For more than 70 years, when it came time to hand out the Academy Awards, the envelopes on screen at the Oscars were just that: plain old envelopes. Until a custom invitation designer — the kind whose cards you get in the mail for weddings or baby showers — decided to turn the envelope into a shimmering, quarter-pound stationery icon.
"I think most people don’t realize that it’s not just like an envelope that your bills come in or your holiday cards come in," said Marc Friedland, the veteran stationery designer. His company, Marc Friedland Couture Communications, has been making custom invitations in Mid-City Los Angeles for 30 years now.
"Only 24 presenters and 24 recipients touch the actual Oscar envelopes, but it’s seen by a billion people, around the world, all at the same time," said Friedland. "They all tune in to watch that pin-dropping moment when that winner is announced."
In the beginning, there were no envelopes, no moment of drama as the presenter fumbled with the cards. But in 1940, when the L.A. Times leaked the winners' names before the big night, the Academy realized the awards needed a little more suspense. Enter the envelope, stage left:
But the envelope didn’t become the over-the-top creation it is now — with real flecks of gold, red lacquer and a tiny gold replica of the Oscar statuette — until Friedland pitched it to the Academy in 2011.
"Here’s a great piece of Oscar history that has never really been created before," Friedland said. "They had to come up with a way to secure who the winners are, so that really became a functional tool, just to protect it. But as it’s evolved, and since we’ve been doing it, it really has become the most famous envelope in the world."
The gold paper on the outside has flecks of real gold leaf — nothing better for Hollywood's big night. The paper features a pattern of the Oscar statuette to prevent forgery. It's heavy, too — each card weighs a quarter of a pound. Each envelope and winner’s card is meticulously handcrafted by a team of just six people. "It takes us about 110 man hours to create these," said Friedland.
"There’s a very definitive schedule," he added. "We get things prepped right before the announcements of the nominees. That usually takes place-- this year was January 11th. And we do the handoff to PricewaterhouseCoopers probably five, six days in advance of the actual awards. So we have that window of time to do all of the proofing and printing and assembly and preparing these little babies to go out in the world."
And security is tight. Of course it's tight — it's the Oscars. Not even Friedman and his team know who the winners are. They just print cards for every possible outcome... in triplicate, in case one (or tw0) sets get lost or destroyed. "We do three sets for every nominee," said Friedman. "So this year, there happens to be 121 nominees. So that’s 363 cards that we do."
When the job's done, Friedman's company leaves the sealing, sorting and handing off to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm entrusted with the Oscars ballots.
These types of precautions make the project expensive, as you might've guessed. Friedland doesn’t like to talk money, but the Hollywood Reporter says the Academy shells out around $10,000 for Friedland’s services every year. So it’s a pretty lucrative gig.
But the Oscars aren’t even Friedland’s biggest project. He gets plenty of work throughout the year: parties hosted by Oprah, openings of huge Las Vegas hotels... but the Oscars feel different.
"For me, this is my own Oscar in a way," said Friedland. "Because 'The envelope, please' has probably been one of the most famous phrases for the last 80 years. And this is that envelope."