HFPA works to change Globes' image

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Silvia Bizio is a big James Bond fan. But she had no time to fawn over Daniel Craig at the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.'s recent news conference for "Quantum of Solace." As Craig fielded questions on the dais of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Bizio already was pounding out a draft of the story on her laptop in Italian.

"I'm very fast, thank goodness," says Bizio, a 25-year HFPA veteran. "(Because) I have a very hungry monster there, waiting for a story every day."

The "monster" is Bizio's employer, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, publisher of La Repubblica, Italy's largest daily-circulation newspaper, and its sister publication, the weekly L'Espresso. Her contract calls for nearly 200 stories a year covering all aspects of film and television. She even works the night of the Golden Globe Awards, interviewing stars on the red carpet and in the press room while simultaneously helping facilitate the event.

Bizio isn't much different than other entertainment journalists slogging their way through awards season. But her work habits fly in the face of the image the HFPA once had -- that it was made up of dilettantes, not legitimate journalists.

"It's a serious group, a professional group," says Bizio, who first came to Los Angeles in 1976 to study for her doctorate at UCLA. "Like every group, it has its own quirks, but if you only knew the amount of work we put in and the amount of passion. Nobody's forcing us to see 400 movies a year. But we do."

Indeed, whereas the Academy has trouble cajoling more than a quorum to watch the 60-plus foreign-language submissions each year, almost all the HFPA's members go to lengths to watch every single film.

Efforts like this have led the awards community to take the roughly 90-member HFPA with a level of seriousness that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. But that is also in part because the HFPA has become strict about imposing ethical regulations.

In 1999, when it was revealed that Sharon Stone sent $295 Coach watches to 84 HFPA members, then-president Helmut Voss ordered them returned at once. True, Voss let members keep the $35 cell phones sent by Fine Line Pictures to promote its film "Simpatico," but he made them decline the free month of service that came with them.

Now, regulations are even stricter, and no gifts may be given to HFPA members other than regular promotional items distributed to other journalists, and their value must not exceed $95.

"They police their own people much more than they once did," says veteran film publicist Dale Olson.

The members being policed are more diverse than they once were. All are U.S.-based correspondents writing for various foreign newspapers and magazines. Today, the HFPA boasts contributors to a wealth of major publications, from England's Daily Telegraph and France's Le Figaro to the pan-Arabic magazine Kul Al Osra and the China Times.

Admittedly, not all of its members are active, professional journalists. Some are part-timers whose primary employment is outside journalism. Others, like 92-year-old Howard Lucraft, are elderly. A few are just plain curious, like Alexander Nevsky (real name: Sasha Kurtisyn), a Russian bodybuilder who has starred in such low-budget action movies as 2007's "Treasure Raiders" and 2004's "Moscow Heat," and is preparing to play the title role in a new version of "Hercules."

Perhaps aware of this, the HFPA is careful to manage who is interviewed by fellow journalists. Members are not allowed to speak to the media without the permission of the organization's publicist, Michael Russell.

It's no coincidence that the members approved to speak for this article were such busy professionals as Bizio; Rocio Ayuso, who writes for El Pais, the most widely circulated daily newspaper in Spain; Mike Goodridge, who writes for Screen International; and Scott Orlin, a 19-year HFPA veteran who writes for the German film magazines Cinema and Spielfilm -- not more "colorful" members like Nevsky.

The HFPA has been working to bring more professionals into its ranks and to strictly enforce its admission requirements.

Prospective members must first be certified by the MPAA. When applying, a candidate must provide, among other things, a letter from a foreign publication detailing its circulation and other vital stats and verifying that he or she is an active contributor (copies of clips of articles must be submitted). Also required: letters of recommendation from two current HFPA members. Once approved, members must pay a $500 initiation fee.

"Every year we're getting new blood representing different countries," Ayuso says.

That new blood is drawn in by some of the perks of membership -- like having screenings arranged at more convenient times.

"If I were just another foreign correspondent and I would say, 'Oh, do you know if there is another screening of this movie in this part of the town?' they won't even reply to that question," Ayuso says. "But they do reply to me, being a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press."

More to the point, Ayuso and her colleagues actually see the films -- and not just the big ones, but also smaller pictures that are often neglected by others.



"I send out 1,300-1,600 screening invites for each film, for my domestic list," says Fredell Pogodin, a veteran publicist of upscale pictures. "I'm lucky over three screenings to get 30 to 40 people (to attend). That's a small ratio of domestic writers going to see extraordinary movies. But the foreigners turn out. (The members of the HFPA) are interested in foreign films. They were the ones, with due respect, who nominated '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,' and the Academy didn't."

Pogodin is referring to the Romanian film that won the top prize at Cannes last year but failed to be shortlisted for a foreign-language Oscar. While the Academy has endured criticism for its foreign-language nominees, the HFPA has been praised for choosing acclaimed movies.

"Even if they are not making a living off the smaller, foreign-language films -- and they are making a living off the big studio films -- they have been really good (to them)," Pogodin adds. "And there are a lot of films to see: You could have 12 from Italy, 15 from France. For the most part, they are here to report on Hollywood films, and it is so jam-packed they go from one press conference to another; but they make an effort. Things have changed."

HPFA's clout also enables it to host 300-400 exclusive film and TV press conferences each year.

Recently, "we had Josh Brolin and Oliver Stone for 'W.,' " says HPFA vp Goodridge. "In that case, it was 45 minutes with each of them. That's a lot of time. Much more than the 15-minute roundtable" that most journalists get at a typical studio junket.

Journalists like Goodridge have served to alleviate critics' former concerns that HFPA members tend to behave more like fans or are unduly influenced by the personal touch -- as they were in the days when Pia Zadora was famously given a Golden Globe for her 1981 performance in "Butterfly."

But more recently the HFPA has had to deal with a lower-profile internal controversy.

Some have suggested that writers from major foreign publications like France's Le Monde have been shut out of the organization by writers for lesser publications who are desperate to protect their turf. But Ayuso points out that in many cases the HPFA has several journalists reporting to publications in the same country.

Typically, she says, they try to work out a gentleman's agreement where they avoid stepping on one another's journalistic toes by taking different angles on the stories they cover. For instance, one might focus on a star's environmental activism, while the other might highlight his private life.

The HFPA members' different perspectives often inform their questions, making for unique press conferences.

"I just had to write this huge Leonardo DiCaprio story for 'Body of Lies,' and since I write for a film magazine, I was giving (my editors) all this film stuff," Orlin recalls. "When I sent it over, (my editors) said, 'This is great, but we're doing more of an intimate portrait of a man. We want to know more about his work with the environment and where he stands with politics.' Luckily, I was able to go back to the HFPA transcripts. That material was there for me."

In contrast to earlier days when the HFPA was heavily fixated on celebrities, members today say that they are more focused on issues that impact how they do their job, such as the studios' increasing preference for worldwide day-and-date film releases.

"It's really killing us because we still don't get as much (lead time) as the domestic media," Ayuso says. "So we can't write the interview in time to please our editors."

The HFPA also has become one of the most generous philanthropic organizations in Hollywood, hugely boosting its image with both the public and the industry by supporting various film-related causes.

Its best public relations tool, inevitably, is the Golden Globe Awards themselves. The annual telecast on NBC has drawn as many as 20 million viewers in recent years -- not Academy Awards numbers, but a strong second place in a crowded awards season.

This year, barring any labor strife, the Globes will likely be back to normal after the WGA strike turned January's event into a muted press conference devoid of the show's traditional glamour.

In fact, if viewers scan the crowd at the Beverly Hilton on Jan. 11, they might spot members of the HFPA enjoying their one truly wonderful perk: the chance to participate in the loosest, most intimate, star-studded awards show of the year. Just don't blink.

"We're all in the room, but we keep a low profile," Goodridge says. "I think the TV audience would rather see George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio, don't you?"
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