The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has been widely viewed as colorful, generally harmless, perhaps venal and not necessarily journalistically productive. But because the group puts on the Golden Globes, courting the favor of its members — there are only 87 — has become a ritualized Tinseltown pursuit.
Celebrities send them handwritten holiday cards. Studios put them up at five-star hotels. Champagne, pricey wine, signed art, cashmere blankets, slippers, record players, cakes, headphones and speakers are among the gifts that have arrived at their doorsteps, recipients say.
The suitors — studios, production companies, strategists and publicists — are all chasing the same thing: members’ votes. Every one counts. A Golden Globe nomination, and certainly a win, is a publicity boon that can boost careers, jack up box office earnings and foreshadow an Academy Award.
Boozy, irreverent and generally jolly good fun, the Globes are the third most-watched awards show after the Grammys and the much more staid Academy Awards. The show occupies a curious place in the entertainment industry. Mocking the Globes, and their occasionally off-the-wall nominations and picks, as irrelevant has become an annual blood sport in the Hollywood press, which covers them anyway, and the association’s members, many of whom work for obscure outlets, are regularly painted as doddering, out of touch and faintly corrupt.
“The Golden Globes are to the Oscars what Kim Kardashian is to Kate Middleton,” Ricky Gervais, who has hosted them multiple times, said at the ceremony in 2012. “Bit louder. Bit trashier. Bit drunker. And more easily bought, allegedly. Nothing’s been proved.”
But on the eve of the Feb. 28 show, a recent lawsuit and a series of interviews and financial records are providing a more unsparing look at the group, which does not publicly list its roster, admits very few applicants, and, despite being a media association, has some members who say they are fearful of speaking to the press. The group is also coming under increased scrutiny from news organizations, including The Los Angeles Times, which recently delved into their finances; one of its findings, that the group has no Black members, made headlines.
The latest re-examination began last year when, Kjersti Flaa, a Norwegian reporter who has thrice been denied admittance to the group, and whose romantic partner is an H.F.P.A. member, sued the organization, saying that it acted as a monopoly, hogging prized interviews even though relatively few of its members actively worked as journalists. Studios went along to ingratiate themselves, she said, because of the value of the members’ votes.
“It’s very obvious who’s important for the studios and who’s not,” Flaa said in an interview. “And the thing is, no one has said anything about this before. It’s just been accepted.”
Members are territorial and loathe to welcome competitors, she alleged, lobbying each other to accept or deny entry to new applicants, with little consideration for journalistic merits. Flaa pointed to a fracas involving a Russian member who in 2015 was accused of demanding that a Ukranian applicant not write for any Russian outlets and hand over her extra Golden Globes tickets — and guarantee her promise in a notarized letter — in exchange for being considered for admission.
Flaa said outsiders had a nickname for the association: “The cartel.”
The H.F.P.A. would not comment specifically on the 2015 incident, but Gregory Goeckner, the association’s chief operating officer and general counsel, said that such actions were prohibited, and that in 2018 its board approved a policy confirming any such letters as “void and unenforceable.” Goeckner also described Flaa’s allegations as “salacious,” and said it was studios, not the association, that made decisions about press access.
A judge threw out the majority of Flaa’s suit, but she has recently amended it, and another journalist who also has been denied entry to the association has joined her complaint.
Several current and former association members said Flaa’s accounts of the inner machinations were accurate, but requested anonymity because they said they feared retaliation from the group.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association was born in the ’40s, when foreign correspondents covering Hollywood banded together to gain access to movie stars. The Globes recognize movies and television, and is chockablock with stars, with nary a snoozy category — no sound editing prize here. As the awards industry complex mushroomed — it’s now a near year-round enterprise shaped by strategists and closely tracked by reporters — members’ relative power grew too.
After the show was picked up by television, it became a golden goose. In 2018, NBC agreed to pay $60 million a year for broadcast rights, about triple the previous licensing fee. While the Academy Awards and the Emmys have lost millions of viewers in recent years, the Golden Globes audience has held steady at 18 million to 20 million, which is why NBC was willing to fork up.
“It’s a big-tent network television show, and as such, invaluable to film campaigns hoping to contend for Oscar nominations and wins,” said Tony Angellotti, a publicist who runs awards campaigns, in an email. “And the H.F.P.A. track record for identifying worthy films is indisputable. That’s not nothing.”
To be able to vote for a Globe, members must publish at least six times a year, and attend 25 of the association’s news conferences, where celebrities and newsmakers are invited to appear, several members confirmed. If members want to travel to film festivals on the association’s dime, they have to attend even more news conferences, according to a copy of the travel policies reviewed by The New York Times. The rules say they don’t have to produce any press clippings related to their travels if they take five or fewer trips.
Because the organization is a nonprofit, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is also tax-exempt. The filing from the tax year ending in June 2019 showed that the group was sitting on about $55 million in cash. It donated about $5 million to assorted causes, including $500,000 to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and $500,000 to the environmental site Inside Climate News.
“The funding was enormously important,” David Sassoon, the founder and publisher of Inside Climate News, said in an email. “It solidified our finances and helped us get through the nightmares of 2020.”
According to the tax filings, the tax-exempt nonprofit paid more than $3 million in salaries and other compensation to members and staff. The tax filing also showed $1.3 million in travel costs for that year; the association has said it typically pays the expenses of members who seek to travel to film festivals and the like.
There is also compensation for performing duties that several members say used to be done for free. Being on the association’s TV Viewing Committee pays $1,000 a month, according to the treasurer’s report from the association’s January general meeting. Members of the Foreign Film Watching Committee pocket $3,465 apiece. Two dozen people sit on that committee, according to the minutes, which meant that the demands of watching international movies cost the association $83,160 in one month.
The association also has an advisory committee, a history committee, a welfare committee, a travel committee, a film festival committee, a financial committee and an events committee — all of which come with stipends, according to the treasurer’s report.
Some members said the number of paying committees has exploded in recent years, with members jockeying to nab multiple positions and loyalty rewarded with committee appointments. This has caused angst for some who want to see the association become less of a punchline around town. One member worried that the group will become overrun by members who draw most of their income from the organization and not from journalism.
Goeckner said the association only remunerates members when they do extra work and basically serve as employees, doing tasks that would constitute paid staff work elsewhere. The compensation, he said, was “orders of magnitude less” than what similar organizations pay. And he noted that the group was “not a charity,” and that its accumulated capital was earmarked for a planned upgrade of its West Hollywood headquarters.
Still, there is debate over how much of its earnings the association should keep to itself.
Flaa’s lawyer, David Quinto, said that by virtue of its tax-exempt status, the association should be benefiting foreign arts journalists more broadly, not just the ones in the group. He said the association “believes it is above the law” and called its conduct “blatantly improper.”
But Ofer Lion, a Los Angeles lawyer with expertise on tax-exempt organizations, said that mutual benefit corporations like the H.F.P.A. need only benefit a common purpose of its members, and as a 501(c) (6) tax-exempt organization, must only ensure they in some way benefit their industry overall. Payments to members for their work for the organization are legal, he said, as long as they are considered reasonable.
“There are some healthy numbers on there,” Lion said, after reviewing the organization’s tax return, “but not really beyond the pale.”
The group’s stated mission is essentially to help bolster ties between the United States and foreign countries by covering its culture and entertainment industry. But it has continuously come under scrutiny when puzzling award decisions have been handed down, most infamously in 1982, when Pia Zadora was named best new star over Kathleen Turner and Elizabeth McGovern. It was later revealed that Zadora’s producer, who also happened to be her husband, had flown the group to Las Vegas before the vote. CBS, which had been airing the show, dropped its broadcast, and it would be years before it returned to network television.
In 2014, a former association president published a memoir in which he suggested that his colleagues could be swayed by favor trading.
The association has tried to rehabilitate its image in recent years. In 1999, it sent back $400 Coach watches given to members by a film company and asked members in 2016 to return part of the Tom Ford-branded fragrance gift sent to each of them from the producers of “Nocturnal Animals.”
Nowadays, members aren’t supposed to accept gifts in excess of $125. (The group says it has adopted a “more robust” gift policy.) Still, they can be wooed. For some, there was little surprise when the frothy series “Emily in Paris” — which got decidedly mixed reviews from critics — picked up two Golden Globe nominations this year. In September 2019, dozens of association members flew to Paris to visit the “Emily” set and were put up by the Paramount Network at the five-star Peninsula hotel.
And although there purportedly has been a wave of reforms, the group’s eclectic membership list has remained largely the same for years.
A review of a 2020 roster shows that its members include Yola Czaderska-Hayek, a woman known as the “Polish First Lady of Hollywood”; Alexander Nevsky, a former Mr. Universe and bodybuilder who has starred in movies like “Moscow Heat”; and Judy Solomon, an organization veteran of more than 60 years who has drawn attention for her role as what The Daily Beast called “The Golden Globes Seating Arbiter,” a job of no small importance when it comes to seating celebrities at the ceremony without ruffling feathers.
In statements provided to The New York Times, two longtime members of the organization expressed pride in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and its work. One of the members, Meher Tatna, the current board chair, touted the group’s philanthropic initiatives, saying it received thank-you letters year-round.
Czaderska-Hayek echoed that pride in a video posted on YouTube by the Polish government in 2010, but also noted that membership demands could be taxing.
“It’s unbelievably hard work,” Czaderska-Hayek said, according to the video’s English subtitles. “We must see at least 300 U.S. films every year.”
Alain Delaquérière and Kitty Bennett contributed research.