five accounting firm. Try a Boy Scout troop. An order of nuns. My mother's canasta club. Anyone but Katherine Harris.

It's not as if the studios haven't already begun to confront this issue themselves. On January 31, Disney banned consulting by its auditors when a resolution from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters pension fund demanding that reform garnered 42 percent of shareholder votes at Disney's annual meeting. (Besides, the examples of accountants serving as studio consultants -- writing the dialogue for Pearl Harbor, for instance -- have not been happy ones.)

Now it's time for you guys to make the leap. Your board is full of liberal worthies (Alan Bergman and Ed Begley Jr., to name just two) who, once they think about it, really won't want the Academy to shill for the folks who helped wipe out the retirement savings of millions of Americans. I shouldn't think Good Tom Hanks, another of your board members, would think very well of that, either. Nor, I'd imagine, would the Hollywood guilds feel any too keen about the Academy's vouching for one of the companies that incinerated workers' pensions and jobs. You might even be able to enlist some Hollywood conservatives who are always complaining about the industry's lax moral standards. Call Chuck Heston and tell him he can be either Jimmy Stewart or Lionel Barrymore in a real-life remake of It's a Wonderful Life.

The Price isn't right, Frank; find another bean counter. I mean, what's Hollywood for, if not to vilify other people's greed?

Yours for a cleaner Academy,

Harold Meyerson