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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