HFPA Vows to Fight Publicists' Lawsuit

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association said Friday it will vigorously fight back against a lawsuit filed by its former publicist alleging "payola schemes."

The $2 million suit -- filed Thursday, three days before the 2011 Golden Globes -- by Cinepoint Prods. and its principals, Michael Russell and Stephen Locascio, not only claims a breach of a verbal contract to continue their services, it gets personal with Philip Berk, saying the HFPA president sought fees from NBC for himself. It further charges that "HFPA members abuse their positions and engage in unethical and potentially unlawful deals and arrangements."

A spokesperson for the HFPA said the suit twists the truth and is "a case of a disgruntled former consulting firm, whose contract was not renewed, attempting to take advantage once again of the Globes' international stage for their own gain."

Russell and Cinepoint had handled publicity for the Globes from 1993 until 2010.

The suit raises one charge that has been thrown around for years: that HFPA members accept money, vacations, lodging, gifts and other perks "in exchange for support or votes in nominating or awarding a particular film."

The spokesman countered that HFPA members pay for their own transportation, have limits on the value of gifts they can accept and attend junkets and/or hold events for about 150 movies a year, only a few of which actually receive a Globes nomination. In any case, none of that is illegal, even if some of it raises ethical questions.

There also are allegations that the HFPA sells media credentials to "unknown" media and that HFPA members get priority on the Globes' red carpet. The fact is, the group was created 67 years ago so that its members can get attention for outlets outside the U.S. that generate stories that will never been seen in America.

That may seem unfair to those who don't get credentials, the spokesperson said, but it's within the law.

More troubling is an allegation in the suit that HFPA members as individuals "accept payment from studios and producers for representing films and lobbying other HFPA members" for nominations and awards for those films.

The spokesperson said this refers to a handful of members each year who have relationships with their home country, or producers from their home country, who enlist them to bring attention to a foreign-language film from their country.

The spokesperson insisted this is never done with a Hollywood studio film or a network TV show. It is done rarely, and when it is, the HFPA member must inform the group and its accountant and cannot vote for or nominate that movie; and they cannot, and do not, lobby fellow members.

"This [allegation] is very misleading," the spokesperson said. "The members have never been paid by a studio or network. On occasion, a member has participated with their home country by hosting a screening or reception in L.A. These are always foreign films from their country, and it is all disclosed."

Another issue the suit raises is how the HFPA treated a nonprofit group called Stars for a Cause, which is headed by Beverly Hills attorney George Braunstein. Cinepoint is the PR firm for Stars With a Cause, and Russell and Locascio serve on its board and act on its behalf to recruit stars and raise money.

In the suit, Cinepoint says that "as part of their philanthropic efforts," it encouraged the HFPA to "form a relationship with Stars for a Cause." The suit says Stars has raised and donated more than $300,000 to charities.

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According to the suit, in November 2009, Dick Clark Prods. told Russell and Locascio that Chrysler was seeking promotional charitable opportunities in association with the Globes. At the request of DCP, Russell and Locascio "brought Stars on board" to organize a campaign involving Chrysler cars, one of which was signed at the 2010 Globes show, to be auctioned off for charity.

The HFPA spokesperson said the Chrysler connection was actually the result of efforts by a Hollywood producer but agreed that Russell and Locascio brought in Stars. However, the spokesperson says the HFPA did not know the extent of Russell and Locascio's relationships with Stars and its backers or that Stars was the subject of lawsuits by people who felt they had not been treated properly.

One of those suits was filed in November 2007 by Salon City, a Beverly Hills company. It charged that it was promised exposure at major awards, involvement with Hollywood luminaries and participation in events with eBay and Entertainment Tonight on behalf of Stars With a Cause, for which it was to pay $60,000. The suit says it paid $30,000 but stopped there when it became clear none of what it was promised was being delivered. It says it was never repaid its money.

In June 2009, Chicago dentist and artist Joseph Nicolosi sued Russell; Locascio; Braunstein and his wife Laura; Donelle Dadigan, founder and president of the Hollywood Museum; and Stars for a Cause after he was told his artwork would be used by the charity and he would get significant exposure with celebrities at the Globes and other Hollywood events.

Nicolosi charges he was "duped into participating in what he was led to believe was a legitimate charitable fund-raising campaign," only to discover he was being thrust into "a cesspool of greed-driven Hollywood posers" who were "perpetrating a deceptive scheme" that he said was for "their own personal enrichment."

The HFPA spokesperson says Chrysler did come on board as an event sponsor and did buy a package of ads from NBC in the Globes show for about $2 million. The spokesperson said Berk called NBC about a payment for the HFPA and DCP, which was their contractual right; the Cinepoint suit says Berk acted for himself. The suit says NBC refused to pay, while the spokesperson says the HFPA and DCP were paid their fee.

On Friday, a spokesperson for Dick Clark Prods. was adamant that his company has nothing to do with the suit. The rep said DCP terminated its relationship with Cinepoint for PR services when the HFPA choose not to renew its Cinepoint contract.

Meanwhile, the HFPA and DCP are involved in their own legal battle. The HFPA sued DCP in November in part over a claim that DCP was negotiating a new contract for the Globes with NBC without consulting HFPA and without its permission.

The Cinepoint suit says the HFPA has a new deal with NBC for a contract to broadcast the Globes for $26 million a year, up from the current $12 million. The HFPA spokesperson said this appears to refer to the deal DCP was negotiating with NBC without its permission, one the HFPA said has never been completed.

There was no response from Braunstein to requests seeking comment. 

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