Josh Rottenberg
March 02, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

Ryan Seacrest knew something was coming — he just didn’t know what. In the days before the Oscars, controversy had swirled around comic Sacha Baron Cohen’s desire to walk the red carpet as his character in the upcoming comedy The Dictator, a Gaddafi-esque Middle Eastern strongman. After threatening to rescind the Hugo star’s tickets if he tried any Borat-style pranks, the Academy relented, and the result was one of the night’s most buzzed-about moments: Baron Cohen’s General Aladeen spilled an urn filled with what he said were Kim Jong Il’s ashes all over Seacrest’s tuxedo jacket. The E! host declined to comment on the stunt, though he said on his radio show the next morning that while he did expect some sort of gotcha moment, ”I definitely did not know he was going to do that!”

Will Baron Cohen’s publicity stunt boost the box office for The Dictator, which isn’t due in theaters until May 11? One longtime Hollywood marketing exec is skeptical: ”They did get a ton of free publicity, but do I think it’ll make a single bit of difference in how the movie does? No, I don’t. It actually made me nervous for the movie because the whole thing seemed a little one-note.” Academy president Tom Sherak brushed off any concern about consequences for the Oscars themselves. When all the dust finally settled, he says, ”It was much ado about nothing.”

(Additional reporting by Lynette Rice)

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