Golden Globes: How the HFPA Manages to Keep Dodging Controversies

Golden Globes Award Trophies
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

11 years ago, while operating an independent blog that chronicled the annual race to the Academy Awards, I attended the Golden Globe Awards for the first time, having been credentialed to cover the ceremony that year from the backstage press room to which winners are brought to face questions moments after they step off the stage with their statuette.

Excited for the day, I arrived a few hours early, while the press room was still virtually empty, and ventured to the back of it, where I discovered that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association — the group of Hollywood-based journalists for foreign media outlets that hosts the Globes — had graciously provided a buffet for reporters to pick at during the show.

I made myself a plate and sat down alone at a table, only to be joined moments later by a frail elderly man who introduced himself as a member of the HFPA. We had a friendly chat, through which I learned that not all HFPA members are able to be in the Beverly Hilton's packed International Ballroom during the telecast. Instead, some are given assignments like monitoring the press room, which is how we had wound up in the same place.

As our conversation wound down, the man asked me an odd question: Did I have any ties to foreign countries? I was a bit surprised by the inquiry, which seemed pretty random, but I concluded that he was harmless and told him that my mother is from South Africa, where a number of my relatives still live, and that a chunk of my father's side of the family resides in Israel.

"Darn it," I remember him saying. "We already have members from those countries."

It dawned on me that, on the basis of just our brief conversation, the man had been prepared to recommend me for membership in the HFPA. I must admit, I found it a bit flattering at the time. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I now find it illustrative of the sort of behavior that has yet again landed the HFPA in hot water.

As was chronicled in a piece last Sunday in the Los Angeles Times, exactly a week before the 78th Golden Globe Awards, the HFPA was recently sued by Kjersti Flaa, a Norwegian journalist based in Hollywood who believes that she meets the criteria for membership in the group, but that her admission is being blocked by current members who also write for Scandinavian publications and do not want increased competition for story assignments and access to talent. (HFPA members are required to publish only six articles per year in order to maintain their active status.)

Another reason for keeping membership small: the HFPA is essentially a gravy train. Members are gifted, wined, dined, hosted and flattered by studios, networks and talent in a manner that non-members are not. Nobody forces the studios, networks or talent to behave this way, but many elect to do so because the promotional value to them of Golden Globe recognition — and particularly of appearing on the telecast, which is seen by more viewers than any other awards ceremony on the road to the Oscars — is immense.

Plus, HFPA members are happy to be catered to.

It is easy to caricaturize the organization as a group of clowns and, like any collection of 87 people, there are certainly some clowns among them. But their ranks also include some very impressive writers, such as Emanuel Levy and Sylvia Bizio, not to mention some very nice people, among them Meher Tatna and, until his recent death, Lorenzo Soria, both past presidents.

That being said, there is no denying that HFPA members conduct themselves in a manner that ethical journalists from reputable media outlets are simply not allowed to.

Pretty much anyone who covers Hollywood receives unsolicited silly "swag" like promotional books and mugs, and shame on us if it influences the way we cover things. HFPA members, however, receive expensive gifts (they now inform studios and networks that they cannot receive anything valued at more than $125) as well as comped first-class international travel, such as a Paris junket promoting what turned out to be a middling TV show — which later wound up with a best series Globe nomination that perplexed the public, to which this obvious conflict was not voluntarily disclosed. (HFPA members have recently begun paying for their own international flights, but can and do accept virtually everything else.)

The incestuous relationship between Hollywood and the HFPA is nothing new. The HFPA was founded 78 years ago when Hollywood-based correspondents for foreign publications decided to band together and form a group — initially called the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents Association — which would give out awards to Hollywood movies and movie makers in the hope that it would result in greater studio cooperation when they wanted access to talent. Hollywood's denizens have never met an award they didn't covet, the better to promote a movie, client or oneself, so they were on board. And the very first Golden Globes ceremony was held on the Fox studio lot.

Unlike the Oscars, the Globes never bothered much with craft and technical categories — film editing, cinematography and the like. Instead, at the first ceremony, it presented just six awards — one for best picture, one for best director and four recognizing movie stars. Additional categories were later added so that the ceremony could recognize even more movie stars — rather than just one category for best picture, best actor and best actress, there are now two each, one for dramas and one for musicals or comedies — and eventually TV stars, too.

Over time, the Globes also introduced categories recognizing screenplays, animated and foreign-language films, plus songs and scores — but nobody has ever been confused about the bottom line: The Golden Globes, like the people who determine their results, are all about stars — and access.

In addition to happily accepting gifts and travel, the HFPA all but demands that its members be provided with their own press conferences, one-on-one interviews and photo opportunities, the first two of which ostensibly make it easier for members to obtain information that they can turn into a sellable story, and the third of which is more about bragging rights. Come voting time, those studios, networks and talent who cooperated often get rewarded, and those who didn't usually don't.

The HFPA knows where its bread is buttered, which is why its members are known to talk about "spreading around" their nominations and awards to try to make sure that each studio and network is "taken care of." They also recognize a disproportionate number of breakthrough stars, apparently hoping that those people will remember in the future who supported them before anyone else.

While members do fill out their ballots in private, meaning they cannot be compelled to vote any particular way, there seems to be an understanding among them — and remember, there aren't that many of them, and they see a lot of each other — that this sort of distribution of nominations and awards is the best way of keeping studios and networks happy.

The HFPA's ethically-questionable behavior has twice resulted in the Globes being kicked off of TV. Back in the 1960s, an FCC investigation determined that the Globes telecast "substantially misleads the public as to how the winners were chosen and the procedures followed in choosing them," after which NBC dropped the show. After a few years, the HFPA claimed to have reformed itself and wound up back on the air with CBS — until, that is, it presented its best newcomer award to one Pia Zadora, a virtual unknown who starred in the much derided 1981 film Butterfly, but whose wealthy husband, it emerged, had flown a bunch of HFPA members to his hotel casino in Las Vegas. After that, CBS was out.

Eventually, the Globes wound up back on the air, but never really stopped behaving in a questionable manner. Indeed, at the ceremony in 1989, two acting categories were announced as three-way ties, and three others were announced as two-way ties. Such a breakdown is implausible, and given that virtually all of the winners happened to be in attendance, there was at least the appearance that the HFPA wanted to acknowledge the talent who had bothered to show up.

You can Google the various other infamous incidents that followed, from Sharon Stone and the watches to Tobey Maguire and the Blu-ray players to Burlesque and another trip to Vegas. I'm sure that we will eventually learn about some extenuating circumstance that explains how Music, a controversial film that currently stands at just 11% on Rotten Tomatoes, wound up with a best picture nomination this year.

In spite of everything, things have worked out rather nicely for virtually everyone associated with the Globes, most of all the HFPA, which in 2018 negotiated an eight-year extension of its TV deal with NBC for far more money than it had taken in under its prior deal — reportedly $60 million per year, up from $21 million per year. This windfall explains how the HFPA, which is ostensibly a nonprofit, has recently been able to spend a lot more money on things both admirable (they give out large grants to worthy causes each year) and questionable (including, per the Times report, paying five members who serve on its board as officers "between $63,433 and $135,957" and other members thousands each to watch movies, serve on committees and moderate press conferences).

But, with Time's Up and many of Hollywood's biggest names now slamming the HFPA on the weekend of the Globes (the Times' most disturbing revelation was that there are zero Black members of the HFPA), and with non-member journalists who cover Hollywood for legitimate foreign outlets increasingly resentful of being turned away by the HFPA, it feels like we have arrived at an inflection point and things will have to change.

Will the HFPA, shamed by the backlash, not just add a couple of Black members, but also make substantial structural changes? It seems the organization could address multiple concerns about its current composition — among the lifetime members is at least one who is legally blind — by taking a page out of the film Academy's book and significantly expanding its membership to include people who are more active and legitimate. But to make it possible for such people to join the organization, the HFPA would also have to reform its ethics rules, and it is a big question mark if it would be willing to do so.

Alternatively, studios, networks and talent could band together and boycott the Globes until things change — but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to risk being identified as the organizer of such a movement in case it fails to yield results.

At the end of the day, it will probably once again fall upon the HFPA's broadcasting partner for the Globes, currently NBC, to decide whether or not all of this behavior and attention is so bad that it needs to take action. I haven't been able to obtain a copy of the broadcasting deal that was signed in 2018, but I suspect that NBC must have an out if it wants one — or wants to use one as a threat to demand change. Because without TV money, the HFPA would be cooked.

I, for one, want only the best for all of my fellow journalists, both inside and outside of the HFPA — but I also want all of my fellow journalists to behave in a manner befitting our profession. Now, more than ever, we don't need to give people a reason to dismiss us as "fake news."

The Golden Globe Awards ceremony is produced by Dick Clark Productions, a division of MRC, which is a co-owner of The Hollywood Reporter through a joint venture with Penske Media titled P-MRC.